Rob Verf
. Painting as a Mirror of the Self.

2012. El Momento / The Moment. María José Herrera.

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At the outset of the new millennium, Rob Verf decided that Argentina might be a place where he would find the energy he needed in order to continue moving forward with the work he had been developing in his native country, The Netherlands. One painting from the year 2000 is Hell, with which he participated in a group show in homage to Hieronymous Bosch and his famous triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights. This emblematic Dutch work from the 15th Century continues to engender current readings of its religious theme, and Verf’s version points precisely to this fact. An everyday Hell is unleashed within the four walls of a contemporary home. The chimney and the warmth of the fireplace (with a fire like the fires that illuminate Bosch’s Avernus), symbols of the family’s embrace, sizzle to the point of dissolving into pixels. The scene couldn’t be worse: the family pet, staked to a chain, bleeds from its wounded anus, penetrated by a dildo. The woman (mother?), albeit without eyes, seems to look on, stunned, at the actions of the man (father?), who aim his erect penis at the little girl’s (daughter?) tiny (“coffee bean” 1) vagina. Like the Playmobile figurines with which Verf entertained himself in his childhood, the figures are reduced to abstractions; they have only those attributes indispensable to defining their attitudes in the context of the scene that he presents to us. Is the woman an accomplice, who sees without taking action? Might she have been the one who violated the dog? During the heat of the moment when pedophile Marc Dutroux had been captured, wanted for the kidnapping, rape and murder of children in Belgium, the artist exhibits a “state of things” in what would seem to be a veritable, contemporary Hell: human relations.

Among the complex interpretations that Bosch’s Hell has provoked, one implies that the hermetic nature of his symbolism stems from a heretic vision, or one that at least exceeds the Biblical account that is its traditional source. It is likely that the artist calls upon other sources to develop his iconographic program: legends, popular stories and other sources from “low” culture of his era that spoke of the aberrations that his paintings illustrate. It is the distinction between “low” and “high” that seems to loose relevance in contemporary art and obviously in Verf’s painting as well. The imagery that his works draw upon comes, in part, from yellow journalism with its insistence on lurid detail, comics and television series. With humor and naturally, free of any guilt, the artist makes his way through classic art and the visual culture of his time. Far from intending to communicate a moral in his work, Verf is well aware of images’ didactic value. No European can fail to recognize this condition, which marks the foundation of Western culture. As such, the microcosms created by Bosch –lessons showing what should not be done– are inspirational because the images demonstrate an efficiency that serves as the basis of art practice even today.

Polvo (Dust, also slang for the sexual act), dated 2000, is the first work he painted in Buenos Aires. The local connection is evident. There are typical street signs at the corner crossing, a plastic waste bin attached to a post, cracked sidewalks and mounds of trash where they do not belong. All these details unmistakably evoke the city of Buenos Aires for anyone familiar with it. Nevertheless, a palette consisting of a gamut of transparent greens (a virtuosity of oil) veers away from all this realism and more toward a schematic, cartoonish approach to the scene. An automaton without extremities (as always distinguished by its sex) levitates like one of the robotic characters from the Jetsons2. She eats “ice cubes” and is a student, indicated by her use of a white smock, or guardapolvo. The title of the piece is taken from this word, in a play with the slang meaning for “polvo”: coitus. In this way, and using new symbols of his own attributable to a classic vanitas, Verf updates this traditional genre so extensively explored in baroque Holland. Life is as fleeting as chewing ice. Nothing works forever, as the accumulated waste of a society in crisis attests, one that would soon turn to this residue in beginning a new practice in order to subsist: “cartoneo”. Lastly, “all come from dust and to dust all return” a shared destiny in which the vanity of glory dissolves like ice in your mouth.

Similarly, with the crisis already waning several years later, the 2005 work Chica americana (American Girl) revives the hard life experiences and strong social contrasts of downtown Buenos Aires. While some eat in typical, large-windowed pizza parlors, on the sidewalk others look through the garbage they produce, hoping to find something to eat. The filth, plastic packaging and wrappers scattered on the streets and highways that connect the city with its suburbs evidence people living on the street, a typically Latin American form of marginality that the eyes of a European cannot elude. “Art is an emotional issue”, Verf asserts. “The objects that an artist represents actually form part of yourself, part of the sentiment they produce in us. They are what they are, and at the same time, they are a reflection of whoever makes them, of the artist”.

