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bert loerakker

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'Starting Anew

On January 5, 2008 a fire destroyed Bert Loerakker’s studio: 200 square meters of space in an old cacao factory, four meters high and filled with light. This is where – if he wasn’t travelling – Loerakker worked on his paintings day after day. Everything he needed was close at hand. His easel stood there, surrounded by tables full of neatly arranged jars, cans, tubes and brushes. Lying and hanging beyond that were paintings, the diptychs so characteristic of his oeuvre: the lefthand segment thick with paint, expressionistic, based on reality; the right one smooth-surfaced, painted monochromatically or divided into straight lines or blocks. But Loerakker’s studio was much more than the place where he stood in front of his easel. A desk, a computer and a filing cabinet revealed, for instance, that this was his office as well: he organized his exhibitions here, kept lists of lenders’ and buyers’ addresses, his archives of countless photographs. Situated in the adjoining large work space was his serigraphy table, on which Loerakker experimented on all sorts of paper that he had collected over the years and, being orderly, had stocked in drawers. And of course this studio provided him with storage space for his paintings, his monotypes and screen prints. Recent paintings, wrapped and awaiting shipment to the gallery, but also older works not permitted to leave the building. From each series, he kept the best paintings for himself; but there were drawings by his wife, too, which dated from the days when they first met. The look of it all suggested that the person working here liked to be in control. Meticulously and tastefully furnished, the studio offered space both for work and for taking a step back from it. Here Loerakker lived with his own work and surrounded himself with things that mattered to him. A bookcase held reference material and catalogues on esteemed fellow artists such as Donald Judd and Claude Monet; but there was also an unusual collection of African sculpture, masks and ancient iron objects such as spears and knives, which he admired for their specific forms. These things provide inspiration, food for thought, and lead to closer observation and a more precise articulation. Loerakker regarded his studio as a second home.

On that fifth of January, all of this went up in flames. The nightmare of every artist. “My entire history is gone. It’s a bit like dying,” Loerakker said in the newspaper the next day. He had to start all over again.

As a fifteen-year-old Loerakker told his parents of his wish to become an artist. His father soon took him to several museums, where he showed him the abstract paintings of Piet Mondrian and the realism of Dick Ket “Between these two: that’s where it happens in art,” his father said. Loerakker then had no idea that those two extremes would become the main points of orientation throughout his work. Initially he began to question painting and produced – in a way very consistent with the times – virtually monochrome works. Later, during the 1980s and influenced by the Neue Wilde, Loerakker tried to see whether he, too, could work in this expressionist style of painting. For although he did paint in a highly minimalist tradition, he hadn’t lost his regard for the other end of the painterly spectrum. Ultimately the work of Claude Monet, William Turner and Chaïm Soutine appealed to him as much as that of Donald Judd and Robert Ryman. But to admit that was simply not done for many years. So how could he reconcile those two perspectives? And was there any point in doing so? Furthermore, painting from reality involved a considerable risk. That had nothing to do with technique – Loerakker can paint whatever he wants. The danger lay primarily with the idea that such a painting could become a mere picture. But tempting it was indeed. Especially for someone like Loerakker, concerned with his surroundings – the rolling hills and vast expanses of the countryside as well as the lines of sight and vistas in a city. Loerakker thought it too easy, however, and felt no real need to paint such subjects. “To me, it wasn’t enough.” During the early nineties, while preparing for an exhibition at the Van Abbemuseum, Loerakker found a form that worked for him. In the continual investigation which he considers painting to be, he began to juxtapose the oppositions in his body of work. This gave rise to the diptychs: rugged and expressive left-hand segments, smooth and monochrome ones on the right.

In the left-hand segment, the paint is allowed to be paint; it has been applied generously, with gusto. And with increasing frequency, what has been painted in that part relates to observations of nature: a reflection in water, for instance, or a beautiful flowering twig. That, at any rate, is what can be deduced from the image, since Loerakker is too modernist a painter to seduce the viewer with illusions. In the right segment, on the other hand, he is extremely controlled – almost detached. Sometimes it seems as though the left panel has been reduced, in the right one, to pixels in color. The two panels defy each other. That tension causes the viewer to ask questions. Is the right-hand part a translation of the lefthand one? Or do we see, on the left, an extracted reality and on the right the ideal, unseen world behind it? Those questions alone, the comparisons, enhance the observation. We automatically seek the limit, the thin dividing line between figuration and abstraction on which Loerakker balances. And the longer we look, the more we realize that the two parts cannot exist without each other. “The abstract segment is the toll that the observer pays for the freedom on the left,” Loerakker himself says. “But that holds true for myself as well. As a painter, I have a fairly Calvinistic mentality. Not until I’ve painted the part on the right do I feel justified in producing the one on the left. At that point those segments seem incompatible, but eventually it’s this very contrast which creates a bond. It reinforces the distinctness of each part and, as a result, the whole becomes even better. In a certain sense Loerakker’s works are thereby a visual variant of Hegel’s dialectic method in which thesis and antithesis are juxtaposed in order to attain a higher level: a synthesis. And with Loerakker’s work that is manifest in the mind of the viewer, who completes the image. Yet Loerakker himself will never see that.

