What does it mean to orient oneself in drawing?

Remarks on the drawings of Nelleke Beltjens 

By Peter Lodermeyer

Published first in IMMENSE Nelleke Beltjens

Published November 2010 by GlobalArtAffairs Publishing, Bonn, Germany


In the proper meaning of the word, to orient oneself means to use a given direction (when we divide the horizon into four of them) in order to find the others—literally to find the sunrise. Now if I see the sun in the sky and I know it is now midday, then I know how to find south, west, north, and east. 

Immanuel Kant, What does it mean to orient oneself in thinking?1 


The aspirations are high: “I am practicing life, and my own work is a great ‘guide’ while everything is in continuous movement. […] My work teaches me. It is ahead of me in a way. It brings me to the next step, a ‚higher’ level, makes me grow.”2 This statement by Nelleke Beltjens in an interview of 2009 suggests an astonishing trust in the power of art, even though she does not espouse the avant-garde utopia of the merging of art and life (let alone the simple understanding of art as a mere reflex of life). As surprising as the statement may sound, it can hardly surprise us that it refers to drawing, since this genre of art has always been a particularly suitable medium of orientation. A person looking for orientation in order to “take the next step”, regardless of the field of creativity, will have a preference for the medium of drawing. With draughtsman’s means, we satisfy ourselves concerning the proportions of an object to be designed, the structure of a building, the cut of a piece of clothing, the dance steps of choreography …

The classical visual means for creating an orientation in a narrow spatial sense are maps and plans. Here the four directions north, south, west and east are translated into the extensions of the surface: top, bottom, left and right. Nelleke Beltjens is fascinated by all kinds of maps because by using them, we can describe a terrain without depicting it realistically in the least. This abstract cartographic element is a feature she would like to transpose to her work. This applies to her sculpture installations spread out on the floor as well as to her more recent drawings. “Mapping the invisible” is how she refers to this intention.3 We are indeed able to intuit certain cartographic phenomena in many of her drawings. It is no coincidence, for example, that the rectangles implemented in the series of 2009 called Uncut make us think of superimposed projections of building floor plans, whereas other drawings are redolent of traffic networks. With a view to the Complex drawings (2005/06) we may imagine for a moment that they are aerial photographs of cities built unbelievably densely, at the edge of the sea …


For this, however, I also need the feeling of a difference in my own subject, namely the difference between my right and left hands. I call this a feeling because these two sides outwardly display no designatable difference in intuition. 

Immanuel Kant

Is it a coincidence that four of the five Complex drawings display an empty space at the lower right? Those of us living in the Indo-European region of languages are accustomed to reading lines of writing from left to right and pages from top to bottom. Does this mean, since we inevitably assume this direction when gazing at pictures as well, that the unusually dense black concentrations of strokes in Complex—a combination of “rational” parallel lines drawn with the ruler and “emotional” scribblings—have not yet grown over these free spaces? Are the empty spaces a last resistance to the dramatically gathered clouds of marks spreading out, which remind us of the dark areas in the etchings of Piranesi—or to an even greater extent—Rembrandt? Just how much the drawing has changed its character when even the last free space has been overgrown with networks of lines may be witnessed in Complex #5. It is only logical that this work concludes the series: The empty space, an immensely important element in Nelleke Beltjens’ overall artistic work, appears to have been suffocated here by the very complex all-over treatment of the drawn “reality”. No movement may be imagined here anymore, at most only a heightening of the degree of density in some areas of the drawing. After Complex #5, a fresh start was imperative.

With its clear weighting of left and right and its subtle narrative quality, Complex is an exception in Nelleke Beltjens’ drawings. The line structures of the subsequent series of drawings are indifferent to direction, the short marks anyway standing crossways to the lines resulting from them. These lines run in extremely varying directions and, in numerous drawings, they unexpectedly turn at 90° angles. The forms often seem as if a strong wind had broken up the lines, scattering them in all directions in a shower of particles. With respect to the theme of the directional values of her drawings, it is possibly much more than an insignificant biographic detail that Nelleke Beltjens is left-handed, though she is able to carry out many activities ambidextrously—even drawing, if need be. Certain parts of Incomplete Completion #1, carried out in 2006, were done with the right hand after a cycling accident put her left arm temporarily out of commission. When she draws with the left hand as usual, then she changes the direction from that of writing, placing the marks from right to left.


