11 December 2003 – 17 January 2004
For his exhibition at White Cube Belgian artist Koen van den Broek exhibited a new body of work. Van den Broek is a painter who takes space, and the experience of it as his subject matter; primarily painting abstract or semi-abstract compositions derived from snapshots of very ordinary architectural motifs such as the kerb of a road, the grid on a sidewalk or the stop barriers of a parking lot. Using photography as his starting point, he evolves a clear, stripped down, painterly language using sober, neutral colours punctuated by the occasional instance of blood red, bright orange or pitchy black. Scrubby washes of paint in thinly applied hues work towards an implied conclusion, the approximation of a figurative image.
Van den Broek frequently travels through America, and its culture of driving, as well as the sparseness of its vast tracts of land, seep into his work. Moving on from his Border series --which employed vertiginous lines set on the diagonal, diverting the viewers gaze to the outer edge of the painting and, in so doing, reminding the viewer of its function as a liminal container – these works are more figurative, depicting bereft and distant landscapes as well as cropped and partial street signs where the ground looms up at the viewer, activating the experience of looking.
Van den Broek's work invests the sense of looking with renewed energy, opening up to the viewer the experience of a visual sublime. At the same time however, his works are humble and direct in their parameters, choosing subjects that are straightforward, clichéd even, such as the vanishing stretch of highway, or the brilliant gold of an autumnal tree. Railroad (2002) is an image of a highway bridge, stretching horizontally across the painting, a dividing device that crops the picture in two, the sky above and the ground below melting and re-emerging out of myriad shades of white and grey. In the middle of the picture, the structural support of the bridge is outlined in black, an anchoring device that is a frequent motif of the artist's work. Likewise, San Luis Potosi (2003) is evidently a painting of a truck parked in a lot, but the truck itself is pushed to the outer edge of the picture, the great expanse of ground becoming the real subject, with sinister dark shadows like black liquid seeping over the canvas surface.
Van den Broek's series of four border paintings, entitled Shadows and Blue Border (2003), push the level of abstraction from his photographic source to its furthest point. Seering midnight blue stripes, veering at different angles from the bottom to the top of the canvas, split and unite the composition in the manner of Clyfford Still's zip paintings. The blue line, perhaps the edge of a kerb, is followed by a deep black shadow, a kind of vacuum or trench where void and solid is flattened out.
The artist frequently talks about blankness in relation to his work, and the notion of space, both actual and metaphorical is a frequent subject in his paintings. Garage (2002) for example, is, in its simplest form, a painting of a garage door, but the liquid pale turquoise of its square rolling door becomes a central void, a point for the eye to enter and yet formed of nothing. Likewise, Sidewalk #2 (2001) is a rendition of a dingy corner of a back street, but the ground disappears in front of our gaze in a muddy white wash, the walls of the building an emerald green. This procedure, of setting up visual expectation, of painting emphatic optical directives with no point of summation is what makes the artist’s work so compelling.