Canary in a Coal Mine

Positive Limits

It often begins with a presence that is simultaneously an absence. Using the edge of a piece of scratch paper as a guide, a fragmented line is produced by making a series of short marks in ink from the scratch paper onto the work surface. This process is repeated, forming more lines that are networked into increasingly dense and complex aggregates. It is noteworthy that at least half of the material basis for these aggregate forms is never seen and thus hangs over the work, a specter felt through the weight of its absence. It is an ‚externality‘, as it were, that is easily ignored, though to do so is to risk overlooking perhaps the most compelling aspects of the work while glossing over the many questions evoked by this tension.

Absence has had an abiding importance in the work of Nelleke Beltjens. Even in her earlier sculptural works the placement of each fragment in space was vital, i.e. the space in-between was in most instances just as important (if not more so)than the objects themselves, much as pauses or breaks are often vital to the structure of music. Indeed, her transition to drawing could be seen generally as a refinement of the conceptual experiment she began in sculpture. By moving to a two dimensional form, Beltjens seems to be indicating an acute interest in what appears versus what is ‚real‘. This transition has certainly not stopped her from engaging in the practice of producing modular, multi-form works. In many instances, observers must move from piece to piece in order to perceive a work in its totality, indicating an awareness and exploitation of the characteristics of frames. All artwork – indeed all discourse – is framed by context, and the literal framing of images (works on paper, for instance) can be a tacit acknowledgment of this process. This is of course easily overlooked – we tend to look through frames rather than at them. And, after all, the appearance of the two dimensional image is a simultaneous disappearance or disavowal of its reversed side, its vulnerable side.

At any rate, the decision of an artist, who had up to a point been dealing with ‚real‘ objects in tangible space, to work with a kind of space that is much more allusive, should be viewed in the case of the work of Nelleke Beltjens as ‚objects of another kind‘, and as much more than simply an apparent retreat into a softer world of illusion. A beguiling subtlety is at work here, which upon closer inspection can serve to spur along curiosity, uncertainty, and questioning; in short, a subtlety that can undermine the reassuring and presumptive solidity of understanding.

A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure

More recently, Beltjens has developed a characteristically subtle working method that raises the interpretive stakes of her project. In this newer work, she has begun a unique process of excision and reinsertion that dynamically alters the surfaces of her works. Working in diptych form, she begins each piece additively, though with an increasingly diverse repertoire of elements, such as paint, canvas tape, and large felt-tip pens. At a certain point, however, she begins cutting fragments away from the surface of one work, relocating them onto the surface of the second work while excising ‚duplicate‘ pieces from the second piece in the exact dimensions as those in the first, which are moved back to the voids left in the first surface. This process is continued to a dizzying degree of complexity on both surfaces, and in many cases further additive marks are also made. What is one to make of this process, aside from the aesthetic panoply thus engendered? It is particularly noteworthy that Beltjens takes great care with this cutting and reinsertion to leave as few traces of the process as possible. Indeed, from a distance one is aware only of the formal complexities of color and shape that result from the dance across the twinned surfaces, and it is only upon close inspection that one can divine the truth of the matter. Why would an artist go to such apparent lengths to conceal this forceful strategy? Observers are at liberty to speculate on their own terms, and this openness is certainly intentional, but  it is nonetheless important to venture a few thoughts on the matter.

It may first be interesting to consider the surface of a drawing (or any two dimensional image – or any space for that matter) as a ‚field of becoming‘. One can think of this in a Deleuzian sense in that this field presents itself as the zone of possibility in which certain assemblages (of forces, of communities, of machines) take place. Metaphorically speaking then, it could be viewed as a kind of ‚world‘. Of course, this ‚world‘ has limits, denoted in this case by the framing edge of the surfaces of paper,  analogous perhaps to our own finite environment. Metaphorically speaking then, Nelleke Beltjens is doing something rather compelling with regard to the construction of a ‚world‘, namely she is indicating that by simply rearranging existing components and characteristics, radically new possibilities emerge. It’s not necessarily an exaggeration to suggest allusions to current crises and deadlocks, be they social, political, economic, ecological or otherwise. If such an assertion seems far-fetched when regarding what is ostensibly ‚abstract‘, de-politicized contemporary art, then one might look no further than many of the titles given to exhibitions or individual works (i.e., „It’s not how I thought“, „They don’t know either“, „Tentative (Turmoil)“, „irresistible non-solution“) to wonder in what ways Nelleke Beltjens is actively considering our collective present. That she produces works which feature endless new possibilities using existing components certainly does indicate at best a hopeful metaphorical outlook on what might be possible more broadly.

However, whether one chooses to make such connections or not, an interesting tension nonetheless arises to haunt these more recent works. This involves the act of cutting itself, and the implication of force or violence this act invokes. True, the ‚rift‘ is repaired in the end, but the cut leaves an indelible trace. This presence that is almost hidden implies that such a reorganization may require a radical level of intervention. It is also interesting to note the resulting fragility of the works themselves – they can no longer be rolled up, for example. This doesn’t have to be viewed ethically, so to speak, it is only noteworthy; rich with possibility and ambivalence.

Feeling is Believing

This train of thought moves admittedly quickly into a series of social and political associations which are certainly symptomatic of the tastes and concerns of this author, and which the artist herself may not readily agree to or be comfortable with. It is also true that the above observations also tend to ignore or downplay the viscerally complex and beautiful qualities of Nelleke Beltjens‘ work, qualities that are easy to affirm. It would be a disservice to the reader not to indicate the problematic character of offering too leading an interpretation of such subtle and complex work.  This concern moreover raises the question of just what kind of encounter an artwork presents, and how this encounter draws specifically toward or away from the objects that catalyze its emergence.

It may suffice in this instance to remark on an observation which Nelleke Beltjens has made numerous times in conversation: the exigencies of life often reveal themselves in the smallest detail; the most fragile of signs. Such careful observation – an awareness perhaps in equal measure emotional,  intellectual and corporeal – is of enduring importance to the artist, and is a hallmark of her ethical character. How much so can be illustrated by the physical dedication she exhibits toward her work and the questions it presents her, most recently exemplified by an episode of severe optical strain caused particularly by the process of cutting and excising minute fragments. The symptoms of this were severe pain and migraines which forced her to relax the pace of her work – much to her annoyance, as this wasn’t the first time she had pushed herself physically almost to the breaking point in its pursuit. This personal aside is certainly anecdotal, but it does allude to the way in which Nelleke Beltjens approaches her practice; she herself becomes, so to speak, something of an instrument in responding to the challenges her work presents, as though the work directed her. Of course, this quality is not unique to Nelleke Beltjens alone, though she could in certain ways be considered a mascot of it. The strange dedication to an apparently useless pursuit: how might one analyze this? Indeed, what constitutes ‚use‘? It may at this point be opportune to return to a consideration of the absences indicated above, which are immanent to the mark making process that is the foundation for much of Beltjens‘ recent work. For, as these broken lines perhaps allude, the frames with which we delineate our world are broken contours at best, structures which, much like the work of Nelleke Beltjens, present a series of open questions.  And through questioning, this work quietly impels us to observe carefully, with much more than just our eyes. After all, if life can reveal itself in the smallest details, it is for us to decide how to receive this warning – this invitation.

(first published in: Nelleke Beltjens. It is not how I thought, ed. by Galerie Christian Lethert, Cologne, 2015)