Renate Wiehager

‘Impressionist? Expressionist?’ On a number of art strategy controversies in the artwork of Jan van der Ploeg

"I’m always working on a good sense for the architecture in which the wall painting will be situated. I strive for different form of contrasts, sometimes regarding form, sometimes regarding color or rhythm … how do I choose colors? I think, it’s very intuitive, there are favored combinations, that appear more often, but I don’t work with strict rules, like e.g. So LeWitt, who worked with just primary colors etc. I’m more like an impressionist, I think.[smiles] This show is titled ›All systems go‹, and yes, all systems go (…) Altogether it may sound as if my work is quite restricted, but a lot is possible, I guess."

— Jan van der Ploeg, 2013 1

The international standing of the Dutch artist Jan van der Ploeg has been steadily increasing since the mid-1990s thanks to his abstract stereoscopic pictures in the tradition of classical modernism that are temporarily combined with urban, public or private spaces. The artist initially starts with a rigorous assessment of the involved exhibition spaces: what are the proportions and visual axes, what are the functions of the available architectural and design elements, how do people use the respective areas?

 In art-historical terms the motif and the modular painting refer to Minimal Art: to painted interventions by artists like Richard Artschwager in the 1960s, the so-called ‘blps’, and to Sol LeWitt’s serially reduced murals. At the same time it is worth pointing out that combining image, wall, space and architecture in the medium of color and form was one of the ideas pursued systematically by the Dutch De Stijl movement in the 1920s. These role models were also espoused by a number of American artists who, commissioned by the ‘Works Progress Administration’ (WPA), began creating large abstract wall paintings for public spaces since 1935.

 The following text pursues (giving examples) the theory that Jan van der Ploeg’s wall paintings (an oeuvre that now numbers 380 in total) were created with art strategy-related controversies and opposing camps in mind. In other words, the artist himself immediately counters each of the artistic decisions that he makes regarding abstract geometries, narrative, colors, and dimensioning and filling of space, with a contrary decision: artistic/political intervention, anti-narrative, black and white image, or handbag-sized image on canvas.

 At this point, we should briefly discuss the carefully chosen title of this essay: Impressionist? Expressionist? In the interview quoted at the beginning, the artist suggests, with a smile and an air of understatement, that he is, perhaps, more of an ‘Impressionist’: that is, in terms of the language of forms in his wall paintings, he is more an Impressionist than he is a Formalist, Minimalist, conceptual muralist etc.

 What Jan van der Ploeg is expressing in these words (in metaphorical terms) is, that his decisions in terms of choosing to work in color or in black and white, concerning the forms, rhythms etc. in his wall paintings relate significantly to the nature of the location, and the ‘impressions’ that these produce in the artist. The viewer must realize that detailed analysis of art historical traditions plus two decades of working as an artist, both brought to bear upon a striking concept, are an indispensable requirement for such an ‘impressive’ way of working. Regarded from the perspective of reception, however, a viewer might well describe the aura of these wall paintings as ‘expressive’: these patterns, whether black-and-white or colored, have a strong sculptural effect when seen in a space: they are a formalized ‘expressive’ statement.

 Artistic/political rhetoric versus abstract geometry

 Beginning in the mid-1990s, Jan van der Ploeg has created three significant groups of artworks featuring abstract geometries: in variation in diverse different formats and media, in color and in black-and-white. These also vary in that they may be static, or may be deployed in serial fashion. These artwork types, however, should not be seen as developments, with each phase being succeeded by and replaced by the next: instead, each of them, today, continues to provide resources for the artist to draw on, in parallel and in alternation. The first group is dominated by a rectangle shape with rounded-off corners (grip). These shapes are combined with monochrome backgrounds, are overlaid on one another in ornamental fashion, or are arranged as static, statement-like shapes.

 In the next phase, this grip shape (which, in compositional terms, remained tied to the format of the wall worked upon) gave way to somewhat minimalist/conceptual geometries with large blocky color shapes, or with wide horizontal or vertical strips, which tended to extend beyond the wall.

 Over past years, geometric patterns have increasingly become established in Jan van der Ploeg’s artwork that are either produced using intricately subdivided, serial and edgeless structures or bring optical illusion into play: zigzag and vector graphics, illusionist line and surface movements, halved squares, and deceptive optical illusions involving grid and diamond forms.

 The opposing pole to this spectrum of abstract geometries in the artwork of Jan van der Ploeg is provided by what I would describe as ‘artistic/political rhetoric’. In other words, the basis for all formal and aesthetic decisions is provided by van der Ploeg’s decision (in terms of concept and substance) to develop his image compositions first and foremost for public spaces – galleries, streets, plazas, company building foyers, or pedestrian underpasses – and to thereby release the artworks from his own grasp, and from his own power to define them. In other words, this succession of around 380 wall paintings conforms, in my view, to the idea of an ‘effectively composed public address’ in a politically charged space. The artist’s decisions concerning which particular abstract pattern to use are always based upon the national and cultural traditions of the country within which he is working.

