Andel NL, lives and works in Amsterdam
The observation that the tension of the painterly image relies on contrasts is hardly a new one. Whether these are contrasts between figure and background or between the opaque and the transparent, in painting they somehow always lead to a synthesis, to unity in diversity. In the work of Marien Schouten the diversity is considerable, yet there is no synthesis. Schouten employs contradictory pictorial principles alongside and in combination with each other, not with the intention of unifying or fusing them, but in order to distinguish them as components of equal value. The very ‘unresolved’ nature of Schouten’s work implicates a challenge to modernist principles.
Schouten’s frank use of painting’s modi operandi is rooted in his discordant relationship with the art of the past century, from that of Berlage and Mondrian to Judd and Ryman. Time and again, he goes back to the aesthetic and stylistic principles that were developed by these great modernists, but his show of respect is also a deliberate ‘contamination’ of their purely idealistic conceptions of art. Function and ornamentation, once considered incompatible, no longer exclude each other in Schouten’s work. And when he stresses the fact that a painting is a tangible object – by, for example, attaching wooden planks to his panels – he nonetheless allows the illusory space of the painting to remain intact. No one element is inferior to another; everything that is used by the painter maintains its own value.
In many of Marien Schouten’s works, two principles firmly oppose each other: the formless and the fluid, as manifest in veils of dark-green paint or pools of honey-colored lacquer, contrast with the constructed, measurable quality that is expressed in such elements as the grid. In Untitled (1991-1992) the irregular, semitransparent dark-green areas (somewhat reminiscent of drooping vegetation) suggest a depth which is, however, curtly disregarded by robust steel plates that are bolted to the panel. Metal strips have been attached to the underside of these mountings, by which a plank hangs at a right angle to the image surface. This coordination of opposites causes the logic of coherent visual organization to disintegrate, and the accent comes to lie with distinctions.
Schouten remains within the realm of painting, even though he does set its perimeters adrift. Untitled (1990) confronts the viewer with the dilemma as to whether the work is a painting on the wall or a bench with metal legs. The artist provides no decisive answer: the very definition of a painting becomes the issue. Starting with a number of ‘visual data’ that he has developed over the years, Schouten gives his painting sculptural and even architectonic features. The grids drawn in pencil on his paintings, have assumed a concrete form in steel fences that are placed straight across the exhibition space, making it possible to see, but not enter, a part of it. The hazy, diffusive quality of the pools of paint was translated into large screens of ribbed glass that obscure one’s view of what is hanging on the wall behind this. Recently he has even cast paintings in bronze and thus transformed them into wall sculptures.
One work clarifies something about the origins of Schouten’s repertoire. The drawing Untitled (1991), a study after the Isenheim Alterpiece by Matthias Grünewald, suggests that the undulating tendrils which are so characteristic of Schouten’s work could be taken from the lush hair of the Virgin Mary. The green areas can just as easily be associated with the dark foliage in the wooded landscapes of Albrecht Altdorfer and with the hair of the mysterious female figure in Edvard Munch’s Vampire in Virgin Forest (1923-1925). What all of these works share is a Northern European atmosphere of melancholy pensiveness, which characterizes Schouten’s work as well. The some-what messy reddish brown shapes in Untitled (1996), for instance, vaguely remind one of the bare branches in the romantic landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich.
A hint of tragedy is by no means foreign to Schouten’s serious, circumspect work. It suggests an absence – perhaps the absence of convergence, which is so emphatically displayed in these works. At the same time, one is reminded of the discoveries and achievements of art from the past. To Schouten, the challenge of painting lies in an analysis of the many codes that its history has produced. It is these pictorial principles that he tests out for their current workability, even when their origins have long vanished into obscurity.