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Daan Rau - Images without background

By thinking, one sometimes finds things one was not looking for. Serendipity, that is called, and this was also the title of the first special exhibition presenting a survey of the work of Yves Velter in 1997. “I’m not exactly looking for answers, but for alternatives for answers”, the artist says.

You must certainly know someone like this: one of those boys – it can also be a girl – who submits the toys brought by Santa Claus to intense scrutiny. Preferably the child makes use of all sorts of useful materials in order to penetrate into the deepest bowels of the object under investigation. And in case the physical capacities would be missing, then there are still the questions that can be asked and that could – do admit it – embarrass you or actually pull the switch of your imagination too.


Warm works that have something to say


Yves Velter is such a boy, by now a grown-up man with questions. He loves to philosophize, to investigate, to turn things over in his mind. He has a tendency to take some distance from the things that occupy him by putting them in a more general context. On the other hand he feels strongly drawn to these things; they touch him. Yves Velter is actually quite an emotional guy, although one would not always admit this when looking at his work for the first time.


It was at the beginning of the 1990s that this artist made himself known for the first time with a number of paintings that were rather unusual for these years when the Neue Wilden and the Tranavanguardia were still shimmering through in the art scene. He presented paintings that showed machine parts, belts and cables, air tubes, caps and screws, technical drawings. Velter presented these in a cool, metal frame and sometimes actual belts or other real elements were incorporated. Nevertheless these were warm works with a strong poetic power of expression, works that had something to say about us and about our times. And this was noticed and honoured with awards and exhibitions.


Free forms


All those paintings were the result of thinking, of pondering over things that happen, to oneself or to other people. By such thinking one sometimes finds things one was not looking for. A word has been coined for this: serendipity. This also was the title of the first special exhibition giving a survey of his work in 1997 in the ‘Museum voor Schone Kunsten’ (Museum of Fine Arts) in Ostend, which has disappeared since. At this point already it was clear that Velter had left the technical-mechanical works behind him by now, in favour of  works in which – I am quoting Hugo Brutin – “form and thought, illusion and reality, and free form exuberantly complement and challenge each other.”


That exhibition also showed sculptures, the so-called ‘free forms’. These find their origin in the question whether it was possible to represent pure form. What is form, actually? Does form have a meaning? It is questions like these that preoccupy the artist and to which he tries to find answers. His research showed that pure form is impossible, that there is always a cause for a form. Now you can say: he could have known that before! And of course you are right, but then again you are not: he could never have known it in the way that he knows now and that he lets us experience through his work.


Man undressed


I have also already mentioned emotions with regard to Yves Velter. I want to refer here to a series of works he realized with the material inheritance of a family member who passed away. The woman concerned was mentally disturbed in one way or another and lived in a world completely of her own. This has always greatly intrigued Yves and he has attempted in many ways to penetrate into this closed-off universe, completely alien to him. As a result he realized a number of installations for which he used the furniture of the woman, ‘dressing it up’ with her clothes. Chairs, tables, cupboards, TV, all kinds of daily objects were covered with flower-patterned dresses and women’s suits. The installations had a highly cuddly character and doubtlessly brought him closer to his family member than he had ever been before.

Dozens of letters that she wrote and that were found among her inheritance are also very important for the work of the artist. These were letters that were difficult or impossible to understand for a “normal” person. They are drawn up in a sort of coded language and are addressed to people with a certain power. By writing the letters the woman dealt with her fears, she kept herself going in the world that seemed hostile and threatening to her. All things considered, this is not all that strange after all: the use of imploring formulae is still current.


Later paintings, which were presented in various exhibitions, show us human figures. They are very toned down, stripped of every redundant element. They have a strange aura. That is mainly due to the eyes, the eyes that are missing and have been replaced by fragments from the letters of the previously mentioned lady. Are the eyes not, after all, the mirrors of the soul?

The human figure had already popped up before in the work of the artist, albeit in sculptural form. In most of these cases we are dealing with a man’s body, schematically represented. One of those almost life-size sculptures is completely covered with fragments from the letters in question; the human being as a written page. It is somewhat surprising to see, but it is striking and meaningful to someone who is prepared to look beyond the surface.


We can of course also consider that male figure as a sort of a self-portrait. Earlier on he had already made several multiples that were related to the (his) body. Tongues, ears, moving or hinged elements were among such inventive and sometimes slightly oppressing creations. The small sculpture of the man with his head in the clouds is characteristic for this artist too. The man with his head in the clouds is not really a dreamer; it is a thinker who sees through the clouds.



Red dots


Yves Velter himself says: “The thread through my work is my constant fascination for themes on which I cannot get a grip. Not through science either. That is precisely why visual art is a suitable means for investigation here. I am not directly looking for answers, but for alternatives for answers, and I do that by means of some kind of image research. The images (note from the author: the paintings are meant here) that I make, are quite often isolated from the context, there is no background. The most crucial element in the story, the most essential, is what is left.”

What inspires him are photographs, situations, incidents. In this way the photograph of the first paying astronaut in the newspaper lead to a work being made. That man does not get there just like that, it is the crystallization of a whole evolution and that is exactly what immensely interests the artist.


Social themes and derailments touch him. The scandal about the fertility specialist Dr. Cecil Jacobson, who inseminated his patients without their knowledge with his own sperm, caused a small wave of births of rather chubby children with sight problems. It led to a large painting of a by now grown up sprig of Jacobson’s creativity.


In Velter’s work there is still another, not unimportant detail that has been present since quite a while: the red spots or the little red balls. These too play their part in the visual alphabet used by the artist. They refer to elements, fears and desires, that fascinate him and on which he cannot get a grip. In that way they become workable, malleable; they can be controlled. They frequently appear in the most recent paintings. They add to a certain tension and drama, sometimes they rather look like spots of blood. Taking these red dots as a starting point, Velter has designed a sculpture, commissioned by the Province of West-Flanders. It is an ephemeral sculpture that is actually only made up of wire and hundreds of tiny red balls hung within a frame; together they form a human figure.

The work is erected in the park around the Provincial Administrative Centre ‘Boeverbos’ in Bruges (St.-Andries). It is shown in a glass display case and is judiciously lit at night. It works like an apparition. It is an impressive image, you can hardly get a hold over it and its form is constantly changing as you walk around it. It causes you to start musing on man, on yourself, on transitoriness; it is like a very contemporary vanitas and it also reminds one of the images we known from science-fiction series. “Beam me up, Scotty”, you say, jokingly, but it really does stay with you. Certainly worth a detour.