Belonging to the Mooie tentoonstellingen series, Untitled orchestrates a number of René Daniëls’ central concerns and influences. His bow tie-cum-gallery is here complicated by the inset picture, the additions of...
Belonging to the Mooie tentoonstellingen series, Untitled orchestrates a number of René Daniëls’ central concerns and influences. His bow tie-cum-gallery is here complicated by the inset picture, the additions of legible ‘artworks’ in the space, a hatched fringe or border, and overlapping planes or ‘curtains’ of colour through which the image now recessed behind remains visible. These monochromatic planes produce a tension between the illusion of spatial depth brought by Daniëls’ trapezia and the Renaissance perspective they parody, and the flattening of layers in the transverse plane of the painting. The meta compositional device is compounded by Daniëls’ picture-in-picture, which calls into question the very limit of the canvas itself. As Swiss artist Mathis Gasser has remarked of the series, “Daniëls engages in a meditation on images, on image production, on how paintings ‘perform’ or are expected to deliver in the museum, yet, from afar, they are all squares on the wall.” In Untitled, the complex spatial logic serves to underline the objecthood of the work itself by ejecting the viewer, returning them to the space in which they stand: the space in which the painting appears once more as a rectangle on a wall.
Curator Paul Bernard has forged a historical link between works such as this one and the Dutch genre of cabinets d’amateurs, which originated in Antwerp at the beginning of the 1600s. In the earlier paintings, artists depicted private domestic picture galleries populated by figures engaged in conversation. Bernard writes that they, like Daniëls’ own works, “are the visible manifestation of a discourse on art.” Yet Untitled contains only one figure, whose statuesque form suggests that it is in fact a sculpture. Daniëls’ gallery is therefore vacated of visitors, who are instead withheld at the surface of the canvas. In denying entry to the recessive space of the picture by making known its artifice, the artist forces the viewer into an imagined dialogue with the painting itself, each participant re-inscribing the other in their respective realm as if in a stand-off. The effect is to throw light on the space of viewership – its conditions – and in turn, to return the viewer’s thoughts to the constructed nature of the depicted domain. Suddenly, the rear door opens to a void; the ‘brickwork’ painting is in fact a window onto nowhere.
Bernard reminds us of the historical context of the bow tie or ‘beautiful exhibitions’ motif, which Daniëls developed shortly after the publication of a series of Artforum articles by Brian O’Doherty skewering the white cube as an ideological space predicated on its purported neutrality. Yet it was more likely the Belgian conceptual artist Marcel Broodthaers whose work provided a direct point of reference for the present painting. In the midst of the student protests of 1968, Broodthaers had announced that he was no longer an artist and instead appointed himself the director of his own private museum, the Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles; his project sought to critically reassess the function of the museum in society. In Untitled, too, Daniëls constructs a fictional museum which he populates with his own artworks, among them a painting featuring his recurring motif ‘2 I’s Fighting Over 1 Dot’, and a gramophone record and paintbrush construction that references works from 1977 and 1980. Accordingly, curator Els Hoek has observed that the latter ‘sculpture’ and the shadow it casts take the form of an open mussel shell, and that this mussel becomes denotational of Broodthaers and his mussel assemblages for Daniëls.
Daniëls’ painting attends to a broad range of themes and debates that remain alive today, not least the construction of meaning by the institution, the authority of the curator, the formation of the canon, and that hatched aura surrounding not only the hallowed exhibition space itself but also the benefactors whose funds uphold it. Yet by imagining the ‘museification’ of his own works, Daniëls also appoints himself as director and curator, and becomes entangled once again in an institutional web. If the inset frame serves to constrain the museum towards the reclamation of his autonomy, the yellow and blue washes that transcend the limits of the room might acknowledge – both for artist and viewer alike – that such gestures are ultimately in vain.