Article Jean Couteau about Walter van Oel
THE RETURN OF THE SPIRITUAL
Colors, of an extraordinary hue, set in a simple oval form. Your eyes cannot but be stunned, so strong is the fascination. Yes! What one first feels when looking at a Walter Van Oel work is a sensory shock.
If I speak of a shock, it is first on account of the overwhelming power of the color in these works. The choice of tones, and in particular the dazzling, metallic brilliance they emanate. As if the artist had recreated the very essence of color through a knowledge of some secret alchemy. Colors dug from within, by enrichment of the pigment. But also colors which, under the impact of natural or artificial lighting, alternately gleam and fade to a pulse all their own.
The apex of Walter van Oel’s colors are silver and gold. But they are not colors in the traditional sense of the word; they are instead, as the artist is well aware, pure energy. “What colors are there in temples? he asks, before answering: “Silver and gold, the channels of sacred energy. Bright silver is the most laden with energy,” he adds,“but to fully grasp the power of its light, one has to first understand gold and its power. And before mastering the power of gold, one has to master the palette of ordinary colors.” Walter van Oel’s juggling with colors, tones, grading, light is indeed unprecedented. Some paintings rest on absolute contrast; others are simple variations of light and figurative shadows on a monochrome background. “But such differences in visual language don’t matter,” explains the artist, “as long as the ‘inner form’ is similar.”
Is Walter van Oel pandering to “aestheticism”? Perhaps, but why not? Because the surprise does not stop there. The artist’s colors not only reveal themselves, but also meaning. By depicting, in one case, for example, the form of a perfectly oval “egg”—the cosmic egg of the origin. And in the artist’s most recent works, still another technical surprise is in store. Each time one changes position, it is not only the effects of light that change, but the “content” of the work as well. A figurative image somehow appears, as if in shadow, replacing the minimalist figure, or materializes within it, before flickering away as one returns to one’s previous position. This surging image might be an iconic figure: Marilyn Monroe, a Picasso simulacrum profile, a meditating Buddha. Or it might be the silhouette of trees of life or another symbolic object, bringing each time a different possible interpretation. Thus the reading of the work is multiplied. But it is multiplied around the same core, around the same multifaceted surging of primal energy. This is why Van Oel’s works never look complicated. They always remains simple and harmonious.
Energy is indeed the word that best characterizes Van Oel’s works, and also, the artist himself. Squat, legs arched on the ground and eyes squinting with mirth, he radiates energy. And knows it. “I am strong,” he says self-assuredly. Then rising, hands clasped above his head, as if calling to heaven, he blurts: “Everything is energy. Nature is energy. I am energy and everything is connected through energy. Matter is illusion; energy is the only reality. As an artist, my job is to channel positive energy.” To him, being creative is to channel within one’s self and one’s work the energy of the cosmos. “Genuine creativity is always ‘religious,’” he says. And he takes Picasso as a typical example: “In his best works, Picasso was undoubtedly irrigated by the flowing river of cosmic energy. He claimed to be atheist, but the energy thrust of those paintings belie him. He was ‘religious’ in the deepest sense of the word.” Having said that, what about Van Oel’s own works? It suffices to look at the oval figure mentioned above and feel the force and energy that radiates from it.
So much for the impressions given by the works, as well as by the man. But how now to classify Van Oel’s paintings? There is little doubt! The artist may and indeed does believe in his power and inspirational thrust. But no less in his skills. He knows what he paints, and why. He is a Dutchman, Mondrian holds no secrets for him; nor does minimalist abstraction. He can reduce any form to the minimum necessary to convey the maximum of expressive power, and he knows how to further reinforce the whole through his innovative, silver-enhanced metallic colors. In other words, he masters, down to the tip of his brush, all the technical and symbolic possibilities of the modernist aspect of his art.
But does the word “modernist” suffice to depict Van Oel's style? Can his works be reduced to an exploration of form and color for their own sake? No. His concern is not pure abstraction. He always endows his abstract figures with an explicit meaning: they are, he says, symbols of universal reach. The way he presents them, in their color atmospheres, clearly refers to the East. His oval paintings denote the Hindu-Buddhist egg of origin, or Bramanda, which is also the cosmos. Similarly the geometric silhouette of what he calls “the king” refers to the hauntingly all-powerful, yet unknowable divine. The colors themselves suggest a content in the energy that inhabits them. Thus, while clearly modern and Western in manner, Van Oel’s works express spiritual concerns after the Asian manner, concerns that have found validation in today’s quantum physics. Their topic is the flow of energy that links Man and the Cosmos,. They illustrate how Western art can be “irrigated” and enriched by borrowings from Asian traditions.
Apart from the modernist and the Asian sides of Van Oel’s works, there is a third aspect, which we might call, owing to its novelty, post-modern. When one looks at the figurative characters or objects that emerge within the geometrical figures, what comes to the mind is not, and cannot be, what they figuratively represent: they are mere fugitive shadows. Instead of showing something tangible, they invite us to question the relation between tangible and intangible. What is reality? What is its opposite—the unreal? Is reality multi-layered, beyond the three-dimensional qualities that we apprehend in our daily life? It is indeed, but what matters is the inner energy that inhabits all the apparent outer forms. “Everything changes and is different,” says Van Oel,” but everything remains the same.”
And they go past those questions, to address the issue of how to express the spiritual as such, outside the normative representations carried by religions and history. Here Van Oel, once more, enters a field that is more Asian than Western. To those who know Asian philosophies, his works bring to mind the concept of the duality of life and experience, the yin/yang, or, in Bali, where the artist has now lived more than ten years, the theory of the complementariness of the opposites, or Rwabhinneda.