Just before the disastrous fire, a new development began to emerge in Loerakker’s work. The landscape, which had always played an important underlying role, was being more prominently portrayed as space. That tendency was further heightened by a trip to England, where he visited landscape gardens – constructed but thoroughly natural-looking parks with sophisticated vistas and lines of sight. These, of course, represent the ultimate synthesis of two extremes: that of nature and culture. “All of a sudden there was this need to show these landscapes,” says Loerakker. “I started looking for a way in which I could justify such landscapes as autonomous work.” On the right-hand segment he had already experimented with a panel that was furnished with a long, horizontal groove. It constituted a second landscape, so to speak, as well as a peephole that literally provided a view to a different reality. But on his return from England, he ventured to abandon that idea. The grooves became vertical, like embrasures. This sharpened the contrast with the landscape; subtly yet compellingly, the viewer’s gaze was guided – via the English hedges to the open skies. Or, to be more precise, via the green lines that act as a foil to a lighter area, since it no longer matters whether it’s sky or maybe water. Paint, after all, is what it has become.
That work, however, was done prior to the devastating fire on January 5, 2008. All but one of the new pieces were lost. Along with photographs from Loerakker’s trip, taken for reference purposes. Would he now be able to go on painting in the same way? Would there be any point to painting at all? Why not simply give it up? The questions churned away in Loerakker’s mind; he was stricken with fear, like that of driving again after a serious car accident. Yet plans made long before, to work at a graphics center in Kasterlee (Belgium), finally won him over. “I felt like calling it off, but when I talked with them they stressed that now, of all times, was the time to come,” says Loerakker.

Once Loerakker made it to Belgium, he worked like a demon – thirty works in three weeks – as though he literally had to make up for the damage. Producing screen prints and monotypes, sometimes combinations of these, has always been an essential part of his oeuvre. This, to him, is like sketching – a form of thinking out loud, directly and spontaneously. Ideas for later work take shape here, and Loerakker now shows his passion without hesitation: shimmering skies reminiscent of Turner , water reflections like those of Monet. With his serigraphy technique – its result being in no way inferior to a lithograph – that directness and tactility comes to the surface. But during his stay in Belgium, Loerakker noticed that something else had changed. He was working more quickly than before. The once so wrought, painterly areas had become more sketchy. He was able to concentrate only for brief periods in succession; his painterly handwriting had become more restless, almost like the scrawls of Cy Twombly. And that continued to be the case, even after his temporary move to a new studio – the former municipal archives.

“My work was gone. I felt lonely and wanted to be surrounded by something right away,” Loerakker says in retrospect. “I began to jot things down more quickly, wanted to bring things back. If I only had this or that again: stuff like that would haunt me. So the onset of something good was already acceptable to me. I myself was shocked at being quite content with this, though, as the onset often proved to be the essence of an idea. Once you see that, the need to develop it is gone. Actually I’ve become a lazy painter.” For the first time in his career, Loerakker is occasionally leaving whole sections of linen unpainted. More than ever, the viewer is being involved in the creative process. We see the painting grow, see compact areas undergo transitions into individual streaks of paint; and we’re faced – almost along with the artist – with surprises. Loerakker compensates for the sketchiness with austerity on the other side. But it still takes hard work to obtain the right balance of color, the right structure or the right transparency. “Now the roles have been switched. The austere sides have often become the most time-consuming ones.” Over the past year Loerakker’s body of work has acquired a new dimension that raises new questions. To what extent can an image be reduced? How much harm can be done to a landscape? What does a viewer need in order to complete an image? These questions have been linked with his work from the start, but now they seem to have a greater urgency. Can this be ascribed to the fire in his studio? Looking back is painful. Painting something back is impossible. To Loerakker, though, admitting that the fire left its mark on his work means acknowledging that he’s controlled by something beyond himself. And that’s no picnic for someone who likes being in control.

Esther Darley