The Art Couch#8

Johan Van Oeckel
The seduction of pure form
How do we look for anchors in a secularised world? Some look to spirituality, others see a role for art in making the sacred principles of existence visible. Johan Van Oeckel's ambitions are probably not that conscious. Still, with his purified work he manages to find a meditative frequency that brings an oasis of cerebral calm in an over-stimulated world.
At first glance, Johan Van Oeckel's work fits easily into the tradition of non-objective art. A visual language that does not make use of the figurative but of geometric and conceptual abstraction. An extremely subtle exploration of surfaces, shapes, lines, colours and textures until you obtain a harmonious and aesthetically attractive image. It is minimalism that charmed him with so many pioneers he discovered during his studies in Advertising Design and Experimental Atelier at Sint-Lukas Brussels. For days on end, he would pore over theoretical books in the library, searching for his own voice as an artist, only to feel that he resonated most with figures such as Ellsworth Kelly, Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd, Jo Delahaut, Blinky Palermo and many others whose emphasis is on cleverly conceived ideas rather than on organically evolving.
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Johan Van Oeckel's work, however, contains an interesting twist. Whereas classical abstraction usually involves a reduction of reality - think of Mondrian - this artist does it the other way round: he takes a pure form and loads it with information. He starts from nothingness, from the totally indeterminate and meaningless, and builds up from there. Rectangular areas of colour are given indentations that are folded over, creating an elegant dance between rigid and curved forms, a rhythmic puzzle that combines hard and soft, indulgent and decided.
These are technically strong works that require a sharp stylistic eye and a very skilful hand in terms of form. They are not just experiments, they are conducted by a rigid conductor who keeps all the parameters neatly in line. But there is more. An important protagonist in the work of Johan Van Oeckel is colour. Colour as a carrier of meaning, colour as a carrier of a certain timeframe, colour that breathes information. When Van Oeckel chooses green, it is not just any green, it is green that silently tells a lot about a certain style period, that transports the viewer to the past without him noticing. Colour, like smell, is an ideal vehicle to transport us instantly to a time we had forgotten, to bring us to an unconscious memory at lightning speed.
The works have no titles - that would generate too much extra information - but use colour codes. The colour says enough, almost more than a minimalist work can bear. It is this subtle balancing act that the artist constantly has to perform in his studio, between too little and too much, in order to arrive at just enough. Also in his works in wood, with the same incisions, this restraint provides the extra strength: the structure of the wood already tells enough, and by leaving out all the redundancy it becomes exceptionally expressive.
By using form and colour as the ultimate bearers of meaning, Johan Van Oeckel reaches for principles beyond the visible. If you immerse yourself in the basic laws of the visual arts and throw all representative things overboard, you arrive at a silent space that is timeless and can be found anywhere and everywhere. At the same time, one suddenly touches upon fundamental structures and dynamics that are also valid in other areas of life, such as in language, mathematics and music. Ratio and emotion, order and chaos, stagnation and agitation always and everywhere present themselves as threads.   
What Johan Van Oeckel creates in that universal space are gifts. Eye candy, to put it irreverently, but perhaps rather visual enjoyment, the same as a gourmet meal for the tongue - images that refresh and even heal a little. With each work, the artist hands you a personal icon, something that you may appropriate entirely, something that is yours and remains with you, because you are the one who gives it content, because it is not grafted onto the external world and is therefore unchangeable.
You may drown in Johan Van Oeckel's highly vibrating sun yellow or fifties cyan blue, until you reach a meditative point in yourself, where you find a connection with something that resonates and heals something deep. You may also carry it around with you, like a dose of sacred geometry that you can use whenever you feel the need. This makes Johan Van Oeckel a giver. He does not force, he does not impose anything. He creates a free, sovereign experience for the viewer - generous and dedicated.
This is only possible because, as an artist, he remains true to the 'pure idea'. As in the music of Morton Feldman, there is no working towards a climax here. There is no beginning and no end, there is no progression in the work. The trajectory is not made visible or more painterly interesting - lines, matter and layers are deliberately absent. Every painting or screen print by Johan Van Oeckel says "I am" instead of "I become".
And yet more temporality creeps in than is intended. Not only does the colour refer to a specific moment in the past, but each work naturally absorbs the energy of its maker and the moment at which it was made. This results in an interesting field of tension, which means that Johan Van Oeckel's objective - striving for pure form and colour - is always in danger of failing somewhat.
In his sculptural work and installations, he plays this out further, challenging his own premises. For example, he tries to transform screen prints into 3D work, so that it seems as if this abstract work is suddenly a representation of the sculpture. He takes us from abstraction to figuration and back again - thus creating a stalemate in his own artistic discourse.
Johan Van Oeckel remains resolute in following his own path, but is not afraid to have his course altered by advancing insight and research. As a result, his work promises to remain fascinating and to inexhaustibly question its own starting points. He is an abstract artist who draws the playing field much wider than he initially intended. The side effect for the viewer is a visual language that refreshes, surprises and produces new types of energetic symbols.
Annelies Vanbelle, April 2021
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