WALTER VAN OEL
The apex of Walter van Oel’s colours are silver and gold. But they are not colours in the traditional sense of the word; they are instead, as the artist is well aware, pure energy. “What colours are there in temples? he asks, before answering: “Silver and gold, the channels of sacred energy. Bright silver is the most laden with energy,” he adds,“but to fully grasp the power of its light, one has to first understand gold and its power. And before mastering the power of gold, one has to master the palette of ordinary colours.” Walter van Oel’s juggling with colours, tones, grading, light is indeed unprecedented. Some paintings rest on absolute contrast; others are simple variations of light and figurative shadows on a monochrome background. “But such differences in visual language don’t matter,” explains the artist, “as long as the ‘inner form’ is similar.”
“Genuine creativity is always ‘religious,’” he says. And he takes Picasso as a typical example: “In his best works, Picasso was undoubtedly irrigated by the flowing river of cosmic energy. He claimed to be atheist, but the energy thrust of those paintings belie him. He was ‘religious’ in the deepest sense of the word.” Having said that, what about Van Oel’s own works? It suffices to look at the oval figure mentioned above and feel the force and energy that radiates from it.
Thus we have in Van Oel a Western artist, trained in modernist techniques, who is questioning the value system that has shaped him. But, instead of being “critical” of Western society with the usual tools of Western art (as, among others, many conceptual and installation artists do) he chooses to put himself outside, to adopt the spiritual symbolism of the Hindu-Buddhist world of South and East Asia. He visited China; he now lives in Bali. He has found in those places spiritual concepts and symbols that, to him, are badly lacking in the West. In particular, the notion of cosmic energy and eternal cosmic movement; the need, too, for people to live in harmony with cosmic forces and hence, to give up the anthropocentric attitude that is so damaging to human survival. He views himself, in this context, as a medium, a channel for those cosmic forces. This is something new.
Western art, even during its most spiritual moments, has never paid attention to such issues. Its spiritualism has been that of Christianity, with its well-defined set of characters and related themes of sacrifice and salvation. But it has never dealt with cosmic issues. Even when artists like Kandinsky, Mondrian or Tobey claimed to be inspired by spiritual concerns, this spiritualism never founded their art, from which all symbolism is absent. On the contrary, Van Oel’s figures are purposely organized in such a way as to evoke cosmic Asian symbols or icons.
In spite of the above, and even though he refers to Asian concepts and occasionally uses Chinese-looking characters to structure the compositions of his paintings, Van Oel’s works remain Western. His work may convey cosmic energy, but they are analytically organized; they expose form and color, and do not try to synthesize them in the way Chinese and Japanese painters and calligraphers do. He may borrow ideas, colours and symbols from Asia, yet he still structures those elements in a way that is deeply European. And from a European perspective, Van Oel fills a thematic gap in Western art, that of cosmic symbolism, and does so in an innovative way, by broadening the range and nuances of colour.
He bemoans what has become of the West, the paucity of social bonds, the loss of spirituality. His answer: to go away and seek new shores, both in his life and in his work. He now lives in Bali in the mansion of his dreams, where he also keeps his studio. Although he returns to Europe a couple of times a year for contacts and exhibitions, he is definitely part of the Indonesian art world, with works in the collections of many of the country’s tycoons. In those collections, he is the odd man out. It is he, the Westerner, whose works deal with natural energy, cosmos, infinite immensity; and they, the Easterners, whose works speak of politics, social landscapes, issues of modernity. As if the world were upside down. As if the East were becoming Western, and the West, Eastern.
But Van Oel is not mistaken. It is not the East he is after, it is spirituality of a novel, a-religious and hence universal type, one that may enable humans to live in closer harmony with nature and themselves. His cosmic symbolism is not passé, but ahead of its time. Instead of dwelling on the skepticism of the contemporary West, Van Oel looks ahead, to suggest new ways out in a return to the spiritual. Let us recall here that the art critic Pierre Restany, one of the gurus of late-modernism in art, probably horrified by what had become of Conceptual Art, already forecasted in the 1980s the unavoidable return of spirituality in 21st century Western and international art. Van Oel is making this prediction come true.
Jean Couteau, writer and art critic