Prof. Jan Dirk Baetens about Stefan Annerel
It’s like standing with your nose against the wall. You can see the wall, yet at the same time you can’t. You can see its colour, its structure, but the wall itself remains hidden. This brings to mind another situation: it’s possible to focus so hard on something, that you no longer know what you are focussing on—the image in your mind does not become clearer, rather it tends to become blurred. It’s like when you concentrate very hard on a particular thought, and as a result you lose it, like it detaches itself from you. Actually, blurriness need not be the contrary of clarity: it can also be an extension of clarity—an emphatic clarity that results from an utterly consequent form of thinking that causes the clarity to evaporate.
A similar structure underlies the art of Stefan Annerel (b. 1970). Annerel isolates motifs he borrows from everyday images (advertisement photographs, patterns of textiles,… i.e. all sorts of images trouvées) and blows them up to such a size that they are no longer recognisable. Or rather: to such a size that they just become unrecognisable, because looking at these images amounts to balancing between seeing and not seeing, to anticipating the slight shock of sudden recognition, which, however, usually does not follow—but only just. Annerel’s images are like words that are on the tip of one’s tongue. And there they stay, eluding us. It’s like being almost happy, because we almost overcome a failing memory.
But in Annerel’s game of knowing and recognizing, the stakes are much higher. The fundamental issue in this instance, is how art relates to reality—how the image relates to the object that is being depicted. It’s about the illusion that causes fiction and reality to merge seamlessly.
There are, however, two types of illusions. There is the illusion that relates to reality: the trompe l’œil, the illusion which deceives the senses and which makes it possible for a work of art (say, a painting) to claim to be something real instead of something artificial. A landscape painting pretends to be a landscape, but actually it merely consists of pigments on canvas. An abstractly formulated idea is not the idea, but its expression.
Annerel is only indirectly preoccupied with this sort of illusion. But at the heart of his work, there is a strange paradox that is indeed important: the more something resembles reality, the greater the illusion; the more successful the work emulates reality, the more successful its artificiality—i.e. the more it distinguishes itself from reality. Like you want to look at a wall from a short distance.
An illusion that belongs to the second category does something with this paradox. It is an illusion that not only relates to reality, but also to itself, to its deceptive qualities. Self-conscious, it refers to the tense relation between that which seems to be and that which really is. It glosses itself as illusion. And Annerel’s illusions precisely belong to this category. Their deceptiveness does not simply reside in their pretending to be something they are not—it is total.
Annerel’s works present themselves as shiny and transparent, but actually they are cunning and shrewd. They pose as abstract works of art; their link with reality, which is founded on illusions, therefore seems less strong—and consequently less problematic. Actually, the works are blow-ups of details from reality. (Annerel’s use of the diminutive term “scale-models” to refer to his work is yet another form of deception.) Though this move may seem to bring the work closer to reality, it is neutralized by yet another strategy: by borrowing his motifs from existing images and photographs, the artist creates a sort of in-between level—an extra step that once more distances the work from reality. In this way, art and reality are engaged in a constant play of attraction and repulsion, a game that is even intensified by our hesitating between recognition (the belief in the illusion of that which is depicted) and near recognition (i.e. the recognition of the material art work as such).
The element of craftsmanship is equally important. Annerel carefully constructs his works: he copies the motifs with paint and tape, which he applies in various layers on the canvas, with layers of transparent resin between them. In this way, he creates depth—not an illusory depth that results from line or colour perspective, but a real, almost tangible depth. Yet once more we are immediately confronted with the question what is true and what is illusion, as the smoothly polished finishing layer strips them of their tactility and thus negates their depth. In other words, the traditional pictorial illusion is reversed: whereas the ordinary figurative painting is essentially two-dimensional but tries to create an illusion of three-dimensionality, these works bring about the opposite effect—the works have a real, literal depth, but create the illusion of being flat.
Annerel’s entire oeuvre engages in this deceptive play of fact and fiction. Stripes of colour or small details seem be on top of other elements, but actually they are underneath. The question of what is true and what is fabricated thus no longer relates to reality, but to its representation—to the image itself. Other areas seem to be made with tape, but are actually colour fields that skilfully imitate tape: the artist no longer represents reality, but rather the material with which he creates his illusions. In this way, the illusion itself becomes the object of the illusion: deception deceived.
Sometimes the artist uses small, traditional works of art as a support: paintings, ceramics, even embroideries, which he tapes over and paints over, till his own images almost entirely cover the original. This is not a form of iconoclasm, but simply part of the same play: the reality that we view through these images—just as we view it through the illusion—does not turn out to be reality itself, but another fiction, another representation of reality.
Annerel’s works never are what they seem and never seem what they are. The illusion we are confronted with, are not the usual illusions, but emulated illusions: they are visual double entendres that relate to themselves, glossy glosses that refer back to themselves.
Oooit Art organized an Exhibition with Stefan Annerel and Sang Huoyau: Color Matters in Nantang, Wenzhou, P.R. China.