Unfamiliarly Familiar: Materiality, Illusion and Play in the work of Leon Vranken - By Katerina Gregos / 2015

In his essay Die unverbrauchte Moderne (Unused Modernism) in the catalogue for the landmark 1981 exhibition Westkunst, Contemporary Art Since 1939, the German art critic and writer Laszlo Glozer writes about the “expectant life” to be found in the art of modernist artists of the twentieth century: unseen or unused by their contemporaries, but still recognizable. The work of the Belgian artist Leon Vranken provides strong evidence for the fact that it can be a fruitful exercise to revisit earlier artists for inspiration, as their ideas may be far from concluded. One could indeed say that a work from the past can always be considered to be in a constant state of becoming, as the act of looking and ongoing spectatorship constantly opens new ways of seeing and interpretation. Although Vranken’s practice has, in part, been inspired by works of predecessors, his work ‘twists’ familiar references, points to new directions, and provides further insights into the nature of sculpture, painting and art in general.


Vranken often returns to the unexhausted wealth of issues and ideas bequeathed by “the unused modernists” and in doing so he revives the ideas of Marcel Duchamp’s assisted ready-mades and objets trouvés, reinterprets Brancusi’s solution for the plinth-problem, comments on Richard Serra’s so-called prop-sculptures, and practices humour and playfulness in a Broodthaersian way, to mention just a few examples of artistic precursors. However, rather than basing his practice on mere formal referencing of canonised figures from art history, quite common nowadays in much sculpture and painting (and a form of self-legitimisation), Vranken is much more interested in new possible directions for his art. His work can thus be seen both as an homage to these aforementioned artists, but it is also a reinterpretation of their oeuvre which is made subject to a détournement , a twist that renders it utterly contemporary. As a result his oeuvre defies categorization, as the artist hovers from minimal painting to geometric ensembles, from fake ready-mades to sophisticated, labour-intensive sculptures, large scale spatial installations and interventions, from photography and ‘drawing’ to site specific works. And though Vranken mostly works with tangible, three-dimensional sculptural materials, his work cannot be described as pure sculpture. In all his practice what becomes apparent is a strong sense of materiality, which is pushed to several limits: whether in terms of craftsmanship, gravity, or illusion. Precision in the use of material and clarity of form, combined with an elegance of finish, are elements that stand out in the artist’s work. There is both skill and diversity in his oeuvre, which mirrors the scope of his education as an artist: Vranken studied carpentry (he is a skilled cabinet maker), landscape, urban and garden architecture as well as autonomous visual arts.


Another distinguishing element of his practice is the illusionary and often misleading quality of many of his works: upon first impression, they appear to be minimal and conceptual in nature, sometimes they even look like ready-mades. In fact, the process behind the actual making of the work is everything but those things, being mostly laborious and painstaking. In fact, Vranken actually goes against the deconstructionist, reductivist tendency of the sculptural tradition of minimalism; his method is, rather, more constructivist: building up layers and components rather than stripping down, though the result may seem to indicate otherwise. And herein lies the originality and intelligence in his practice: the final form appears to be, paradoxically, dissociated from the mechanics of its process. Things are not what they appear. What might look like a ready-made is, in fact, mostly carefully crafted and assembled. Wooden ball (2009), for example, is a sphere that looks as though it is carved out of a single block of wood. In fact, the work is actually made of individual slices of wood that have been glued together and sanded to make a perfect ball. The process includes precise diameter drawings of each circle in the layer of circles that forms the final result. Solid (2009) is made along the same principles, but with different materials: brick and cement. Though these works are of a modest nature, they are quite indicative of Vranken’s approach both to materials as well as materiality. Though he might often use cheap materials like plywood (as in the case of Wooden ball) Vranken tasks himself with transcending their physical properties, transforming them into something that belies their origins, and in cases, making them appear much more precious or ‘elevated’ than they really are. In that sense, the artist invests a sense of elegance or dignity into materials that inherently lack them. Rule of three (2014) consists of three wooden stacking tables, of different sizes, placed on top of each other. Their forms are reminiscent of the industrially produced coffee tables that one finds in shops like IKEA. Here, however, they have been custom-made by hand. The work is a latent critique of the mass production of furniture – as well as its ethical and environmental implications. The discredited notion of craft is here resuscitated in unexpected – minimal – form. At the same time, the notion of labour – the artist’s as well as of others’ is inferred to. While the tables look like they can be used, the work is anti-utilitarian, insisting on its identity as a work of art. Like many of Vranken’s work, it looks like it has a function, but it doesn’t have to. One could also say that the artist appears to take a clear stance against the ‘usefulness’ of art, a common debate that recurs today.


