The Boatman and Other Stories

24 July 2021 - 9 January 2022

Galleria Continua, San Gimignano, IT

Since several years, in addition to his well-known large-scale installations, sculptures, art films and watercolours, Hans Op de Beeck has been creating autonomous sculptures of human figures.

Although by now numerous women, men and children have posed in the artist's studio, these sculptures are not portraits of them, but rather fictional figures, characters who –alone or in dialogue with a second person– silently tell a universal story about our human condition, in which timelessness and topicality are brought together.

This show, 'The Boatman and Other Stories', mainly presents elaborately detailed human figures through whom the artist wishes to offer a point of departure for many possible stories.

The characters are mostly depicted in a moment of rest, or while performing a simple, calm, daily-life like action. The other works in the exhibition explore the still-life genre in a contemporary, anachronistic way.

‘The Boatman’ (2020) is a life-size statue of a man on a small rowing boat, seemingly pushing the boat away from a bank. Like 'The Horseman'(2020), another recent sculpture by the artist, currently installed at the Hermitage Museum (Saint Petersburg, RU), he is a homeless loner, a middle-aged man, halfway through life, always on the move. He has packed his whole life together on the small boat; aside of his dog and a chicken, means of survival, personal belongings, and goods that he can offer for sale or exchange are stacked and tied up in an improvised way.

‘The Cliff (wall piece)’ (2019) features an adolescent couple sitting on a rock on the edge of a suggested precipice. The girl’s open gaze lingers in the distance, as if preoccupied with something beyond the setting, while the boy’s attention is entirely focused on her. It is a bittersweet image of young love’s vagaries laced with innocence and designed to appeal to the viewer’s sentiment. The story of childhood, of growing up, is represented as a form of sublime enchantment, punctuated by the overwhelming perception of a world not yet lived to which we are enticed to return. It also highlights Op de Beeck’s recurring concern with change, where different stages of our lives are punctuated with the weight of waiting before transitioning into a new phase – here, the advent of first love signals the passage into adulthood and the loss of innocence.

'Dancer' (2019-2021) is a bronze sculpture that presents a Brazilian dancer during an 'off' moment. Resigned, and with her eyes closed, she is smoking a cigarette, seated in an old Chesterfield chair. Her exuberant clothing, with an impressive crown of plumes, contrasts sharply with the performer who is not performing and is taking a quiet moment for herself. The sculpture expresses a muted, melancholic cheerfulness.

‘Mum and Dad’ is a 1/2 scale sculpture of an aged couple on the lookout in their dressing gowns, as if something happened on the street at night, and they want to find out what's going on from the doorway. Their body language and facial expression speak volumes about their age and their relationship.

In 'The Conversation' (2019), we see two elegantly dressed, older men with beards having a conversation. For some reason they are both remarkably comfortably standing on a small, shaky folding ladder. Their briefcases are placed on the floor, which suggests that they are both either coming from work, or on their way to it. We can only guess as to what they are talking about.

In 2015 Op de Beeck made a film with puppets, animated live by puppeteers dressed in black. With 'Celeste (smoking)' (2020), he takes up the concept of the representation of the human being as a doll. The doll is sculpted with its limbs connected by the typical doll joints. For the artist, the human doll contains a feeling of defencelessness and silent tragedy. In 'Celeste (smoking)' we see a female character by herself, in a moment of contemplation, with the so human, simple act of smoking a cigarette and taking a break. The highly realistic and subjective details of Celeste’s face, hands, and feet contrast with the rest of the body that has the mechanical and more impersonal appearance of a manipulable puppet.

'Girl, asleep' (2021) is a life-size sculpture of the resting head of a sleeping girl. Dragonflies float above her, as if they represent the fairy-tale mood of a sweet dream. The sleep is a recurring subject in the artist's work. He is intrigued by the sleep as a zone of surrender and release, an unfathomable, enigmatic world.

‘Vanitas XL’ (2021) and ‘Vanitas Table (the coral piece)’ (2021) are two sculptural works in the full-on tradition of the Vanitas genre as we know it throughout the history of painting. In both works, one a gigantic larger-than-life blow-up, the other one life-sized, the artist alludes to his previous, more classical vanitas variations, while adding more playful and festive elements to the compositions. These monochrome still life sculptures feature commonplace objects, both classic as well as contemporary. Sculptural versions of the human skull, corals, plants, bottles, vases, fruit, drink cans, candlesticks and so on, form uniquely assembled compositions that represent our present environment, certainly, but also remind us of the transitory nature of our human existence.

Since 2018 Hans Op de Beeck has steadily been working on an ongoing series of ‘Wunderkammer’ sculptural display cases, crafted at his studio. Within these works, the most diverse sculptural interpretations of keepsake objects are brought together by a fictitious collector. The ash-grey artefacts look like fossilised archaeological finds, allowing the viewer to create their own understanding of how or why they came to be there. In the tradition of the ‘Wunderkammer’ of the European Renaissance (cabinet of curiosities), the collections of curiosities in each cabinet seem anachronistic and of the most diverse origin. The display cases bridge the thin line between valuable and worthless, between specialness and banality and the importance of stories to bring a still object to life. They are display cases that seem to have been stripped of all their lustre and left behind as silent units. The centrepiece of ‘Wunderkammer (11)’ (2020) is a sculpture of a boy playing with marbles, and in ‘Wunderkammer (12)’ (2020) it is a blossoming tree on scale, a recurring theme in Op de Beeck’s work.

‘Lily’ (2020) is a sculpted, classic still-life of a most slender table with a draped tablecloth and a vase with a graceful branch with lily flowers. The extreme verticality of the work emphasises its vulnerability as well as the feeling of the flowers reaching up to the sky.

‘Sleeping Dog’ (2019) is a life-size sculpture of a sleeping dog, a very simple and everyday scene, which speaks of the calm and tranquillity of the passing of time.

'The Three sisters' (2020) is a life-size sculpture of three chickens; a resting one, an alert looking one and a pecking one. As in the work 'Sleeping Dog’, Op de Beeck here again depicts domesticated animals in an extremely everyday way: unspectacular, small, poetic. According to the artist, animals that live alongside men, in their everyday simplicity, have a calming influence on our experience of time.

'After work' (2021) is a compact sculpture of two upright, chattering skeletons leaning against a brick wall, as if they are sharing a light conversation after work over a beer. In his most recent works, such as his life-size merry-go-round sculpture ‘Dance Macabre’ (2021), currently installed at the Bruges Triennale (Bruges, BE), the cheerful skeleton appears several times, as a light-hearted way to talk about our mortality. In this way the skeleton does not have a tragic connotation, but rather a playful character as in the paintings of Jamer Ensor.

As a whole, ‘The Boatman and Other Stories’ speaks about our growing pains, the search for identity, the difficulties, awkwardness and silences inherent to our existence, but also about our dreams and hopes for a better future and the search for inner peace and wonder.