THE URGE TO PAINT
“I don’t paint to live, I live to paint.” Willem de Kooning
It is always dangerous to make comparisons. But also tempting. When I see the latest paintings by Gerard Prent(1954), they remind me of a series of landscapes that Willem de Kooning painted in East Hampton close to New Yorkin the late seventies. Mostly big, colourful canvases. The (oil) paint applied in rough strokes. Lavishly, with an obvious skill and a natural sense of composition, but chiefly with a palpable urge to paint. In perfect accord with one of his most famous sayings. “I don’t paint to live, I live to paint.” The fact that they are landscapes is not important. Although, given where he was living at the time, this theme is no surprise. I even have the feeling that they were simply an excuse to paint like this, to enjoy himself. This hypothesis is possibly borne out by another of his sayings: “I think I am painting two women, but it may turn out to be a landscape.”
Of course, the two artists are very different, but this urge to paint – “coming from every pore”, as Prent describes it – and subjugating the theme to this urge, to the painter’s gesture, is something they undeniably have in common.
Willem de Kooning surrendered to this early in his career, forGerard Prent it has taken a little longer to find the courage to give rein to this urge.
After the Rijksacademie Gerard Prentmakes monumental works – from about 200 X 200 to 130 X 500 cm– that could be described as ‘abstract’ or ‘formal’. He paints shapes that, while based on the square, change shape slightly in his hands. They are given fanciful outlines, as if you are looking on top of a building no wall of which is quite straight. The inside area is mostly one colour, carelessly or expressively painted so that the base colour shines through. Around this one or more broad strips are painted in one or two different colours. These ‘simple’ works manage to create the idea of three dimensionality or of unfathomable depths; this idea is reinforced in a number of works where Prent has attached a frame or openwork panel to the canvas.
I feel that in this period he is predominantly concerned with the formal aspects. He is playing with the three dimensional possibilities on the flat surface and with the effect that these kinds of works have on the space in which they are presented. He is investigating the possibilities and desirability of repetition. He is experimenting with paint and with the vitality of colour fields. Standing alone, next to each other and on top of each other. According to some these early paintings could also be dealing with the representation of a specific content, a specific theme. In their view they could be referring to houses and buildings. It could also be possible to see maps of towns and villages in them. It is even imagined that they are searching for the boundaries between reality and the abstract representation thereof. I wonder however if it is appropriate to interpret them as substantively as this. In the commissions that Prent carried out later in various (public) buildings it is precisely the formal aspects that prominently come to the fore.
In the early nineties Prent moves in a direction that he now looks back on with mixed feelings. Painting disappears further and further into the background (sometimes literally). Due in particular to the striking frames, his works grow into sorts of objects. Photography makes an entrance. Different media mix. Single images increasingly develop into image combinations. The supposed content and the formal aspect of his early work appear to be supplemented with theories on (erotic) desires and identity. Only much later did it emerge that in this period a deep rift arose between the artist and his work. This rift had been gradually brought about by the spirit of the times and the influence of others. So Gerard Prent now says. I don’t know whether this is entirely true. This suggestion assumes that in this period he no longer produces good work. This is not true. The fact is that he no longer enjoys making it. It no longer comes from every pore, it comes from his doubtful and hesitant head.
Aware of the latter, he decides to leave art alone for a while. He leaves the country. He wants to get away from the hectic art world.
Because in the end it is difficult for him to deny his true nature, this period does not last long.
On a fact-finding trip to Artis Zoo in Amsterdam –he wants to see the situation himself for a commission – he comes across a number of sparrows around a cage taking advantage of what others have thoughtlessly left behind. The normality of that scene ‘clicks’ something in his brain. He suddenly knows what he must do. From now on he must ignore the expectations and influences of others and go and do what he wants. No more worrying and philosophizing about his choice of subject. He must follow his primal instincts, his natural urge.
From 1997 he paints countless sparrows.
First on an awful lot of tiny canvases. Gradually the paintings become bigger. It no longer matters whether it is sparrows or other animals, what matters is the pleasure of painting. Using a small brush to bring something to life. Making something special out of the commonplace in an expressive way. In due course attention shifts to the background on which the little creature figures. Here is the place for experiment. Here, layer is laid over layer. Here, brushes and palette knives are tried out. Here is the search for vibrant transparency or shimmering tangibility. Here the lessons of Barnett Newman and Anish Kapoor are put into practice. Here grows the pleasure in the ‘old-fashioned’ craft of painting.
The next development presents itself just as naturally as the previous about-turn did. The sparrows’ surroundings become the subject more and more. First the grass they walk on. Then the garden of which the grass is part. With this the colours also change, especially the number of colours. Initially they are various shades of brown and grey against a monochrome background. Then the palette is broadened with every possible and increasingly bold colours. The fluent but still precise brushstrokes develop into liberated sweeps using broad brushes.
The relationship to reality has also changed. The sparrows still obediently follow the book. They are painted as they appear in reality. The flowers and the plants have progressed beyond this phase. They are becoming more abstract. The resemblance no longer matters. It is important for them to be an appealing component of a vivacious composition. They must have charisma. They must attract attention. They must be seductive and arouse covetousness. Chiefly they must show that they have been created by a natural urge.
The way Gerard Prent works can almost be called simple. He starts with photos he has taken of his immediate surroundings. This can be at his studio in Weesp, or around his former house in France. This stock survived his stay there. Sometimes these photos are the point of departure for a rough sketch on paper, usually they form the direct start for a painting. In preparation for the real work Prent quickly puts the fundamental shapes on the canvas using a palette knife. This forms the basis for the final painting. In some cases this is small and pops up later as an overture to a bigger version. The different sizes do not usually have any direct relationship with each other.
Because Gerard Prent paints almost compulsively, he quite often literally does not know when to stop. He then goes too far with a work. He deprives the ‘flow’ of the power it once had. While he knows exactly what he wants when he starts, the development of his works adopts a much more self-willed or more natural course. The one work evokes the other, partially or completely. For example natural forms become less literal in the next work, colours gradually become more exuberant, the paint strokes are less restrained.
It may sound paradoxical, but Prent has not yet abandoned the sparrows. Because he does not want anything or anyone to interfere in his work or his way of working, he allows himself the freedom, for a change, to add a new sparrow to the collection every now and again.
It is difficult to predict the direction Gerard Prent’s work will take. Recently I saw a painting by the British artist Cesily Brown (1969). It is entitled ‘Red Painting’. In a ‘wood’ of red and reddish forms I could descry a male figure perpetrating something obscure with a sort of centaur. Or was the man the centaur? In fact it was of no consequence. Something torrid was going on in a whirl of shapes and colours.
A similar sensuality and sultriness is starting to develop in Gerard Prent’s latest works. As if the supposed black period in his career, when he exchanged the smell of oil paint for the photographic representation of his desires, is trying to work its way up through his flowers, is trying to regain position. As if the urge to paint has gained an extra dimension.
An exciting development.
Translation Jane Hall