 Commissioned versus non-commissioned

 Three commissioned artworks for the Daimler Art Collection

 One might say that Jan van der Ploeg treats all of his wall paintings like commissioned works, regardless of whether he has been invited to take part in a gallery or museum exhibition, or is painting a wall in the private home of a friend, or is fulfilling a commission for a public space artwork, or is doing the same for a corporate collection. The artist sees every request as an opportunity and as a challenge: an offer to develop an artistic formulation for this particular location (temporary or permanent) that will change the location, its architecture, the way it is perceived, and how it is used – to create art that will give the location an aesthetic charge, will give it tension, rhythm, new dimensions, colors and lines of sight, in the best possible way.

 By contrast, one might describe the spectrum of paintings on canvas produced by the artist since the early 1990s as the opposing pole of the ‘non-commissioned’ artworks. In these images, which are often fairly small-format, Jan van der Ploeg explores the same patterns, structures, shapes etc. that he is simultaneously deploying in larger formats in public spaces and in museums. To this extent, these pictures could also be described as sketches, drafts or studies for the larger-format works – although they do also have a fully autonomous status.

 Three commissions for the Daimler Art Collection shall be presented here pars pro toto. In 2005, Jan van der Ploeg accepted a commission for a wall painting for the restaurant of the new Mercedes-Benz Museum Stuttgart (architect: Ben van Berkel). In this particular case, the wall flows round the curve of the space in an unusual way, and he also had to allow for the division into simple wall areas and the load-bearing concrete structure. The horizontal oval shape of the ‘grip’ invests the broken wall structure with sculptural density and at the same time centers the viewer’s attention. But then the large color fields take perception out beyond the borders of the image, and into the space.

 The second piece of commissioned (2007) work involved an end wall at the Daimler factory and company headquarters at Untertürkheim in Stuttgart, immediately opposite a large glazed office façade. The two buildings are separated only by a path a few meters wide, so that the mural cannot be seen in full from a distance, but creates its effect in horizontal sections from the offices opposite. The outside fire escape was another difficult element that had to be included. Jan van der Ploeg deals with this situation by drawing the eyes of passers-by upwards dynamically with his design, deploying a set of stripes that open out diagonally like a fan. This breaks up the wall’s monumental closed quality, and as well as this the rising colored stripes on the left create a motif of movement in association with the fire escape, which rises on the right-hand side, thus reticently but effectively activating the wall at the sides. At the same time a static view from one of the floors opposite reveals an abstract image at any level, each dominated by one of four colors – dark red, light turquoise, yellow, blue.

 With the new Mercedes-Benz galleries in Berlin and Munich, Jan van der Ploeg was presented with exhibition areas that combine architecture and interior design elements with the attraction of the automobile and a lively urban environment in a high quality manner. The artist responded with abstract image compositions to a space experience that blend with the characteristic surfaces and utilization aspects of the location in an organic and diverse manner.

 Jan van der Ploeg’s Mobile 2010, is an installation that consists of several art elements: a circular colored carpet, a rotating mobile suspended from the ceiling, circular motifs made of foils, which can be attached on the surfaces of the surrounding space, and a graphic as a digital print. The basis for the design of the spatial installation was an abstract painting with circular motifs created using acrylic paint. A ›highlight‹ Mercedes-Benz vehicle was exhibited on a rotating platform, the circular motifs of the platform carpet appeared again on the rotating mobile. Like the platform, the mobile also rotates, but in the opposite direction, thus giving the impression of double speed. Mobile is intended to express development and mobility in automotive design, contemporary art and everyday life.

 Public versus private

 Ever since the mid-1990s, Jan van der Ploeg has been continuously and simultaneously creating wall paintings for urban, public spaces, and for private, intimate spaces. The designs for the private living spaces of clients, acquaintances and friends appear to have become more compact, whilst van der Ploeg’s outdoor artworks have shown dimensional expansion.

 Recent van der Ploeg artworks on a large scale include his color concept for the bicycle transfer space in the station at Nijmegen, in the Netherlands. Van der Ploeg created his artwork using ten colors that simultaneously contrast with and harmonize with the predominant red color of the outside area. These are deployed in the form of diagonal stripes and intercrossing expanses on the floor, vertical strips on the walls, and full-surface and monochrome effects for the pillars and supports within the space. It was also envisaged that broad diagonal strips of color would be painted onto the ceiling: this plan, however, was never realized.

