Pierre Vermeulen

0 8 . 0 7. 1 7  – 1 9 . 0 8 . 1 7

Cape Town

In his debut solo exhibition with SMAC Gallery, Pierre Vermeulen presents a series of prints and paintings on gold-leaf imitate. Each work, like the vibration of a Tibetan singing bowl, suggests a moment of meditation. Vermeulen’s work evidences his meticulous exploration of presence and impermanence. His practice operates within a conceptual framework that questions the importance of the artist as a ‘source’ of art, as well as the medium as an active agent in making. Vermeulen’s medium of choice is his own sweat and hair, his method of application is both imprinting and painting.

His use of this unorthodox material offers viewers a glimpse into his deep regard for what he calls “a cycle of growth and loss – and through this revolution – the acceptance of what is imperfect”. From Andy Warhol’s Oxidation series (1977) and Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ (1987) to Marc Quinn’s Self (1991 – present), Vermeulen’s use of his own body and it’s residue situate his practice among numerous artists and works in which the body is both the subject matter as well as the tool for image-construction.

Vermeulen takes direction from the materiality of his chosen mediums, his practice revolves around the physical materials and performative process. The final pieces displayed are a by-product of an interaction between the body and its residue

South African artist, Penny Siopis’ experiments with unusual painting materials, are also source of inspiration for Vermeulen. “The unorthodox offers an opportunity to open one’s self to the ‘life’ of non-human matter,” says Siopis, “and to find in this openness an intimate model for relationality in the bigger political picture of the self, of the social body, of ecology; a model that is full of risk and uncertainty.”

Vermeulen takes on this risk and uncertainty by using his body and it’s gestural abilities as the central component in the creation of his Sweat Print works. He manipulates the oxidisation process of the gold-leaf imitate by creating impressions of his sweating body, curled on the surface, in vulnerable positions. In an chemical reaction, Vermeulen’s sweat essentially oxidises the gold-leaf imitate, a process that is intuitively and patiently timed by the artist. Once he is satisfied with the visual result of his chemical operation, the resplendent surface is then neutralised to halt the oxidisation process. The result is a number of works that are not only rich in delicate gestural marks, but also display a large range of subtly rendered colour. This process serves as a form of meditation on the base desire of the egoic self, which seeks to leave a tangible mark of itself behind.

Using the idea of gold, rather than gold itself, Vermeulen touches on an expansive history of the material in visual art, culture, and contemporary notions of consumer values. It has been utilised in many forms of application, finding notable favour in the eyes of Austrian artist Gustav Klimt. The use of this precious metal peaked the interest of many Modern artists and continues to appear such as in the work of Louise Bourgeois and Yves Klein, whose gold body-prints on canvas were considered some of the most iconic works of his career. As Vermeulen is keenly aware, it is not without a conscious irony that this element is used in contemporary art. This new body of work makes clear reference to the nature of wealth and ownership.

Much like the body prints of Yves Klein, each work by Vermuelen invokes notions of performance art and politics of the body. The reflective lustre of the surface, interspersed with the tenuous corrosion of limbs, confronts the dichotomy between both ‘the presence and the absence of the artist’, and therefore by association, that of the viewers’.

Vermeulen’s painstakingly intricate hair orchids conjure up the erotic interpretations that plagued Georgia O’Keefe – despite denying them for over sixty years, theorists continue to ascribe this one-sided meaning to her flower paintings. This isn’t, however, a disputed implication when it comes to Vermeulen’s work. The orchids, comprising of sculpted bundles of the artist’s own hair – in all their abject, corporeal glory – create an acute awareness in viewers of their own bodies through the acknowledgment of the medium, whether or not they recognise the image of the flower and its relative associations. This shift, from the ‘unintentional’ or accidental print of a limb versus the very considered impression made by the ‘hair orchid’, can be interpreted as the shift between conscious and unconscious, or mind and body.

This solo exhibition in its entirety, could be seen as a space dedicated to the loss of self through the spiritual and physical shedding (hair), labour (and its resulting secretions), transience and stillness. Vermeulen’s Sweat Prints on gold-leaf imitate are a tonal sound-scape of vibrant minerals and remnants of being; objects carefully woven from human hair pursue the balanced Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi.

Vermeulen’s conscious limiting of his practice to two mediums allows him to focus his energy on subtle variation and study of both his subject matter and the materiality of each piece. This notion is extended toward the viewer, who in turn, is invited settle their mind, on this the artist references The Beauty of Wabi Sabi by Leonard Koren; “Beauty is seen in the withered, scarred, tarnished, earthly, intimate, tentative, evanescent and ephemeral. Dualisms are overcome where ugliness is a variety of beauty by being in a state of no-mind. Here, asymmetry and irregularity are cherished”.

View artist page: Pierre Vermeulen