Michelle Grabner

Jan van der Ploeg, Wall Paintings 2005-2009

And yet Giotto succeeded. He could make the local and particular stand for universal ideas.
— Roger Fry, Vision and Design (1920)
The purpose of good design is to ornament existence, not to substitute it.
— George Nelson, “Good Design: What is it for? Problems of Design (1957)
Q: Ought [art and design] tend toward the ephemeral or toward permanence?
A: Those needs and designs that have a more universal quality will tend toward
— Charles Eames, “What is Design?” (1972)

American artist Joe Scanlan wrote a critical essay in 2001 titled, Please, Eat the Daisies. In it he examines the faulty premise of ‘design art,’ a term that came into favor in the mid 1990s’ as a way to categorize the work of artists such as Jorge Pardo, Atelier van Lieshout, Tobias Rehberger, Andrea Zittel among many others. He describes it by stating that, “design art could be defined loosely as any artwork that attempts to play with the place, function, and style of art by commingling it with architecture, furniture and graphic design.” Importantly he goes on to say that, “what seems critical to design art in all of its forms is that some sort of slippage occur between where art is, how it looks, and what it does.” The premise of this essay however is not Scanlan’s astute ability to detail the characteristics of this new genre but his insights into exposing its failures. His fundamental argument is that its practitioners evoke double standards by employing notions of design and function as a foil for artmaking. “We harbour a philosophical disappointment in the professional double standard practiced by design artists themselves, whose need for art to appear useful—without the risk of being so—strikes us as timid and sad.”

I appreciate Scanlan’s articulate assertion that design art regularly fails because its claim to design, and all of its many social and serviceable facets, is only a ruse for making art. This is where Jan van der Ploeg comes in. His wall paintings conjured from the visual properties prevalent in graphic design aspire to be first and foremost art. Van der Ploeg is a skilled designer and exquisite draftsman who navigates between innovation and familiarity, mischievousness and pragmatism. As a problem solver Van der Ploeg assesses a given site, public or private, and with a refined abstract vocabulary he dramatizes architecture and place. Organizing information and assigning it active meaning is a role shared by both the artist and the designer. Yet distinct from the graphic arts, van der Ploeg conveys, like Giotto before him, a desire to communicate abstractions and ideals that lay beyond function kindling the extra-ordinary and the unexpected.

With color, repetition and scale, van der Ploeg eschews static functional design dialogue, opting instead for lively visual attention. One needs to approach his wall paintings with the same curiosity that one would approach a Sol LeWitt wall drawing or an Ellsworth Kelly shaped painting. Despite their graphic and generous scale, close and intense observation is required to understand the visual patterns and motifs comprising their composition. As Philip Fisher writes in Wonder, the Rainbow and the Rare Experience, “To profit from wonder man cannot be either inattentive or passive, since in these cases he would not notice differences, nor can he feel himself to be living in a world that is fragmented, anarchic, and unpredictable.” Van der Ploeg works here, in the margin that separates the familiar from the wondrous, between abstract and the concrete.

This is perhaps most evident in the ambiguous and idiosyncratic public spaces van der Ploeg occupies: the stairwell, the corridor, the oblique street-side wall of a house. These are spaces of transition, ephemeral spaces, overlaid with a design that, through a selfcontained symmetry, or a repetition suspended by the space itself, attests to its own permanence, its own structurality. As Friederike Nymphius writes, van der Ploeg’s wall paintings, “draw in” the incidental marks of utility, the purely “architectural factors like doors and windows, chimneys and frames,” negating their particularity and making them complicit in the monochrome abstraction.

This is something quite different from, perhaps opposed to, what Scanlan identifies as the specious “double standard” of a merely apparent usefulness. Rather, van der Ploeg invokes the “slippage” between “where art is, how it looks, and what it does” in an effort to effectively de-functionalize the public space where the art is, to efface its transience with a mark of the permanent. In other words, the drama van der Ploeg creates through his appropriation of public space is not the drama of design, or, as George Nelson would put it, the ornamentation of existence, but its utter reconfiguration.

In the context of the gallery, the space of intentional viewing, van der Ploeg’s paintings evince a dissimilar effect. With the same dedication to form, the same repetitious vocabulary, the work unmasks the limitations of the viewing-space. Here the wall paintings solely evoke their concreteness. Their reality is conveyed in the line, color and surface of the works. Where, in public sites, the abstraction assimilates social and political particularities, in the gallery the wall paintings formally negotiate the prosthetics of the space itself : the parquet flooring, the light fixtures, etc. Brilliant, dizzying, harmonizing, van der Ploeg’s paintings on expanses of gallery walls protract van Doesburg’s claim that “a plane is a plane, a line is a line, nothing less, nothing more.” However, his paintings expand the best of contemporary non-objective work in their shear boldness and fearless scope, the entirety of the painting’s dynamics are always greater than the architecture that supports them.

The impact of van der Ploeg’s paintings is located at the intersection of sensation and thought, between the work’s graphic visual impact and its conceptual underpinnings. His paintings are welcomingly antagonistic to narrative. Signifying instead a powerful commitment to the commingling of the familiar, new and strange potentials of color and form. When viewing van der Ploeg’s work “We find our way not to a moment of solving the painting, but to knowing it…being acquainted with it, seeing part of the intelligibility of it as Aristotle, Theodoric, Descartes, or Newton saw part of the intelligibility of the rainbow,” (Fisher, p. 179)

Michelle Grabner