It is only recently that the Turin-based painter Pieter Vermeersch (Kortrijk, BE, 1973) carried out one of his seminal gradient wall paintings on the roof of Solo House II, which was conceived in 2017 by the Brussels-based architects Kersten Geers & David Van Severen (Ghent, BE, 1975 and 1978), founders of OFFICE. This collaboration has culminated in their first exhibition at Maniera, which shows inspiringly how two seemingly different working methods and approaches to a subject can overlap and merge into a set of jointly-authored works.
Solo House II is an unprecedented holiday home located in a remote natural forest near the village of Matarraña, some 250 km south of Barcelona. Its symmetrical plan combines a circular slab with a superimposed square. This results in four segments that face each other and define the enclosed areas of the house intended for living, dining, sleeping and chilling. Three of the four are bounded by glazing set into the steel frames facing the patio, while the outer façade is covered with sliding arcs of curved polycarbonate panels and stretched aluminium mesh. As a result, the house has no actual main entrance, but is accessible from all sides. By moving the panels, each unit can be fully exposed to savage nature or shielded from it. While the circular slab that forms the ground floor looks like a kind of stage, the one that forms the roof literally displays severaL components of the technical installations. They are spread out on top of the ring and are covered by large hoods in the shape of two cubes, a cone and two cylinders. For both the cylinders, Pieter Vermeersch applied a gradient mural painting, one in blue, the other in sienna tints. Shifting horizontally from dark to light, the two colour schemes seem to reactivate the ambient southern light of dawn and dusk. In this way, the artist enlisted architecture as a means of framing his work, while his work simultaneously also framed parts of the architecture.
The new works – a room divider, a table, a floor-lamp and a divan – that Vermeersch and OFFICE have conceived together for the exhibition at ManierA clearly simulate a number of significant features of the house in Matarraña. For example: the 360-degree perimeter created by means of a semicircular room divider that blocks the view from the street to the inside of the gallery and provides a semi-transparent backdrop for the display of their furniture. Or the colour gradation in beige-pink on its reverse side that is juxtaposed with the mirrored finish on the outside, which is not painted, but rendered from an out-of-focus photograph in which Vermeersch has captured the ephemeral characteristics of light to emphasize “subject” and “matter” simultaneously. Additionally, the Solo House II floorplan seems to be replicated in the supporting structure of the table that equally combines circle and square, although not directly visible, while part of the marble top is treated with a painterly intervention by Vermeersch. Finally there is the divan, with its ambiguous shape and industrial wire mesh, which perhaps most effectively embodies the recreational and leisure quality of the remote holiday home.
However, it is difficult to trace exactly the primary authorship of each of the objects, whether they were developed by the artist or the architects, and this is probably the most striking thing about this exhibition. We do not look at two different positions in parallel, as often presented by Maniera, but instead at a singular one where art and architecture have met and merged on absolutely equal terms. Obviously, what comes into play are the two different practices, backgrounds, expertise and, above all, shared concerns. Take for example the predominant use of archetypical shapes and geometrical forms in the work of OFFICE, probably synthesized most in such projects as “Wall” (catalogued as no.76, 2010), a monumental yellow-painted circular scenic element for an outdoor theatrical performance (the concept of which was also later adapted for “Wall Pavilion” at the 2012 Shenzhen Biennial, no. 158); Or look at the early Tower And Square project (no.9, 2004), which plays with inverted spaces and has since been formalized in many other assignments (e.g. their project for the Belgian pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2008); Or Solo Chair (no. 169, 2014, notably produced by Maniera), a hybrid between a stool and a sideboard in which a square table extends diagonally upwards from its triangular pole construction, combining with a round leather seat. This predominant use of basic shapes by OFFICE also appears in early works by Vermeersch, most notably in his site-specific outdoor intervention using a 106-metre-long line painted in fluorescent yellow that both cut up theview of the landscape and established an alternative horizon, as drawn by an engineer (Speelhoven ’03, 2003). Or the series of 162 photographs (2002) that show a successively overpainted cube and its gentle transformation from white to pink and back to white again.
Similar parallels occur in the use of materials (and colours), especially stones and mirrors, as one can conclude from the table topped with a so called Bianco Neve, or the floor-lamp made of semi translucent and mirroring glass. What first comes to mind as references are the early conversion by OFFICE of a notary practice in Antwerp (no. 2, 2003) for which the architects applied a lamina of milky film sandwiched between an outer layer of reflective and an inner layer of the opaque glass that is used for this light post; Or the site-specific installation by Vermeersch at M HKA in Antwerp (2006) that consisted of a large, continuously revolving mirror in the middle of a circular gallery in which the encircling gradated wall painting in grey was both reflected and optically deconstructed. And if the use of stones seems most evident in the practice of architects, in that of a painter it is not. But Vermeersch’ latest series of works make fundamental use of them. Fascinated by their geological and mineral footprint, he started to collect slabs to which he added monochrome painted surfaces or multi-coloured dripped traces that follow or contrast with the sedimentation in an attempt to crystalize the very time-space-matter potential of these prehistoric remains.
Both artist and architects are apparently driven and inspired by exploring other territories beyond their own disciplines or daily occupation, be it the tableau or the construction practice. With regard to furniture, the architects Lee Johnston once expressed it beautifully as follows: “… furniture acts in more than one way as the intermediary scale between architecture and the human body: the same way that architecture acts as the intermediary scale between furniture and the city”(1). If OFFICE had already examined this complex downshift in scale in their own vocabulary in an earlier series of furniture the Prototype Tables [aluminium, polyester, steel] with Solo Chair (both 2014), and Corner Chair (2016), notably all produced by Maniera – I instantly started to wonder what significance this intermediary scale in architecture between “body–furniture–dwelling–city” would imply to an artist, and particularly Vermeersch, and what the equivalent might be? I guess it’s ultimately a broader metaphysical concept that is based on notions such as “soul–gesture–material–functionality”… I leave that question open on purpose and to conclude simply emphasise the intermediary colour palette that seems crucial in this exhibition. Appearing in an easy, comforting and pleasing way, they are somehow reminiscent – to keep to metaphysical terminology – of spirits, but secular ones: gin, champagne, rosé, cognac, rum, absinth. Uplifting as they are, let’s toast the enriching and broadening interdisciplinary dialogue between David, Kersten and Pieter.
Photographer Bas Princen, who has worked with OFFICE for a decade and is co-editor of their monograph series “1-2-3” (Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2016) contributed his series of ‘Mosques in the Nile Valley’ (2012) on the upper floor of the gallery. Shot at night and against a black backdrop, the particular fluorescent lights on the buildings make them look like suprematist compositions that resonate with the installation on the ground floor.
Moritz Küng, based in Barcelona, is an independent exhibition curator, working above all at the intersection with architecture, visual art and contemporary publishing. He is currently working as an editor on a comprehensive monograph on Pieter Vermeersch, which will be published by Uitgeverij Ludion in July 2019.
(1). Lee, Mark and Sharon Johnston. ‘Furniture and the City’.
Press release Maniera 14 & 17 – Productora & Piovenefabi, May 2018.