‘Little marathons’: First retrospective of master of gradation art in Leuven


For his first big solo show, painter Pieter Vermeersch constructed a personal utopia, a tranquil space of ephemeral colour gradations and architectural elements

One man, three shows

Flemish painter Pieter Vermeersch is dominating the local art scene at the moment, with no less than three shows running: at the Greta Meert and Maniera galleries in Brussels – the first is his home base, the second one of Europe’s leading design art venues – and at Museum M in Leuven, which is hosting his first big solo exhibition.

This is good news; Vermeersch has unfairly remained in the shadow of the more famous Flemish painters, such as Michaël Borremans and Luc Tuymans. That might be due to his practice.

Vermeersch creates paintings of pure colour gradation, where colours gradually transition. Many of his works are site specific and thus ephemeral. Despite its simple look, it is not the easiest, nor the most accessible, of art forms.

The Leuven exhibition is a 20-year retrospective. “Throughout the years, I’ve pondered different courses for my work,” he says. “One of them is abandoning the canvas and projecting the painting onto architectural spaces. Architecture becomes the canvas.”

‘Too functional’

Vermeersch has painted a variety of gradually transitioning colours on the museum’s walls and added brick walls to the space, creating a simple but effective interior landscape. “Architecture has always fascinated me,” he explains. “I was about four years old when I piled up some bricks to build my first wall. Later on, I thought about studying architecture, but it was too functional for me. That was a complete nightmare.”

His own architecture is devoid of function and stripped down to the bare essence: dividing space. To emphasise this, he uses rather banal material such as fly ash bricks to build his architectural installations. “If you were to strip down architectural structures, you would bump into these materials.”

The exhibition is “my personal little cosmos,” says Vermeersch, “where one can wander through.” His pieces suck you right in like a Rothko, transcending thought or philosophy. The viewer experiences pure stillness. He’s trying to make visible “the abstract dimensions of time and space,” he says, “and represent the essential ‘being’.”

Because you have to blend the fields while the paint is still wet, it has to be done in one day. It takes about 18 hours

- Pieter Vermeersch

Once could call Vermeersch the master of gradation painting. It started in 2001 when he was creating a show at Koraalberg gallery in Antwerp. “I painted the surfaces of the window display in one colour. The sun shining through the window rendered a beautiful gradient on the opposite wall.”

Since then, Vermeersch, who splits his time between Brussels and Turin, has been reproducing the experience. Using abstract photography as a starting point, he paints a representation of what manifested itself on that wall.

Up until then, he also used photography as a source, but created realistic painting from it. “The photography is still there, but the final image has changed,” he says. “In fact, I’m still just representing photos.”

Deceptively simple

Painting gradations is extremely difficult. A 25-metre-long wall at Museum M shows a gradient from white to blue and is divided into vertical strips of twenty centimetres, each painted in a slightly different tone.

“Once they’re applied, I blend the strips before they’re dry,” he explains. It’s a technique called wet-on-wet, and he uses a similar technique for his works on canvas and marble, dividing the frame into a grid of about 50 rectangles of slightly different colours.

“Because you have to blend the fields while the paint is still wet, it has to be done in one day. It takes about 18 hours. These paintings are little marathons.”

Marble is the actual crystallisation of time and space, a physical representation of millions of years

- Pieter Vermeersch

In the exhibition, pieces of marble are only partly painted, with at least half untouched. This is Vermeersch’s way of interrupting the gradient, thus breaking down his own perpetual vision.

“With these pieces I want to pull that transitory sense of time and space back to reality,” he says. “Marble is a good carrier for that because it is the actual crystallisation of time and space, a physical representation of millions of years. Marble is the most expressive visualisation of a timeline.”

Marble is also nature’s canvas, its patterns the result of millions and millions of accidents that occurred within the layers of soil over an enormous period of time. In several other marble paintings, Vermeersch revamps that narrative by adding his own “accident” to its history: a few touches of paint.

“Life is an accumulation of accidents,” he states. Adding his to eons of history might seem arrogant. But Vermeersch adds just a few spots, leaving 99% of the marble untouched. He doesn’t want to overpower it, he explains. “I want to glorify it.”