Acquired from the above by the present owner
Adrian Searle, ‘Venice Biennale: how much is that fox in the mini-mart?’, The Guardian, 2 June 2013, online.
Born in 1954, Belgian artist Thierry De Cordier has courted critical acclaim for his saturnine and deeply metaphoric practice. Running the gamut of artistic production, De Cordier has forged a mercurial body of work that, since the mid-1980s, has traversed performance, philosophical writings, sculpture, photography, and exquisitely detailed drawings. More recently however De Cordier ostensibly touches upon the Sublime landscape genre with his corpus of large and enigmatic seascapes; and yet these painting emphatically refute such a reading. The present work is an extraordinary example of this. Entitled Tempête en Mer Du Nord, Etude No. 3 (Storm in the North Sea, Study No. 3), this painting’s facture bespeaks an old-master virtuosity. Layered brushstrokes enliven the foam and froth of violently breaking waves, fine and exacting painterly details delineate the vessel in the foreground, while a scumbled grisaille articulates the scene’s high and foreboding horizon. Although appearing to portray the elemental power of Mother Nature, as conveyed by the steep angle of the ship’s stern set against the drama of swelling and breaking waves below, the present work is at once insolubly silent and utterly absorbing. Devoid of the bombast of Romantic feeling, Tempête en Mer Du Nord is a taciturn work that obstinately resists words and description; and yet it possesses deep and mysterious soulfulness.
De Cordier defines himself as “je ne suis pas très modern”: an assertion apt for a painter whose work seems to belong to another era. While appearing to reference the work of Gerhard Richter, whose own out-of-focus grisaille seascapes strike an obvious visual comparison, or even Rudolf Stingel, whose photo-realist black and white mountainscapes are similarly analogous, De Cordier does not make a claim for the validity for painting in the face of the photographic. His work is instead rooted in a deeply melancholic rumination that shares more in common with a nineteenth-century heroic individualism and the existential angst of the post-war period. Writer Lisa Liebmann identified this trait in her 1999 Artforum article on the artist, calling his work “paradoxically, but quite radically, ahistorical”; she continues: “De Cordier’s trajectory as an artist suggests the old-fashioned, picaresque, Romantic path of self-discovery – outwardly discontinuous, yet steadfast in its pursuit of introspection for its own sake” (Lisa Liebmann, ‘Sermon on the Mound: Thierry De Cordier’, Artforum, January 1999, p. 96). And yet De Corider utterly resists any comparison to a sense of Romanticism, especially concerning the corpus of seascapes. Much like Richter’s landscapes – works that are described by the artist as ‘Cuckoo’s eggs’ for appearing to be something they are not – De Cordier’s landscapes are utterly ‘disinterested’ works that negate the emotional overload at the heart of a nineteenth-century sense of the Sublime. Indeed, for his 2011 show at Xavier Hufkens, De Cordier underlined this point by having the following words writ large in the gallery space: “Je ne suis pas un romantique!”.
In creating these works De Cordier‘s working process relies upon an enigmatic feel for whether a painting ‘works’, holds-up, and resists falling into mere decoration. As the artist has explained: “Workings, just workings. Not the landscape as such, nor its representation, but just the way it works. To my eyes this is the very essence of painting. Something different from the highly ‘suggestive’ character of a romantic picture. Whatever the case may be, this view calls for a particular approach from the onlooker, and requires quite a lot of effort. Needless to say, it’s always easier to caricature what a painting is…” (Thierry De Cordier, ‘I’m Not a Romantic!’, exhibition wall text, Brussels, Xavier Hufkens, Thierry De Cordier, 2011, online).
Throughout his career De Cordier has remained steadfast in his belief in the symbolic portent of what he calls ‘sentient landscape’. From the Beuysian mounds of earth, dirt and hair that defined his early work through to the garden in Schorisse, Belgium, into which he retreated and made sculptures during the 1990s, De Cordier wields landscape as an analogue for the human body and psyche. Recalling the emblematic surrogacy employed by nineteenth-century Symbolist artists, De Cordier’s landscapes are imbued with fecund and often female attributes – a metaphorical slippage that chimes with the tempestuous seascapes. De Cordier’s use of language here is key; that the word for sea, ‘mer’, is one letter away from the word for mother, ‘mère’, is surely not lost on an artist who shares the same nationality as the king of pictorial wordplay, René Magritte. Nonetheless, while De Cordier undoubtedly takes an anthropomorphic view of landscape-as-womb, the seascapes look to dispel any such interpretation. The result is an enigmatic body of work that perhaps occupies the same territory as Mark Rothko’s final paintings, the quiet minimalism of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographic seascapes, or even the ethereal landscapes of Zao Wou-Ki.
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