Thus we have in Van Oel a Western artist, trained in modernist techniques, who is questioning the value system that has shaped him. But, instead of being “critical” of Western society with the usual tools of Western art (as, among others, many conceptual and installation artists do) he chooses to put himself outside, to adopt the spiritual symbolism of the Hindu-Buddhist world of South and East Asia. He visited China; he now lives in Bali. He has found in those places spiritual concepts and symbols that, to him, are badly lacking in the West. In particular, the notion of cosmic energy and eternal cosmic movement; the need, too, for people to live in harmony with cosmic forces and hence, to give up the anthropocentric attitude that is so damaging to human survival. He views himself, in this context, as a medium, a channel for those cosmic forces. This is something new.
Western art, even during its most spiritual moments, has never paid attention to such issues. Its spiritualism has been that of Christianity, with its well-defined set of characters and related themes of sacrifice and salvation. But it has never dealt with cosmic issues. Even when artists like Kandinsky, Mondrian or Tobey claimed to be inspired by spiritual concerns, this spiritualism never founded their art, from which all symbolism is absent. On the contrary, Van Oel's figures are purposely organized in such a way as to evoke cosmic Asian symbols or icons.
In spite of the above, and even though he refers to Asian concepts and occasionally uses Chinese-looking characters to structure the compositions of his paintings, Van Oel’s works remain Western. His work may convey cosmic energy, but they are analytically organized; they expose form and color, and do not try to synthesize them in the way Chinese and Japanese painters and calligraphers do. He may borrow ideas, colors and symbols from Asia, yet he still structures those elements in a way that is deeply European. And from a European perspective, Van Oel fills a thematic gap in Western art, that of cosmic symbolism, and does so in an innovative way, by broadening the range and nuances of color.
This endeavor is all the more remarkable as it comes at a time when spiritual concerns are damagingly absent from an Eastern art that seems to have evolved away from its tradition as it literally leaped into post-modernism.
But who am I to proffer such judgments? As the editor of the Asian contemporary art magazine C-arts, I cover current artistic developments in what is undoubtedly today’s most creative region of the world. Yet, having also become a lover and connoisseur of Van Oel’s works, I must acknowledge that I yearn to see in contemporary Asian art the combination of qualities found in his works: aesthetic mastery plus meaning.
Like its contemporary Western equivalent, and even sometimes to a greater extent, Asian contemporary art is interesting. It raises issues: modernity, politics, the cultural shock of globalization, the invasion of media in our constructions of identity, individualism and the paradoxical end of the person, the scourge of urban life, and so on. In other words it engages discourses. It has become a tool of awareness in the face of our globalized, capital-run and media-dominated modernity. Yet, it lacks not only beauty, which is, in the West, deemed passé, but also, psychological depth and spiritual meaning. References to the Asian mystic tradition and Asian symbols are by and large absent. This is not without reason: Asian contemporary art is a mainly urban phenomenon responding to the huge changes taking place in Asian societies—the loss of cultural memory and the construction of a new (post-)modern visual world, different from the West's, but also with only thin ties to the Asian past. In Asian artists' representations of their world, it is as if the contemporary individual, and the contemporary artist, only exists as a social robot, bereft of psychological complexity or emotional demands. Look at Korean and Japanese kitsch, or Chinese political Pop. How to explain this? In spite of its impact on the physical environment, modernity is probably too recent a phenomenon to engineer the kind of despondency one currently finds in much of contemporary Western art.
Van Oel is part of this despondency, but in his own way. He bemoans what has become of the West, the paucity of social bonds, the loss of spirituality. His answer: to go away and seek new shores, both in his life and in his work. He now lives in Bali in the mansion of his dreams, where he also keeps his studio. Although he returns to Europe a couple of times a year for contacts and exhibitions, he is definitely part of the Indonesian art world, with works in the collections of many of the country’s tycoons. In those collections, he is the odd man out. It is he, the Westerner, whose works deal with natural energy, cosmos, infinite immensity; and they, the Easterners, whose works speak of politics, social landscapes, issues of modernity. As if the world were upside down. As if the East were becoming Western, and the West, Eastern.
But Van Oel is not mistaken. It is not the East he is after, it is spirituality of a novel, a-religious and hence universal type, one that may enable humans to live in closer harmony with nature and themselves. His cosmic symbolism is not passé, but ahead of its time. Instead of dwelling on the skepticism of the contemporary West, Van Oel looks ahead, to suggest new ways out in a return to the spiritual, he is calling it QUANTUM ART . Let us recall here that the art critic Pierre Restany, one of the gurus of late-modernism in art, probably horrified by what had become of Conceptual Art, already forecasted in the 1980s the unavoidable return of spirituality in 21st century Western and international art. Van Oel is making this prediction come true.
doom are still here among us. They have long talked about the death of painting, as if the only possibilities left to contemporary art were video and installation. As if “nothing really novel could happen in painting after Hockney, Tapies and Schnabel.” But then how to explain just about anyone’s reaction of stupor to the extraordinary brilliance of Van Oel ’s colors, as they challenge one another in stark contrast or merge in a kaleidoscope of light? And how to account for their magical transmutation of energy into absolutely “cosmic” stillness? How to explain the pull of Van Oel’s works on the beholder, toward the beyond, into the Black Hole of Total Energy?
Critic is the enigmatic French raconteur and longtime Bali resident, Jean Couteau.
Couteau is one of the most important chroniclers of Balinese society in the last 30 years as well as an internationally acknowledged art critic and journalist.