Resentment Unresolved
Canonising Koen van den Broek

Issue no2
April - May 2022
countryside & biennale guide

One is none, as the saying goes (at least in Flanders). The thought must have been in someone’s mind as the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp decided to present a cabinet with works on paper by Koen van den Broek (°1973, Bree) a week before the artist’s retrospective at the SMAK in Ghent was presented to the public. Two parallel exhibitions in two of our major museums. Seeing that Van den Broek is vintage 1973 the artist must be quite pleased with this remarkably early canonisation. But does the work live up to this fêting?


The major retrospective at SMAK is presented in a suite of rooms that are organised thematically. There is no regard for chronology. The unity of Van den Broek’s oeuvre is explored by juxtaposing the way he has visited and revisited several motifs throughout his career which, at about a decade, is shortish in any serious critic’s book. Two of the main motifs are evoked in the title of the exhibition: Curbs & Cracks. Curbstones and cracks in the road are signature themes in Van den Broek’s work. But other motifs are equally important and no less resonant. There is a room dedicated to works organised around the theme of the road movie, showing derelict stretches of the American hinterland, including abandoned trucks and concrete bridges. And there is the omnipresence of the pictorial, for Van den Broek often uses photographs as starting points for paintings in which contours are erased in favour of a play of light and shadow. Just as there are no lines in a photograph, there are no contours in Van den Broek’s paintings. If objects appear well-defined in his works, it is through the play of light on neighbouring colours.

Van den Broek’s paintings demand distance. The spacious halls of the SMAK therefore lend themselves very well to his work. When the viewer is allowed the room to slowly creep up to the paintings, remarkable shifts in texture take place. Seen up close Van den Broek’s canvases seem laboured and often rather rough. But seen from a distance they acquire a luminescence that is especially stunning in works such as Ghost Truck (1999) or the gigantic Viaduct (2002), which commands one of the major halls on the first floor of the museum where it is hung exactly opposite the shimmering brilliance of Circus (2003). This luminescence increases when Van den Broek brings to life shadows, which have an earthy, tangible quality in his work. Paintings such as Fork-lift Truck (2004) transcend the photographic because they do not simply reproduce the effect of shadows on the ground, they seem to show how shadows work and how the visual mass of shroudedness presents itself to the eye. This effect, which is hard to describe, is achieved by judiciously applying skewed brushstrokes that somehow coalesce into a translucent density.


One of the virtues of the thematic arrangement of the exhibition is that it provides the viewer with more than it had bargained for. In fact, the thematic presentation is unchallenging and the paintings are grouped in pretty straightforward ways. In this respect the presentation might even be called dull and unimaginative. But we should pause and look again. The apparent self-evidence of the presentation has the effect of drawing our attention to the texture of the paintings and thus to the question of technique. If looked at up close, the canvases look messy and there is often a sense of aggression in the brushstrokes. Surfaces are modulated not by carefully applied brushstrokes but by working them over in a punishing way that leaves behind brushstrokes that look like traces of violent rubbing. This suggests a sense of anger and resentment at the painted surface. This in turn indicates an artist’s struggle to represent the world and his frustration at the world’s reticence.

If Van den Broek’s work is about capturing our fleeting perception of the world, his work succeeds remarkably well in representing the process instead of the result. And this is a necessary thing: since the world cannot be adequately represented on principle, no result could credibly be committed to canvas. The challenge of the modern artist (for this, obviously, is the problem of modernism) is therefore to show how we perceive rather than what we perceive. Van den Broek’s paintings show us the frustration of perception. There is a holding back in his canvases. But it is not the artist who holds back, it is the world, which resists representation.

There is another way in which the frustrating inability to represent the world is present in these paintings. It has to do with Van den Broek’s well-known crack-motif. By seeing all the paintings with the motif of cracks in one room, it immediately becomes apparent that there is a distance within these paintings. The cracks seem to have been laid over the paintings themselves, as if they were hovering in mid-air. As a consequence, there is an eerie sense of depth to some of these works. The eye seems to get caught between the ground of paint and the cracks that float over it. This distance between foreground and background, combined with Van den Broek’s seemingly rough brushwork, again indicates the limits of representation. The distance between foreground and background is the divide between the painter’s ambition to capture the world in an image and his failure to do so. The world resists the reduction of its three dimensions to a painted surface.

Paper Resolutions

This reading of Van den Broek’s paintings is borne out if we put them next to the works on paper on display in the KMSKA. Works on paper are unusual for the artist. In fact, the medium was quite new to him and all the works in the small collection were executed in the past year. As can be gleaned from an artist’s statement the choice for small-scale works on paper was made in the wake of a case of painter’s block. So the works on paper are decidedly not preparatory sketches or cast-offs. They are works in their own right. This is an important point for some of the works certainly look like preparatory sketches for some of the larger canvases. But it becomes immediately clear that Van den Broek’s sense of crisis was real if one looks at the most recent paintings in the SMAK exhibition, none of which have anything near the power of the earlier work, or of the smaller works on paper for that matter. In fact, canvases like Transmission (2008) look oddly retrograde in comparison with the paintings made before and the works on paper created shortly after.

For Van den Broek the net effect of working on paper seems to have been a sense of relief and levity. The works on paper are exquisitely beautiful. The size of a photograph, with luscious fluid lines and daubed with generous blots of colour, they are spine-tinglingly elegant. Levity is also expressed in a sense of fun, as in the drawing From Behind. A handful of lines suggest a freeway. At the heart of this rudimentary sketch there are some blots of red paint suggesting the victims of a car-crash or, mischievously taking the title as an intended double entendre, the traces of forcible rear entry during anal sex. The question whose ass-hole has been ruptured might depend on whether the artist has by now resolved his painter’s block. He probably has.

If anything, the works on paper have a freshness and a sense of play that suggest new ways of looking and representing might develop from them. In that sense the current retrospective might have come too soon. It might have been interesting to hold off a retrospective until Van den Broek’s new-found levity had become visible in the paintings. As is, the exhibitions sometimes look like a retrospective of an artist on the verge of a breakthrough. The best, one hopes, is still to come.


Leaving aside for now the matter of the future, the resentment in Van den Broek’s paintings remains unresolved. This is not a bad thing, for it is this resentment, this working over of his material, that shapes Van den Broek’s work. It is in this rubbing against the world’s reticence that Van den Broek comes nearest to solving the artistic problem of representing the world. When this happens, his work achieves a stunning plasticity. To give but three examples of Van den Broek’s mastery, there is 1000 Cracks (2004), which is the quintessential cracks-painting, showing a lynchean highway of cracks hovering over a ground of what might be termed a thousand carefully grafted brushstrokes; there is Mexico Town in the Morning (2004), a slightly tilted and therefore vibrantly alive perspective of the shadows of dawn; and there is the sketchy vibrancy of Yellow Border #2 second version (2003), rising with effortless grandeur. But in the final reckoning it is the shadows that draw you in. They have nothing if not the sense of the real thing.

Koen van den Broek, Curbs and Cracks, 30 januari t/m 16 mei 2010, SMAK Gent
Koen van den Broek, Preview, 22 januari t/m 28 februari 2010, KMSKA Antwerpen

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 2 — 2022