Photographs that bring the past to the present

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Dutch artist Jasper de Beijer skillfully uses game modeling software, precise drawings and scrupulously detailed models. He has a theatrical flair, an overflowing imagination and a passion for the historical research necessary for the construction of unusual paintings, which he photographs with a digital camera, making small prints. While photography was once meant to capture the truth of a moment, de Beijer uses the camera to craft the artificial. There are a myriad of reasons for this, all of which are embedded in his work.

In 2005, during a residency in Japan, de Beijer became interested in the connections between the fantastic worlds of contemporary manga and 19th century woodblock printers, such as Hokusai and Kuniyoshi. The result was a series of photographs collectively titled Heroes and ghosts – the title of de Beijer is probably inspired by the exhibition catalog Heroes and Ghosts: Japanese Prints by Kuniyoshi (1797-1861), published in 1997 to celebrate the bicentenary of Kuniyoshi’s birth.

De Beijer’s other subjects included photographs of WWI battlefields and soldiers with disfiguring facial wounds and the construction of the Crystal Palace in London in 1851. In his current exhibition, Jasper de Beijer: The Admiral’s Headache, in Asya Geisberg (April 10-May 15, 2021), the artist focused his attention on Curaçao, the former Dutch colony, where he carried out a residency in 2017.

Jasper de Beijer, “Galjoen” (2018), C-Print, 43.31hx 43.31w inches, Edition 3 of 7 + 1AP

Near Venezuela, the island of Curaçao was torn from Spain by the Dutch in 1634. In 1662, the Dutch West India Company established Curaçao as the center of its Atlantic slave trade. In 1795, a slave revolt nearly overthrew Dutch rule and took over a month to overcome. And in 1914, when oil was discovered in Venezuela, Curacao became the site of oil refineries and a thriving shipping port. De Beijer engages in the history of the island through the historical figure of Albert Kikkert (1761-1819). According to the gallery’s press release:

The title Admiral’s headache refers to the story of Albert Kikkert, a former admiral and governor of Curacao in the early 1800s. Kikkert complained that the white facades of buildings glowing in the sun were exacerbating his migraines and ordered that they all be painted in the vivid tones typical of Curaçao’s seafront today.

According to local legend, another reason Kikkert wanted buildings around the waterfront painted in pastel colors was because he co-owned a paint factory. It seems that the idea of ​​beauty played no part in the change.

Jasper de Beijer, “Brigadier” (2019), C-Print, 39.37hx 52.76w inches, Edition 2 of 7 + 1AP

The exhibition consists of six large digital prints of different sizes, determined by the subject. “Bastion” (2020) is a panoramic night view of fortified plantation houses on hillsides and identical slave huts in the flat terrain below. It measures approximately 33 x 70 inches, while the 43 x 43 inch square format of “Galjoen” (2018) draws attention to the unsightly shape of a 19th century armed galleon.

Unlike model makers, who are often fanatical about verisimilitude, de Beijer has no interest in obtaining an exact resemblance, and for good reason. Since her subject is often the different ways in which the past haunts the present, the artist tries to capture its ghostly and disturbing presence, not to pay homage to the glories of the past or to become nostalgic for it.

By constructing a very detailed world based on historical events, de Biejer allows himself to meditate on the past through his constructions, linking and juxtaposing unlikely things and events. In “Refinery” (C-Print, 41.75 by 67 inches, 2020), he brings together aspects of Curacao’s past and present. Two galleons, sails rolled up, are anchored in the distance. Further on we see oil storage tanks on separate land.

The water, lined with pastel buildings, water towers and a portico, runs diagonally from the lower left edge of the photograph. As de Beijer shows us, the bulky, house-like galleon of the 19th century was the forerunner of the modern container ship. He emphasizes this point by matching the badges on the containers hanging from the lifting gantry with those stacked on the galleon deck.

Jasper de Beijer, “Raffinerie” (2020), C-Print, 41.73hx 66.93w inches, Edition 3 of 7 + 1AP

Meanwhile, the clouds floating above are made of paper that he manipulated to suggest volume. The surfaces of the clouds are covered with different patterns of parallel lines, which describe their topography. Parallel lines are also visible on the facades and pastel sides of the buildings.

The parallel lines evoke printmaking and the golden age of Dutch printmaking, which spanned the 16th and 17th centuries, when artists such as Hendrick Goltzius and Rembrandt van Rijn flourished. By associating engraving and digital photography, de Beijer reminds us that each medium was popular in its time; and both have been effective means of disseminating physical images in society and, in some cases, delivering the news.

De Beijer combines galleons and oil refineries to draw attention to one of the foundations of Holland’s current and past trade and culture – its use of shipping to transport goods and slaves from a party from the world to another. Questions the artist raises, but does not seek to answer, include: What do you do with this legacy? Is it possible to reinvent your country to such an extent that it finally leaves the past behind? In America, the struggle between those who want to go back to the “good old days” and those who want to get rid of the past and move on has at times become fierce.

Jasper de Beijer, “Brigadier”, detail (2019), C-Print, 39.37hx 52.76w inches, Edition 2 of 7 + 1AP

In “Brigadier” (C-Print, 39.37 by 52.76 inches, 2019), de Beijer photographed a headless figure lying on a bed that appears to be outside. The window shutters behind him are geometrically divided into four triangles, echoing the “Refinery” container emblem. The brigadier’s uniform and skin were made clearer by the highly detailed printed surface that de Beijer applied to his carefully constructed volumetric form.

The fact that we see his calves, a hand and a forearm, but that he is headless, is strange and disturbing, especially since the artist has placed a hat above the empty collar, supported by what looks like a crooked stick rising from the back of the empty uniform. In fact, there are no faces in the photographs, only empty uniforms. “Brigadier” is downright bizarre, strangely funny, somewhat creepy and annoying.

Why can’t we see the brigadier’s face? Is he a substitute for a part of Dutch history, both visible and disappeared? What is the relationship of the present to the past? Are different nations not at a pivotal moment as they attempt to shape and reshape their ties to the past? These are questions that de Beijer makes visible without becoming didactic. How nimbly he moves from subject to subject – from a refinery to a sergeant lying in bed to a night sky lit by luminous paths culminating in explosions that reveal land plantations and slave huts below – this is what convinced me that he is a major artist whose stimulating work should be better known in America.

His art is an art of engagement and exploration rather than judgment and conclusion. By drawing us into his scenes, he finds a way to involve us and perhaps even to push us to contemplate the material necessities of our life.

Jasper de Beijer: The Admiral’s Headache continues at the Asya Geisberg Gallery (537B West 23rd Street, Manhattan) through May 15.

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