Nelleke Beltjens by Rollin Beamish

Can the sleeper awaken? In characteristic fashion, Dutch artist Nelleke Beltjens, in the title of her new exhibition, “I dreamt I was sleeping”, casts a metaphorical, even narrative veil over work that might at first appear completely non-objective.  The phrase suggests a shifting viewpoint – a parallax effect – evoking a mutation of perception perhaps reminiscent of a topological deformation. Indeed, the artist consistently expresses interest in the notion of the immanent becoming of worlds, and reflects through her work upon emergent possibilities, be they personal, social or ecological. However, the work itself is produced through formal strategies that mirror the ambiguities of this (Deleuzian) becoming, ‘infecting’ it, so to speak, with the contradictions of the (Hegelian) cut. This reminds one perhaps of the trauma of human agency; the ability and necessity to decide.

The first of these ‘cuts’ can be observed in what has over the last decade become Beltjens’ foundational inscriptive mark: the partial line. Notched along the edge of a guiding piece of cardstock, these agglomerated line fragments easily invoke a contradictory duality of presence and absence. More recently, Beltjens has extended her interest in the cut into a quite literal strategy of incision and exchange. Small sections are excised from the surface of a drawing while an identically sized fragment is cut from a second surface. The two fragments are then exchanged creating a topographical upheaval, and indelible link, between several works. On the one hand, this technique evokes an encouraging sense of possibility; for, if the surfaces of the drawings could be viewed as a series of discrete ‘worlds’, then this practice of cutting and replacing suggests that entirely new worlds can be called into being with a reorganization of what is already present. However, on the other hand, this practice is impossible, the drawings suggest, without a decided violence; an interruption of the structural integrity of the work. In order to resolve the ‘bad infinity’ of the Moebius strip, must one forcefully puncture the surface?

Thus the paradox of agency, of decision. It’s of course obvious that ‘new worlds,’ at least as we understand them, are possible through the (re)organization of what exists. But to decide implies the imposition of a fiction, a ‘necessary illusion’ that enables our finite perceptions to gain purchase on potentiality. The title of Beltjens’ most recent series of works, “it happens”, alludes to the embarrassment of this situation; the loss of control that threatens to reveal this fiction for what it is. Such a phrase is often employed to acknowledge an occurrence of an unavoidable accident; fate: “it happens”, (sh)it happens. This uncomfortable emergence of the present as precisely a presence often cannot be anything but uncanny, a reminder that time is out of joint, and our understanding of our situation (unser Zustand), our history and our futurity is based upon a certain perspectival limitation; a tunnel vision. In tune with this line of thought, the artist herself has remarked that she thinks of the color employed in these works as analogous to the monochrome quality of moonlight. In other words, this nocturnal or crepuscular desaturation presupposes a kind of illumination or disclosure, but one in which many of the qualities thus disclosed seem to melt and shift into one another, echoing perhaps the uncanniness of the manifold presence of the present.

In a very recent development, an odd and rather short horizontal line has appeared. That this line is repeated in each new work is enough to encourage a closer look, and its interpretation furnishes additional nuance to the already rich ambiguities of Beltjens’ work. These lines might at first suggest a kind of abbreviated horizon; a (pictorial) surface above or beneath which the ‘action’ (and decisions) of the work takes place. But, due to its incompleteness, this horizon disappears almost as soon as it arrives. And, though this allusion to a horizon might be the most immediate reading of this mark, perhaps another more prosaic interpretation affords itself; one might be reminded, namely, of an underscore in Western typography. Before contemporary word-processing software, the underscore served as a key on typewriters which enabled texts to be underlined. In order to do this, one needed first to type the words one desired to underline, then back up the typewriter spool and ‘overcode’ the previously typed text with the underscore key, thus in a sense (at least for the typist) repeating (or doubling) the underlined word or phrase. Indeed an ‘empty’ underscore could metonymically serve as an index for an undefined utterance issued with special force or authority; a ‘silent’ cry. That this amounts, in the case of the ‘underscore’ of Nelleke Beltjens, to an authority without content, an echo without a voice, is of special relevance.  For, as her work has always alluded – elegantly, if quietly – our reality is often a question of perspective; an empty signifier that, like authority, must be filled, legitimated and questioned. Are we yet sleeping? Is life outside of the dream of our own subjectivities even possible? Above all, have we looked carefully enough? For, like the work of Nelleke Beltjens, existence is often most profoundly expressed in the most subtle of details.