 In 2012, Jan van der Ploeg was invited by the community of Leeuwarden to create four murals for four pedestrian/cyclist underpasses, each consisting of 10,000 colored tiles, alternately glazed or given a matt finish. At first sight, these abstract patterns appear similar: the red tunnel has angle forms stacked one inside the other in sets of three, with changing orientation; the black and white tunnel has elongated rectangular shapes, sometimes black on white, sometimes white on black; the blue and light grey tunnels have variations (in terms of rhythm and shape) on the red tunnel. These patterns, which have an affinity with the Op Art tradition, produce a wide-area image which the eye may pass rapidly over. On the other hand, their dynamic angle displacements, shifting movements and widening and narrowing lines are also substantially calculated to offer ever-new perspectives and concepts of space to users who walk or cycle past them.

 A challenge of a completely different kind is provided by the commissioned artworks that Jan van der Ploeg creates for private spaces – kitchens, hallways, living rooms, offices in private homes. This begins with an analysis of the architecture – the relationship of the size of the space to the wall surfaces, windows, doors etc. – and of how the space is used. These artworks are unlike wall paintings for urban spaces in that individual, personal aspects play a role: what ‘language of images’ is suggested by the home style and the design? Is there any other art in this home? What lifestyle do the inhabitants embody?

 Big versus small - Overwhelming the viewer versus liberating the viewer

 Thus far, only Jan van der Ploeg’s large wall paintings have been mentioned. In point of fact, his small canvas-format images (frequently only about DIN A 4 in size) play an equally significant role. In parallel with his other artworks, the artist creates graphic artwork series. These small-format pictures frequently show details or color variants of patterns that appear in van der Ploeg’s wall paintings. However, they do not serve as designs for wall paintings: instead, they play an autonomous role within the artist’s oeuvre. For these small-canvas pictures, as for the large wall paintings, Jan van der Ploeg never arranges the abstract structures and patterns based upon the format he is working in, to create a pictorial composition that ‘concludes’ at the formatted boundaries. Instead, the structures extend beyond the edges of the picture and into space: onto the surrounding wall, or into a three-dimensional (urban) space.

› Overwhelming, grand, vibrant, space-filling ‹ - these are concepts appearing in reviews discussing van der Ploeg’s public wallpaintings. Those are the words of the Moti Museum, Breda on the Museum homepage, describing the exhibition of van der Ploeg’s work entitled Moti Hotel II (2014): “Overwhelming, grand and vibrant: words that apply to the work of Jan van der Ploeg. You get carried away by the grandeur of his images. Imagine yourself in a utopian universe of colors and contrasts! Van der Ploeg is inspired by art styles and movements from the past century and therefore connects the 20th with the 21st century. He creates graphic dream worlds in physical space.”

In 2013, a show featuring fashion by young designers took place within the six spaces painted with varying graphical/formal motifs by Jan van der Ploeg at the Galerie West in Amsterdam, prompting the Amsterdam fashion collective MIMI Berlin to comment that: “The other day we attended an intervention of the 1st year fashion design project (ArteZ Arnhem) Airborne within the solo exhibition Pink Moon by Jan van der Ploeg. We, at Mimi Berlin, absolutely love the work of Dutch artist Jan van der Ploeg, his work is very bold and overwhelming, it literally fills the room. To show the Airborne project within his work was also a bold move, it takes guts to show work by people who have studied (fashion) design for just one year, in such a demanding environment created by an established artist. (…) It was a beautiful, aesthetic feast for the eye!” 2

This use of painting to ‘overwhelm’ the viewer – what icons of art history does this theme put us in mind of? Grünewald’s Isenheimer Altar, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, the 35 square meters of dramatized disaster in Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa, Picasso’s Guernica – all of these artworks ‘overwhelm’ the mind and understanding of the viewer through their combination of enormous formats and dramatic content. Without a doubt, many of Jan van der Ploeg’s wall paintings are conceived with a similar aim in mind: to begin by fixating the viewer’s sensory perception, to make the viewer focus on the artwork and be fully drawn into its pulsing rhythm of forms, colors, and structures. At the same time, however, I would assert that these geometries also ‘free’ our attention: we can free associate these abstract motifs with patterns from art history, design, fashion, indigenous cultures etc. Jan van der Ploeg’s wall paintings are, perhaps, something like a projection space, a visual echo space that allows us to discover, through our senses, that abstract forms and geometries are among the most primal forms of expression in art and in culture.

1 Jan van der Ploeg, Interview mit Marie José Sondijker während Aufbaus der Ausstellung All systems go, Galerie West Den Haag, 23-02-2011