Raoul de Keyser, who has been accorded the honour of a one-man exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, seems an unlikely candidate for elevation to the status of Significant Twenty-First Century Artist. A seventysomething Flemish painter from Deinze, near Ghent, his works are erratically various in subject and appearance. They are characterised by a whimsical blend of pastiche abstraction and direct reference to the ordinary things encountered in a small town in Belgium. Modest objects, dry to the point of parsimony in their facture (it might have been supposed that a Belgian would have been more open to the potential affinity of oil paint with mayonnaise) they are often composed from just a few simple forms. Their colours tend to grubby impurity, occasionally shading into outright murk. Draughtsmanship, perhaps wisely, is kept to a bare minimum, restricted to the odd fuzzed outline or impulsive patch of painterly scribble.
De Keyser was largely self-taught, having spent much of his early working career as an arts journalist and sports commentator. Reminiscences of those former occupations may be discerned both in his habits of reference to art history and in his subject matter. For example Ground, a self-consciously banal painting which was apparently in gestation for 24 years, between 1971 and 1995, resembles a diagram of a section of a football pitch, a bird’s-eye view running from the edge of one penalty area to the half-way line. Its title is presumably a pun, also alluding to those formalist debates about the nature of painting, and the relationship between figure and ground, which raged during the 1960s, the decade when de Keyser decided to become an artist.
To borrow a sporting metaphor, de Keyser’s recent success goes very much against the run of play. He is old, his work lacks shock value, and it is executed in the unfashionable medium of oil paint on canvas. Perhaps the appeal, to those who claim to discern his importance, lies precisely in the fact that such a stance seems so perversely counter-intuitive in the climate of today’s art world. For whatever reason, the particular think-tank of European curators responsible for de Keyser’s current retrospective – which will travel to France, Holland, Portugal and Switzerland, after its London showing – is prepared to make some fairly large claims on his behalf. The catalogue of the show is prefaced by a joint address, penned by the directors of the five museums playing host to the exhibition, in which it is intriguingly asserted that: “Raoul de Keyser is a painter who apparently reconciles the irreconcilable. He quietly synthesises painting as image and painting as object; he transmutes the minutiae of the view from a studio window, and the daily experience of life, into the realms of a profound aesthetic enquiry… his works are at the same time part of a wide-ranging, relentless and lifelong project that seeks to interrogate the very nature of painting; a project that has impacted across generations of European painters.”
The argument that de Keyser is a provocatively playful late modernist, a painter who “interrogates” painting itself while seeming to depict the mere banalities of life, looks suspiciously like an attempt to transmute ineptitude into irony. The painter himself attempts something similar in his early work, where he adopts the resourceful strategy of playing two styles of art, abstract and figurative, against one another. By turning the canvas into a battlefield where differing manners or approaches are set in ironic contrast to one another, he may have hoped, among other things, to disguise his failure to have acquired much competence in the handling of paint. Baron in an Al Held Field (1964-6) is the most blatant example of the tactic, consisting of a pastiche of one of the American abstract painter Al Held’s colour fields, a muddy mesh of yellows bisected by a jagged blue line, on to which has been absurdly smeared a splashy portrait of a puppy. Neither element of this schizophrenic dog’s-dinner of a painting has much to commend it, although there is a mild frisson of iconoclastic intent behind their juxtaposition. The young de Keyser’s revolt against the presumed purity of abstraction looks like a rebellion conducted at second-hand, inspired perhaps by the experience of flipping through the pages of Sixties copies of ArtForum or Art in America and realising that irreverence and impurity, thanks largely to the activities of the American Pop Artists, were very much the order of the day.
Quite a few of de Keyser’s paintings rework the styles and motifs of leading American abstractionists, but in ways that suggest either provincial misunderstanding or sheer contempt of their particular effects of scale, colour and touch. Heesterbeek (1978)resembles a flattened, unpleasantly mottled, domestically down-scaled version of a Barnett Newman “zip” painting. Tornado (1981), with its horizontal division of the canvas into black and white fields, recalls the late paintings of Mark Rothko, diminished in size and robbed entirely of their bleakly intense emotion. In a number of other works, de Keyser seemingly attempts to reconcile such borrowed mannerisms to his own experience. He paints the silhouetted forms of the monkey-puzzle tree outside his studio window in stark, black-on-white canvases that plainly derive from the Abstract Expressionist pictures of Franz Kline. Or he paints pastiches of geometric abstraction, pictures composed of wonky abutting rectangles of colour which turn out – to judge by the photographs of the inside of de Keyser’s house reproduced in the catalogue – to have been inspired by the walls and spaces of his own home.
Although de Keyser looks to other artists constantly for inspiration, there is something inward-looking about his art, which tends increasingly to a form of knowing obscurantism. From his more recent years there are spatter paintings which vaguely resemble parchment inscribed with an unreadable language; pictures of impenetrable flatness which suggest curtains drawn against prying eyes; and a picture consisting entirely of green stripes like slats and ironically entitled Clarity, which seems to have been inspired by the motif of a closed venetian blind. De Keyser’s art is certainly varied, but its variety is like that of a scrapbook: one thing after another but nothing, in itself, of any great power or interest. In the context, his paintings come across as the slight relics of a magpie-like and painfully introverted sensibility, set afloat in a bath of rhetoric.
Presumably in an attempt to prove the thesis that de Keyser’s work has “impacted across generations of European painters”, his Whitechapel retrospective has been arranged to coincide with an ancillary exhibition of work by younger British painters. Their art is not necessarily supposed to have been influenced, directly, by his. Rather, it is presented as a miscellany of manifestations of the zeitgeist which he has helped to shape. “Edge of the Real” is the title of this exhibition, although it is not really an exhibition in its own right but more of a one-room appendix to the de Keyser retrospective, with each of the artists included represented by a solitary work. Quite what this show actually proves is moot. Andrew Grassie exhibits a triptych of photo-realist paintings documenting the creation, framing and photographing of a painting – a fairly standard academic exercise in self-reference. Nigel Cooke shows a sub-Daliesque surreal sci-fi landscape inhabited by a droopy diagrammatic human brain. Gary Hume contributes Wheel, an aluminium tondo decorated with a rectangle of bright green gloss. Callum Innes, ever the immaculate aesthete, exhibits a delicate painting of veils and stains of colour which, despite its ultimate blandness, at least has the virtue of putting de Keyser’s ineloquent touch and botched sense of scale and colour into context. Between them, these two mediocre exhibitions cannot really be said to say very much about the state of contemporary painting. But they do perhaps suggest that most contemporary curators are now so unused to looking at and thinking about painting, as a medium of art, that they find it almost impossible to tell the good from the bad and the ugly.