Plugged in somewhere beyond the visible realm, the microphone stand in René Daniëls’ Untitled lies either in anticipation, or in the aftermath, of a performance. Its many mics point in all directions as if gesturing to the scene and its disarticulation: the perspectival ‘walls’ splayed apart, the cuboidal forms free-floating in space or sliding down into the foreground. Around the stand, a series of upright pianos are turned away from the viewer, their backs forming colour-blocked supports that echo the canvases hung in Daniëls’ tricksy room. Thick, visible brushstrokes convey patches of bright colour which further fragment the imagined realm, and pull it back from illusionism into the definitively painterly.
It is telling, then, that another painting bearing the same composition but rendered in a more demure palette should be titled De terugkeer van de performance (The Return of the Performance) (1987, Private Collection). In this second version, all but two details of the present work are reproduced: now the stand has been righted and a silhouetted figure lingers in the rear doorway. Essential to an understanding of Daniëls’ practice is an appreciation of the artist’s supreme (self-)objectivity, through which he comes to recognise the role of the performer in that of the modern painter. In both works introduced here, Daniëls makes visible that recognition. Indeed, the temporal ambiguity of the tipped stand in Untitled suggests not only that a performance has already taken place in the very realisation of the work itself, but that it will soon be rehashed in the making of the pendant painting. If the artist-as-performer is implicitly installed at the centre, the cable that trails through the doorway suggests the presence of still other invisible figures who might be puppeteering the scene, and Daniëls in turn.
Daniëls’ desire to engender in the viewer an awareness of the performativity of painting might be metaphorised by the act of recognition embedded in the work itself. For the picture gallery in Untitled also takes the form of a bow tie. First developed in 1984 with the series Mooie tentoonstellingen (Beautiful Exhibitions), of which Untitled is an important example, the bow tie-cum-gallery is indisputably René Daniëls’ most iconic motif and represents the conceptual backbone of his critical practice. With an adjustment of perspective, the three adjoining walls of the flimsy exhibition arena metamorphose into the accessory of clowns and formal occasions – the performative symbol of both slapstick and status. The gallery is ‘dressed up’ only to be metaphorically undressed of its pretences; in engineering this transition, Daniëls disarms both himself and the viewer.
With the Mooie tentoonstellingen paintings, Daniëls questions the rigmarole of the institutional ‘art world’ and its tiresome systems of validation, commercialisation, and canonisation, whilst at the same time acknowledging his inextricability from the power dynamics at play. For all its apparent openness, the architectural space of the gallery therefore emerges as a schematic of power. To recognise a sense of duplicity in Untitled is to begin to apprehend a broader pattern in Daniëls’ work, which is concerned with double entendres, clever witticisms, and the legacy of trompe l’oeil bequeathed by the artist’s Belgian namesake, René Magritte. The painting epitomises the words of critic Hans den Hartog Jager, writing in 1998: “Despite all his cynicism and pessimism, [Daniëls] always seems to be doing his best to entice the viewer with the most beautiful colours and flamboyant brushstrokes. In this respect [he] seems to be painting’s White Rabbit. He leads us away, into the painting, and once we’re there he runs away, leaving us behind in bewilderment.”