A similar kind of détournement underlies his spatial interventions and in-situ installations, which offer unexpected perspectives and are placed in unlikely locations. Study of a vertical line, shown in Middelheim Park in Antwerp in 2013, is an 11,5 metre high spouting fountain, around which is erected a scaffold, accessible to the public and providing a view from all sides and heights. Flowing line of 2014 created for Z33 in Hasselt, is also a fountain, in this case a 750 cm high water jet, cutting through the floors of the exhibition space, almost as an infinite line. Flowing line recalls some of the works of Walter de Maria, suggesting the illusion of infinity that the artist was preoccupied with. Similarly, Vranken also plays with the principles of land art but within an enclosed space as opposed to outside: here the gallery functions as the landscape. The setting of Flowing line, and its cut-out floor, also reminds one of Gordon Matta Clark, known for his large cuts through architectural structures and buildings. Similarly comparable to Matta Clark’s work – but more artful in appearance – is Constructive carving, a work Vranken showed in the South London Gallery in 2009, where he took parts out of the floor of the gallery in order to reveal its supporting structure. Utilitarian looking sculptures were made out of the removed floor boards, whilst the void left in the floor became reminiscent of a three dimensional constructivist composition.


If infinity is suggested by the use of a sprouting fountain, the associated idea of endlessness is evoked in the work Every end has a beginning (2013). It consists of a wooden handrail, attached 20 centimetres from the wall, running throughout the exhibition space, following its contours and irregularities. It is at once a highlighting feature of the architectural structure of the space, a guiding principle through the exhibition, and an absurd appendage. Roundabout (2014) could be considered as a condensed stand-alone version of Every end has a beginning. It is an endless hand railing in an elongated elliptical form, standing all by itself on six thin metal legs. These are both an invitation to a possible tactile experience as well as an evocation of absent bodies. This ‘looped’ banister circles around a recurring question in Vranken’s practice: “where does [the work] begin and where does it end?”, again a reference to the work of Constantin Brancusi.


The plinth – something Brancusi incorporated into his work as a sculptural element in its own right - as an upgraded object also recurs in Vranken’s practice. In a sense the plinth of a sculpture can be considered as its “frame”. But whereas it is clear that a frame - in most cases - does not form part of a painting, a plinth or pedestal in themselves already look like sculpture, which poses the question where does the plinth end and where does the sculpture begin? Constantin Brancusi thought of the plinth as an integral part of the sculpture and treated it as an essential element in its composition. Vranken takes this position yet further by treating the plinth as a sculpture in its own right, de-constructing it and putting it back together, so as to make it his own. In his analysis of the plinth and its function Vranken can be compared to the Belgian sculptor Didier Vermeiren (1951), who has devoted a large part of his oeuvre to the plinth as a foundation for his artistic research. The two artists are similar, in more than one way. In 1987 Vermeiren declared: “I believe that my sculptures refer to other sculptures, other sculptors (...) but also to other sculptures in my own oeuvre (...) In any case I believe that no piece of sculpture stands on its own. A detached sculpture has no meaning”. The same could be held for the sculptural works of Leon Vranken. Pitfall (2013) is another plinth-like sculpture with a twist: it has a lid at its top, which is held ajar by a spoon, almost as if a trap. On the lid is a pile of small marble and wood stones, to provide the weight for an intermediary material, paraffin, which helps suspend these onto the tilted top.


