Normal and Other Miseries, John C. Welchman (2017)

Four faces, two in profile, two almost frontal, all drawn in graphite after Philippe Vandenberg’s wife, are floating in the shape of a skewed square or diamond, linked together by lengths of pencilled thorny briar. Their ground is a loosely brushed, snowy white arena that extends, unevenly, to almost the very edge of the cotton support. Here, ribbons and swathes of darker underpainting are revealed, some mottled with blood. The mouths of the faces are agape, thereby exposing the barbed fronds that weave in and out of the orifices and, at times, appear to merge with teeth or tongue. How can we adjudicate between the broadside of messages that we confront in this work – questions that turn on intimacy, domestic relations, repetition, recurrence and circularity, dependency and enunciation –  and which are conflated, quite literally, with an undertow of violence?

Vandenberg’s title cuts us no slack. La misère de jour is a phrase that combines several nuances in English: ‘the misery of the day’, ‘daily misery’, ‘the miserableness of daytime’. La misère de jour III, 1996-1999 [Fig. 1], also reveals that this is the sequel to a prior bout of diurnal misery, one of the artist’s many modes of doubling down, in lockstep with the inexorable. The emotional disposition at stake seems to be compounded from several European formations of misery, though reducible to none. These include the self-reflexive alienations of mid-twentieth century Existentialism, such as Francis Ponge’s definition of ‘Man – and man alone’, offered in a 1951 essay on the sculptures and paintings of Alberto Giacometti, who, ‘reduced to a thread – in the dilapidation, and misery of the world (…) searches for himself – starting from nothing.’ (i) The trope of threads, rendered physically in the emaciation of Giacometti’s figures, carries over into Vandenberg’s briars, and for both artists the congregational clustering of persons amplifies that aspect of linearity given over to twisting, turning and clamping down in a disquisition on the hard embedding of relationality per se. Yet the younger artist’s commitments cannot be identified so readily with a questing selfhood activated by overcoming the void.

Georges Bataille’s more desolate formulations locate the domain of misery within the ‘passive expanses of nature’. For him, it was ‘untouchable and unnameable (…) soiled and impure in the strong sense of the terms’. (ii) Vandenberg is clearly heir to the struggle with elemental modes of tactility and nomination, as attested by the confoundingly wretched entanglement of tongues, teeth, lips and throat in La misère de jour. But he does not espouse the notion of a generalised ‘impurity’ that is predicated upon the deep passivity of abjection, or certainly not in the ‘strong sense’. That he demurs from the pure negation of absolute misery can be explained, in part at least, by his interest in other orders of miserable experience, including what in 1986 Gerhard Richter termed the ‘normal misery’ (iii) of a painter’s technical choices; but, equally, Nietzsche’s contrarian suggestion that misery ‘preserves the happy man’. (iv)

Articulated in arenas replete with signs and traces of communicative exchange, Vandenberg’s paintings can be deep and bleak, but they are remorselessly situational. They offer a visual release for the conditions of exchange while simultaneously ruining its method. We are beset by incompletion and failure. Language falls, is stuttered, or cut. Signs are found or announced, then morphed into a virtuoso assemblage of imagistic and conceptual metaphors. But where do they end up? Perhaps as swastika patterns, floral attributes or disembodied heads. One issuance of every avenue becomes a form of cul-de-sac. And yet the work is about avenues – as zones of consolidated flow, on the one hand, but also as cord, rope and line, on the other; all specific binding agents that come together – unwittingly or violently – with or without their objects. Vandenberg’s avenues are distribution systems for gross communication; and he an exile in the forms of a superconducting network concocted from the specificity, burden and weight of certain objects, first miniaturised as nodes, then finally eviscerated.

Language itself can figure as a prison-house in the rectilinear and cage-form declension of words inscribed like bars across the pictorial surface. These arrangements posit a sense of confinement: what lies within and beyond the bar-like letters, to what conditions of interiority and exteriority do they refer? They also generate a sense of ‘to and from’, the rudiments of a transmissive scene configured in nodal points and the pulses (of information) that move between them. Other works in the exhibition also bear witness to the elasticity of the nodal forms envisaged by Vandenberg. The diamond shape that defines the arrangement of the threaded heads in La misère de jour III is recast as a lattice of lozenge-like forms in No title, ca. 2007-2008 [Fig. 2] – a chain-link fence that stands behind a scaffolding of letters – ’Kill All of Them’ – themselves elongated, reiterative and recombinant. It recurs in the space created by the legs and genitals of the prone figures in La petite incestueuse, 2000-02 [Fig. 3], where wavy lines of brambles issue from the sexual organs of a mother and daughter.

Wife, wife, wife, wife. Or wife, mother, lover, friend. Or a mother’s two legs and a daughter’s two legs. Head nodes, vaginal nodes, toe-to-toe nodes. Relational nests tinged by love, desire and conflict, birth and death, abandonment and responsibility. Perhaps Nietzsche put it best when he contemplated living in that space of ‘sinful happiness’ confirmed by misery: ‘To spend one’s life amid delicate and absurd things; a stranger to reality; half an artist, half a bird and metaphysician; with no care for reality, except now and then to acknowledge it in the manner of a good dancer with the tips of one’s toes.’ (v)

Fig. 1 Philippe Vandenberg, La misère du jour III, 1996-1999, Acrylic, blood and pencil on cotton, 135 x 174,5 cm

Fig. 2 Philippe Vandenberg, No title, ca. 2007-2008, Oil on canvas, 130 x 62 cm

Fig. 3 Philippe Vandenberg, La petite incestueuse, 2001-2002, Oil and charcoal on cotton, 84x110 cm


i. Francis Ponge, ‘Reflexions sur les statuettes, figures et peintures d’Alberto Giacometti’, Cahiers d’Art, Paris, 1951; trans. in Art in Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas [2nd Edition], ed. Charles Harrison and Paul J. Wood (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002), p. 615.
ii. Georges Bataille, Œuvres complètes (Paris: Gallimard), Vol. 2, Écrits posthumes, 1922–1940, p. 230, 224; cited in Rodolphe Gasché, ‘The Heterological Almanac’, in On Bataille: Critical Essays, ed. and trans. Leslie Anne Boldt-Irons (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995), p. 180, 166.
iii. See Gerhard Richter, ‘Interview with Benjamin Buchloh’, trans. Stephen Duffy, in Roald Nasgaard and I. Michael Danoff, Gerhard Richter: Paintings (exhibition catalogue), Chicago: Museum of Contemporary Art, and Toronto, Ontario: The Art Gallery (London and New York, 1988), p. 19-29; reprinted in Art in Theory 1900-2000, p. 1039.
iv. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, trans. Walter Kaufman, ed. Kaufman and R.J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage, 1968), Book Four: ‘Discipline and Breeding’, section 1039 (March-June 1888), p. 535.
v. Ibid.