A NEW ALCHEMY
Mark Rothko could translate his emotions into paint and then transform that paint into tears. Or at least, he firmly believed that he could. “The people who weep before my pictures”, he once said in an interview, “are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point.” In the work of Frank Ammerlaan, in contrast, this process seems to be reversed. Although his subtly fluid, cloudlike swirls of color are sometimes reminiscent of Rothko or other Abstract Expressionists, Ammerlaan does take a special interest in questions such as the potential of his materials, the effect of color, the suggestion of time and space, and above all, the tension between the presence of physical matter and the suggestion of an ephemeral experience. While Rothko and his ilk saw a painting as a launching pad for a voyage to higher spheres, Ammerlaan prefers to explore how the launch itself takes place. In this sense, Ammerlaan is a classical modernist, but one who takes an interest in the effect of his experiments, in the indefinite, and even in religion. The difference is that, unlike Rothko, he has no wish to delimit those vistas. No tears for Ammerlaan, but the indeterminate and infinite.
Ammerlaan’s approach to painting may stem in part from his training, prior to his painting studies at Amsterdam’s Rietveld Academie, as a furniture maker. There he learned not only to take an interest in technique, but also to visualize furniture before making it, with the help of technical drawings that indicated three-dimensional form entirely through lines. An illusion, in other words – yet it pointed the way to a very real object and a very real experience. That mode of reasoning is still visible in Ammerlaan’s art.
It begins with the technical basis of his work. Ammerlaan decided years ago that each of his paintings should be painted in a single attempt, one sustained effort, and consist of a single layer. The attempt may take some time (as much as fifteen hours, until the paint becomes too thick), but the one-session limit is absolute. The only liberty that Ammerlaan permits himself afterwards is to decide whether the painting is good enough to leave his studio as a finished “work.” Through this emphasis on time—on the deliberate intensification of the creative process, the time needed to produce a painting, and the question of whether an artist can still come to rational decisions under that kind of time pressure—Ammerlaan forges conscious connections to many currents in early conceptual painting. Take, for instance, On Kawara’s date paintings, which also had to be completed in a single day. Or the lyrical abstract “slide paintings” of the Dutch artist Rob van Koningsbruggen, who made them in the early 1970s by covering two canvas with paint and then sliding one over the other. During this process, he could not see what was happening to the paint. For Van Koningsbruggen, too, every painting had just one chance. That made the moment of creation highly charged and underscored the uniqueness of that moment—as if making a painting were like setting off fireworks.
The finest example of this theme in Ammerlaan’s work is the red-and-black diptych Stigmata (2014): two almost identical works on canvas. By making an exact copy of a piece that was, in conceptual terms, the result of a unique creative outburst at a unique moment, Ammerlaan raises the question of what the uniqueness of the act and the moment actually signify. And that earthbound, modernistic reflection clashes starkly with the seemingly lyrical, Rothko-like associations evoked by his clouds of color. It’s as if Ammerlaan both cherishes a kind of abstract, romantic lyricism and, at the same time, undermines it almost viciously.
The link to his furniture-making background is even more directly manifest in the thread constructions that he regularly uses on his canvases. Ammerlaan says he began working with thread because a painted straight line seemed too subjective, too arbitrary. Only by making two pinholes in the canvas and connecting them with thread could he create a line that represents mathematical truth—and therefore creates a kind of dissonance, both with the illusionistic spatial construction of which it is a part, and with the painted, polychromatic cloudlike background, which simultaneously suggests space and even time in an almost transcendental way. It is the collision between these many different dimensions that gives these paintings their remarkable appeal.
The confrontation between Ammerlaan’s practical, technical, and scientific fascinations and the romantic uncertainty that he coaxes out of them is a recurring element of almost all his works. In this respect, Ammerlaan’s work fits much more squarely into a very different tradition from modernism: that of alchemy. These days, alchemy is associated mainly with chrysopoeia, the quest to transmute base elements into gold (which in turn is often associated with the Philosopher’s Stone). But the essence of alchemy, a more than thousand-year-old tradition, is, above all, the very act of creation: the scholar who uses his understanding of materials and natural processes to rival nature, who strives to capture the infinite and the intangible, whose ultimate ambition is to outdo nature (or God). In that sense, the classical alchemist bears a striking resemblance to the contemporary, post-romantic artist, a tradition that can only be understood by regarding each artist as the creator of a personal universe, filled with his or her own ideas, forms, and laws. The main reason that this connection is rarely drawn is that the tradition of conceptual art in the art world has led to a preference for “immateriality,” which clashes with the alchemical interest in technique, materials, and learning. This appears to be one important reason that concepts such as transformation and alchemy have never become very popular in contemporary art—although there are noteworthy exceptions, such as the artist Yves Klein with his self-fabricated, supernatural blue.
From this perspective, Frank Ammerlaan is now walking an unconventional path: his work can best be interpreted as an extension, and perhaps even a renewal, of the alchemical tradition in contemporary art. In this context, it is important not to see alchemy as a kind of childish magic. Ammerlaan very deliberately combines elements of modernism with Abstract Expressionism’s fascination with lyrical transcendence, along with an interest in new, untested techniques and materials. Consider his untitled “paintings” on metal, displayed at exhibitions such as Moonless at Bosse and Baum in London and Faith by Proxy at Upstream in Amsterdam. No brush went into the making of these works—and no paint either, for that matter. Ammerlaan created them (as a video on his website shows) through a type of electrolysis, a chemical process normally used to protect screws and other small metal parts from rust. The process has an unusual by-product (take a look inside your telephone): when coated with zinc from a solution, the metal takes on an array of colors. This process is normally used only on fairly small pieces of metal, but Ammerlaan found a company that was willing to try it with larger pieces, which he combines into large geometrical shapes that look as though they’ve been dipped in a rainbow. The effect immediately calls to mind Ammerlaan’s early “oil spill paintings,” which he made in order to recreate the breathtaking rainbow-like patterns you sometimes see when the sun is reflected from a pool of water or oil. He made these paintings, too, by working with a chemist, and the result is magical, as if Ammerlaan had managed to take a highly fragile visual impression, which you know from experience normally lasts just a few seconds—an almost perfectly ephemeral thing—and captured it, solidified it for all eternity.
This is what makes Ammerlaan’s work so fascinating. By using natural phenomena to explore new artistic vistas, he succeeds in linking two apparently contradictory elements: on the one hand, science and technology, and on the other hand, transcendence. Crucially, unlike lyrical Abstract Expressionists in the Rothko tradition, Ammerlaan accords each of these elements exactly the same importance. He has no wish to bring tears to anyone’s eyes; instead, he sends his viewers oscillating back and forth between technique and the indefinable until they reach a place no longer governed by any known experience, whether of mastery or of beauty. He thus breathes new life, as an early 21st-century artist, into the old Hegelian principle of thesis and antithesis—and his synthesis, in an entirely Hegelian spirit, leads us onward to a place previously unknown, a new form of beauty, a different sense of time. Creation, that’s what matters to Ammerlaan: the search for new materials and new forms, in order to create unprecedented experiences for the viewer. That truly is a form of alchemy, of magic—and above all, a form of art.
Hans den Hartog Jager is a writer and art critic.