Thus even with all the objective data of the sky, I orient myself geographically only through a subjective ground of differentiation; and if all the constellations, though keeping the same shape and position relative to one another, were one day by a miracle to be reversed in their direction, so that what was east now became west, no human eye would notice the slightest alteration on the next bright starlit night, and even the astronomer—if he pays attention only to what he sees and not at the same time to what he feels—would inevitably become disoriented.

Immanuel Kant

The Incomplete Completion drawings (2006–08) direct our view to and through a number of dark zones, uneven in size, that have been irregularly distributed across the paper. These greatly condensed centers are mostly surrounded by a loose network of marks, like stars with their shining clouds of gas. It is virtually inevitable that these works conjure up cosmic associations—in particular if you know that working with photograph negatives is a customary procedure in the astronomy sciences, which means that the stars form black spots on a white ground. Up to half a dozen of these quasi-stellar forms may be found on an Incomplete Completion drawing, thus forming something akin to a constellation of stars before the viewer’s gaze, especially when looked at from a little distance. It is well known that, in terms of Gestalt psychology, constellations are groupings reached by our human perception, and are not objective facts. By the same token, the sculpture installations of Nelleke Beltjens function as careful, non-hierarchic arrangements of individual elements in space, which are perceived by the viewer as coherent groups. Her latest larger series of sculptures to date, done in 2005 and bearing the unspeakable title of *, apparently already refers with this asterisk sign to the stars and their arrangement in the form of “constellations”. Perhaps it is this last remaining formal connection with her sculptures—this figurative aspect of Incomplete Completion in the broadest sense—which caused the artist to forego such centers of attention in her subsequent series of drawings. In Fragments of the Parts (2008), these condensations of lines had already dissolved, the linear texture becoming lighter, airier, reminiscent of delicate textile fabrics, clouds, floating forms, almost intangible, indefinable in terms of their formal features, and always in communication with the free surfaces of the white paper. Here, the range extends from markedly terse and ephemeral forms such as in (Im)possibilities (2008), seemingly in danger of being blown away by the slightest breeze, up to the striking, energetic repetitions of forms so rich in association in Overlap #1 (2010)


Finally, I can extend this concept even further, since it could be taken as consisting in the faculty of orienting myself not merely in space, i. e. mathematically, but in thinking in general, i. e. logically. By analogy, one can easily guess that it will be a concern of pure reason to guide its use […].

Immanuel Kant

It is a sufficiently known fact that the notion of a universal reason such as Kant envisioned has nowadays—in the era of post-modernism, globalization, and post-colonialism—given way to a pluralism of rationality models and, in conjunction with this, an irreducible difference of lifestyle designs and notions of the world. In art, this reveals itself in the vast diversity of styles, in the simultaneousness of the most heterogeneous approaches, methods, media and intentions. What does it mean in this connection, to orient oneself in drawing? Nelleke Beltjens was born in 1974, five years before Jean-François Lyotard established the term “post-modern” as a concept that stood for an entire era and postulated the “end of grand narratives” (to which we must also reckon the “narratives” of orientation by means of pure reason and the utopias of the modern era such as, for example, the idea of a progress of art that consequentially takes place).4 The present social situation, which we can characterize with sociological catchwords such as “the new obscurity” (Habermas), the “frustration of certainty” (Zygmunt Bauman) or “hypercomplexity” (Peter Fuchs)5, is somehow reflected in every artistic approach that claims to being contemporary art. 

We might describe Complex as coming to grips with the complexity of life under today’s social and cultural conditions. The artist herself views it like this. After many years of grappling with (post)-minimalist sculptures, since the earliest time of her studies of art, it became a sheer necessity for her to devote all her efforts to confronting the overly complex reality with artistic means: “How can I keep making minimalist sculptures when life is so extremely complex? Even the seemingly simplest ‘thing’ is complex, and feeling it all is even more complex.”6 This is an interesting question we might counter with: Why then was it possible for you to do this earlier on? At the risk of overly schematizing the complicated relationships of artistic development, we can state that Nelleke Beltjens’s sculptures stand for the attempt to maintain the certainty of artistic creation within the framework of a personal assimilation and an elaboration of a modern understanding of art. The simplification of forms, repetition, and clearly executed lines are in keeping with the tradition of geometric abstraction and minimalism, i.e. a tradition that enjoys a strong position in the Netherlands where Nelleke Beltjens grew up and first attended art school. Departing from this notion as a firm and reliable basis, the sculptor used it as an opportunity for making subjective interventions within the framework of a fixed formal setting, e.g. by using unusual combinations of materials, experimenting with the effect of color by way of the pigmentation of the materials. The system of the lines of the sculptures is classic, being clear outlines that limit and define the sculptural volume, a volume that even when clearly deviating from the right angle, plainly refers back to the ideal form of the cube.

