Reflections unfolding: Thoughts on the work of Maartje Blans

By Manuela Lietti

The tendency towards conceptual art that gained momentum since Duchamp’s Fountain in 1917 and fully developed in the 1960s was the visual manifesto of an epoch in which artists either advocated an analytical approach to art, or like in the case of Andy Warhol’s Factory celebrated the idea of studio as assembly. At that time most of the artists were consciously defining themselves against the manuality of their forebearers. As Sol LeWitt wrote in his seminal text Paragraphs on Conceptual Art: “When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair.” Therefore the process of making gradually became alienated from the field of artistic creation, and the dichotomy between the artist’s hand and brain was vigorously yet unquestionably emphasized, if not even pursued. For long, artists relying on their own craftsmanship for the execution of an artwork were labeled as mere artisans, unable to push the boundaries of their creation beyond the limits of the tangible. On this basis, embracing a conceptual approach was conceived as the only path towards innovation.

Such a definite supremacy of the mental over the manual dimension seems not to touch upon the body of work of Dutch artist Maartje Blans who draws her inspiration from the unpredictable nature of the manual process required to create an artwork, and patiently investigates its effects and reverberations directly onto her work. Trained as a visual artist and theatre designer in The Netherlands and in the USA, Blans has always been naturally inclined to rely on her own craftsmanship, being a true artifex, able to switch between the roles of master craftsman and artist with great ease. It is not a chance occurrence that she has made craftsmanship become a major aspect of her modus operandi, boldly incorporating it into her works that span different media, from painting to installation art, and put forth a new approach synthesizing the two above-cited genres in a visually compelling way.

Most of the works of Blans are “unusual” paintings endowed with a highly sculptural nature: White wooden panels on which either alluring abstract forms (Fleeting) or stylized human figurines (Dancing Figures) made of transparent material, fabric, and sometimes painted in black ink stand as on a stage waiting to be activated by the light, be it natural or artificial. Once projected onto the artwork, the light reveals the existence of a secret world hidden just beneath the surface of the visible and physical dimension. The viewer is thus intrigued by the existence of multiple layers encapsulated within the works of Blans, both from a physical and ontological point of view. The first layer visible is the actual scene dominating the outer surface of the piece with its physicality and illuminated by natural light: The realm of reality perceived and recorded by the viewer’s eye, unveiled even to the casual observer. The second layer corresponds to a more secluded dimension, disclosed within and at the same time thanks to the presence of the empty spaces left on the wooden boards employed and that become alive only under certain lighting conditions. This dimension is the site where the ethereal shadows projected by the physical shapes portrayed in the piece intermingle with each other and merge with the inward reflections produced by the viewer’s eye of the mind: It is the point where the mental and the physical converge. Under these conditions, only the attentive and willing viewer does undergo a process leading him beyond the limits of the visible. By contemplating a work endowed with evocative rather than mimetic qualities, the observer engages into a process of inspection that soon leads towards unexplored emotional yet physical realms. These latter ones are characterized by aleatoric forms whose subtle changes are related to the outer spatial conditions but also to the inner disposition of the viewer who will see or perceive as much as he will allow himself to. Therefore, Blans’ works find their ultimate reason for being in the gaze of the beholder that completes them and, from a certain point of view, even undermines the possibility of a unique, preferential visual solution.

The use of virtuosic yet extemporaneous lines to shape images along with the insightful intermingling of full and empty spaces in artworks like Two Lives and Fleeting conveys a sense of rhythm to the compositions and bears affinities to the iconography of traditional Chinese painting. Like in the best examples of this genre, taken in high consideration by the artist who has chosen China as her second home, also in Blans’ pieces the void rises to a dynamic role being far more than a mere backdrop, a non-space or the site of emptiness: It is the crucial element allowing movement and action, both physically and psychically. By being complementary to the solid sculptural parts in the composition, the void creates a ground for experience, a space for one to live in, and to loose oneself within. The powerful connection between the filled and the empty spaces is made possible by the particular use of a comprehensive visual vocabulary made of fabric, thread, transparent material, sand, tree branches rooted once again in Blans’ enamourement with the feeling conveyed by each specific material. Despite their extreme concreteness, each of these elements vividly grasps and puts forth the transient nature of all natural phenomena, their fragility and temporariness.

In this way, Blans’ works invite the viewer to confront not just what lies bare in front of one’s eyes, but also what lies beyond the physical limits of the gaze. They are visual reminders of the fact that what one sees is a fragment of a larger continuum perceivable both physically and psychically.

Manuela Lietti is an independent art writer, critic and curator based in Beijing since 2003. In 2003, she graduated from the Department of Oriental Studies of Venice University, completing her bachelor degree thesis on contemporary Chinese art. Then in 2007, she received her Master's in Chinese History of Art and Art Criticism from the Academy of Art and Design of Tsinghua University, Beijing. Since 2003 she has been involved in various projects in China and abroad as a curator, coordinator, researcher and writer.