In the exhibition The traveling riddle at Stella Lohaus Gallery in 2009, where I first came across Vranken, all works were stacked in a straight line behind a door, while a paint roller, placed against the door, created a minimal painting whenever the door was opened and closed again. Placing objects in a straight line is a defining principle for some of the artist’s works, as is an interest in the differing forms a line can take in space (as with the aforementioned fountain works Study of a vertical line and Flowing line). A different study on the line could be found in his exhibition at Z33 in Hasselt in 2014, in Untitled, where he positioned a series of sculptural works - e.g. a pallet, a rack, a museum cabinet and a stool - in a straight line of 30 metres in the gallery space. This linear assembly of works became almost like one work composed of different elements and parts, or what the artist calls a collection of ‘pure sculpture’. It culminated by being reflected in a large mirror, multiplying the line into space almost infinitely.


Lines also play a key role in what could be considered as the artist’s paint-free “paintings”. Double cut (2014) is a frame, which includes a photo of two pieces of paper cut into two equal sizes. An additional layer of glass is placed on top and cut diagonally across. The lines of the photographed paper and the cut glass create an illusory sensation: it is difficult to distinguish what is real and what is a representation; one is not sure exactly what one is looking at. While inferring to Lucio Fontana’s slashed paintings, this and several Untitled works like it play with the notion of artifice, trompe l’oeil and representation, raising questions about the fundamentals of minimal painting, about the intricacies of geometrical art and about the illusory character of painting. Painting is also referenced in some of Vranken’s sculptural works like Threefold (2008) where two lines, one green one on the wall made by a roller and one red one on the floor made by a small wheel, are the result of one action. The painting device - what looks like a common industrial roller - is actually hand made and takes an hour to put together. The act of ‘action painting’ here becomes a controlled action rather than the result of ad hoc randomness. Both this, as well as some of Vranken’s ‘drawings’, also seem to recall Richard Serra’s Verb List of 1967-68. Some of the 84 active verbs, such as to roll, to crease, to fold, to cut, and 24 contexts: of reflection, of equilibrium, of symmetry, recur in Vranken’s practice as similar “actions to relate to oneself, material, place, and process,” which were employed by Serra as a guiding principle for his sculptural practice.


The cuts, slices, and articulation of lines are integral aspects of the artist’s process and visual signature. Sometimes, these elements operate as formal devices, at other times as tools to create illusion. The work Raised elevation (2013) for example is a 280 cm high traditional lime stone pedestal for a large (missing) sculpture, cut into 16 constituent horizontal slabs. While the whole gives the impression that it has been cut by a machine, every part is made separately and carefully stacked so as to give the illusion being industrially produced. A comparable work is Bulk (2014), a plaster plinth sliced into 13 slabs, separated by thin wooden slats. Again, each component has been fabricated individually and then assembled to give the illusion that the plinth has been sliced all at once. An earlier work, Oak rumble (2007) consists of a vitrine made out of an old billiard table, which has been cut up and reassembled. The re-placement of the materials was done by shifting things 2.5 cm sideways or backwards in order to create an asymmetry and sense of disorientation and the uncanny. Diagonal pane (2014) and Diagonal cross (2014) are also vitrines with inserted glass plates that create pictorial illusions and a sense of a three-dimensional drawing in space. In the case of Diagonal pane, this is achieved by the introduction of a diagonal glass plate into a large display cabinet; in Diagonal cross by the play of a similar technique in combination with the reflection of the legs and the rectangular geometric forms of a steel vitrine. In these works, as in many other of Vranken’s works, expectations are raised, but fulfilled in an unexpected way. Reality is not what it seems. This play with our senses and what they normally expect from reality forms a summarizing principle in most of Vranken’s methodology. Look twice, because it may differ from what you thought or expected it to be. In that sense his work is also a lesson in looking. Sometimes one has to look twice in order to see, or to understand what one sees. Playing with the illusory aspects of reality and the deceptively real aspects of an illusion, Vranken’s work treads a fine line between reality and its representation. This is perhaps most clearly expressed in Pallet (2014) a juxtaposition of a Europallet reproduced in solid oak and two C-prints of a drawing of an image of the same pallet. These two works perhaps best epitomize Vranken’s practice: they possess this multi-faceted beguiling quality of being either this or that, and that and this at the same time.