The Complex drawings in 2005 mark the beginning of a confrontation with the “frustration of the certainty” of a formal safeguarding and the search for possibilities of creation beyond all conventions and securities in a social and cultural situation that we may, for reasons of simplicity, refer to as late- or postmodern—or perhaps even more complicatedly, and therefore more fittingly, as post-postmodern.


Whatever the reasons were for the explosive breakout and virtually dramatic impression created by the Complex drawings, it was at any rate the consequence of a further artistic and intellectual development, which could—quite possibly—be susceptible to crises. It is interesting that such developments may become “somatic”: In 2005 the artist developed a violent allergic reaction against several materials she was used to working with as a sculptor. This was one of the reasons for a radical new beginning, which, after the minimalism of the sculptures, produced the “maximalism” of the Complex drawings with their excess of visual information. The drawings of this series confirm complexity but do not yet search for a new language of drawing that would allow for reducing complexity to the extent that it would show her a viable new path she could take for her future work.

After completely covering the drawing surface in Complex #5 that threatened to cause a formal “death by suffocation” to her drawing, it became necessary for Nelleke Beltjens to create free spaces for herself once again. Empty surfaces as spaces for thought and imagination—both for the artist herself as well as for the viewer—were to be established, not only on the macro level of the overall drawing, but already on the micro level in connection with forming the lines. For this, Nelleke Beltjens took recourse to a drawing technique she had already tried out in three small format works in 2003 during an artist residency at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire (USA), but which she initially did not pursue any further. By using an auxiliary paper aid, across whose edge she placed short pencil marks next to one another, she was able to draw lines consisting of positive and negative elements at the same time, of presence and absence. And this applies doubly since the edges of the papers she used to aid her in this bear a good 50% of the drawing like a storage element. By means of this drawing technique, which Nelleke Beltjens has continued to develop up to today, the drawings have taken on much more lightness and openness in comparison with Complex, heightened by the frequent use of optically lighter colors (mostly blue or green, sometimes also gray).

In terms of the formal material of these lines, Nelleke Beltjens finds herself on the cutting edge of today’s issues. The sociological and cultural situation of our late- or postmodern contemporary era is essentially marked by the fragmentation of the social systems (including the “art” system), by the heterogeneousness and complexity of all areas of life as well as by the increased mobility of people, goods, and information. By the way, speaking of mobility: It must be mentioned in passing that Beltjens’ drawings between 2005 and 2010 were done at extremely different locations such as ‘s-Hertogenbosch (The Netherlands), Ghent (Belgium), Chico (California), Bozeman (Montana), and Berkeley (California).

Fragmentation is the overriding principle of the drawings after Complex. The structure of lines has no longer anything to do with a firm definiteness. The staccato of the short successions of marks rather has a dynamic, rhythmic character. But not only on the basal level of the drawn lines, also in the overall design of the drawings, the fragmentary element is obvious. The works display split and fractured structures that may hardly be referred to as “forms”, and which have been heralded in the titles already as not being whole, as being fragmented, (Incomplete Completion). A title like Fragments of the Parts even indicates a fragmentation raised to the second power. What imaginary whole has been chopped up, its parts fragmented further, remains open. Here, as elsewhere in Beltjens’ drawings, wholeness no longer exists. In our perception of her works, there is no possible perspective anymore that would give us the impression of completeness. From a certain distance the forms seem like intangible, cloud structures. Coming closer, they disintegrate into an excess of individual information. Later series such as Apparently (2009) and Overlap (2010) are fragmented on the material level, pieces having been cut out of the paper, and then inserted into the sheet again, sometimes with no further treatment, or else they are cut up further, etc.—i.e., we witness here a fragmenta­tion of the fragments as well …


Again we pose the question: What does it mean under these circumstances: to orient oneself in drawing? It certainly does not mean to rely any longer on certainties in terms of form or content, whatever these may be. Orientation is something we must conceive of here as being dynamic, as an open process. This process consists of adding the simplest means that drawing, the medium of orientation, offers, namely that of making short, actually “meaningless” pen marks on paper, adding them up to form highly complex structures, (catchword: emergence), so that a dynamic structure results in the perception, which is able to capture and stimulate the viewer’s gaze and contemplation. In this process, fragmentation and complexity are consciously employed as absolutely contemporary characteristics, without this becoming an end in itself. They are accepted as conditions, under which the possibility of artistic activity may be newly discovered. The fact that these forms, which simply emerge rather than being consciously produced by the artist, are intangible both visually and in terms of their concept, and thus evade a clear definition, is wholly intentional. 


If we were to ask the artist for analogies for her notion of art, she would doubtlessly point towards music. As a matter of fact, all drawings come about while she listens to music. Listening to music is an indispensible condition of possibility for her works. The respective type of music she listens to influences the rhythmic structure of the marks, without it being “depicted” in any way. Therefore, it is also not important that we know what music accompanied which drawings. (Nevertheless, it is interesting to learn that Complex came about while listening to Beethoven and the densely wrought marks of Cluster (2010) react to the tablas of Indian percussionist Zakir Hussain.) To date, there is only one work that makes direct reference to the music she listened to during the production process: the two-part work Mahler Double (2010). After everything that has been said, it is not difficult to guess what characteristic of Gustav Mahler’s music it was that attracted the interest of the artist: “The complexity is his secret”, as composer and conductor Pierre Boulez has stated with respect to Mahler.7 

It seems to me, however, that analogies to the act of writing also exist in the drawing process of Nelleke Beltjens. The marks she makes have been placed along straight lines, like written words. Like with printed letters, empty spaces separate them from one another. The process of drawing is similar here to recording notes, albeit in a sense that is not literary, since there is no legibility. It is merely the material process of placing signs and the abstract writing down. In his book about the French writer Marguerite Duras, philosopher Marcus Steinweg pointed out the difference between literature and writing: “The difference between literature and writing is the difference between understandability and clarity. Literature aims for understandability, writing for clarity. (…) In writing the subject goes beyond the meaning, which makes it a self-surpassing subject.”8 We may certainly apply this statement to an artist who says of her work: “The ego creates constructions. The ego is what I want to surpass in my work. In a way I want to surpass myself, surpass the ‘small me’. Getting completely into my work (which doesn’t always happen, of course) makes me work within regions ‘unknown’, or more unconscious. I feel like this is where the true information sprouts.”9 This is why we may also claim about Nelleke Beltjens’ drawings something Yann Andréa stated about the writing of Marguerite Duras: “She is trying to touch something unnamed and unnamable”.10 


1 Immanuel Kant, What does it mean to orient oneself in

thinking? [1786], in: I. K., Religion in the Boundaries of

Mere Reason. And Other Writings. Edited by Allen Wood and George di Giovanni. Introduction by Robert Merrihew Adams, Cambridge/ New York 1998, p. 1-13;

the four mottoes p. 4, p.4, p. 5, p. 5.

2 Nelleke Beltjens in conversation with Peter Lodermeyer,

in: Peter Lodermeyer, Karlyn De Jongh & Sarah Gold,

Personal Structures: Time – Space – Existence, Cologne 2009, pp. 298-301; quote p. 300 and 301.

3 Verbal message, Ghent, July 2010.

4 Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition:

A Report on Knowledge [1979]. Tr. Geoff Bennington and

Brian Massumi. Minneapolis 1984, p. XXIII, XXIV.

5 Jürgen Habermas, The New Obscurity:

The Crisis of the Welfare State and the Exhaustion of Utopian

Energies. The New Conservatism. Cambridge 1989;

Zygmunt Bauman, Bauman, Postmodern Ethics,

Oxford 1993, p. 223; Peter Fuchs, Die Erreichbarkeit der

Gesellschaft. Zur Konstruktion und Imaginaton gesellschaftlicher

Einheit, Frankfurt a. M. 1992, p. 39 et sq.

6 Beltjens (footnote 2), p. 298.

7 Pierre Boulez, Mahler geht nur mit guten Orchestern,

Berliner Morgenpost, 5 June 2008.

8 Marcus Steinweg/Rosemarie Trockel, Duras,

Berlin 2008, p. 27.

9 Beltjens (footnote 2), p. 300.

10 Yann Andréa, Une solitude essentielle. Entretiens avec

Yann Andréa, in: Le Magazin Littéraire, N° 452, April 2006,

p. 51. Quoted here in: Steinweg (footnote 8), p. 36.