Closer to the present, Beginning of a vanitas (2011) continues to explore this genre. Whether in terms of the fleeting nature of life or the expiration of merchandise, this centripetal composition alludes to the expansion of energy that is produced by the extinction of organic matter. The beginning of a modern vanitas would be that moment frozen in time, that aesthetic arrangement of the discarded and irregular converted into the end of one state and the onset of another.

In El experimento (The Experiment, 2005), the antiseptic air of a tiled room that could be an operating room serves as the introduction to a narration in which we recognize certain of the artist’s icons (woman/torso/vagina; little girl/torso/vagina; a sexless figure, by default a man) and ways of putting the scene together (spatial screens projected shadows, perspective); its meaning, however, is held back, except for the powerful suggestion of the title. “I look for the viewer’s response to this painting. That is what interests me”, clarifies Verf. As David Freedberg’s studies would indicate, all images contain a power which is that of producing determined responses on the part of those who contemplate them. Many of these responses are self-censored by the cultured gaze, particularly those related to inciting sexual fantasies or those that are generically branded as perverse. To look and to spy on are two different ways we can relate to images that activate diverse forms of reception. Freedberg affirms that in general, we are unaware of the incidence of our emotions in the act of acquiring knowledge. It is precisely this circumstance that induces us to accept or reject determined images, without being able to provide any rational explanation.

Verf works with these ideas developed in an intuitive way when he occludes nudity or a sexual act in the foreground of a photo from a pornographic magazine. What is not there, what is not seen, is thus highlighted to a greater extent than what we do see. If eroticism is the play involved in revealing what is shown and what is only suspected, his collages are the application of this mechanism in order to re-elaborate metaphors for pornography’s graphic frontality. In other words, he once again granted these one-dimensional images with what aesthetics would define as ambiguity and rhetoric. Closely related to these works, his “viewing boxes” –inspired by those that Dutch children construct as school projects– appeal to the curiosity inherent in the human condition and to voyeurism as a stigmatized form of sexual conduct. Within the public, institutional space of the gallery, they propose that viewers “let themselves be seen snooping”. The white boxes are neutral and tidy in appearance and each has a device (peephole) that allows one to see what is inside. His summarized Venus-torsos made of Styrofoam frolic there within, protected by a privacy that emanates from their very semibodies and the space that they occupy. Nude, the orifice of the box coincides with that of her pubis, the powerful nucleus of energy in this small encapsulated composition. They are the illusion of an idyllic microcosm where, as Verf states, “the viewer believes they are physically “elsewhere” because the limits of the [field of] vision disappear when looking through a hole”.3

“A nude woman in front of a mirror is energy. She is not only the exterior of the pose, but also the interior of the situation. The mirror, the space and the objects all make up the “nude” situation. The nude is the energy in the space and the space is the engery of the nude. It is a complete state”.4

The nude is a “way of seeing”,5 a convention for how to present and represent the body created by Western tradition in the light of the social roles attributed to men and women. As such, the nude in painting is “attired” nudity with everything that makes it an “object” and “exposes” it in order to captivate desire in a masculine gaze. “To exhibit oneself nude is to convert the surface of one’s own skin, the very hairs of the body into a disguise. The nude is condemned to never being able to achieve nudity. The nude is one more way of dressing” as John Berger points out.

The nude in Bondage Beauty (1998) speaks of the relationship between sex and power, about domination and sadomasoquistic practices. The female body with her hands tied, blindfolded, contorted by harnesses and rope and objectified in the service of desire here becomes a structure of energies and visual intensities: a sculpture, in the eyes of the artist. Similar to other sculptures in this series, Bondage Beauty has its attribute of “nudity” in the breasts and genitals. What characterizes it as a “nude”, however, is the pose, sustentada in the gaze of the other. In this case, it is a pose of submission, evidenced by the cord that “ties” her arms behind her back. Surprisingly, and in spite of the abstract reduction of forms, the image has the same ambiguous candidness as the obviously realistic photos of Bettie Page, the American pin-up girl who may have served as their inspiration. A controlled demon and falsely provocative angel, she evokes one of the erotic fantasies most frequently visited by adult comics during the ‘80s. In Verf’s work, “sexuality” functions as a synecdoche for “humanity”. Eyes or limbs may be missing, but the genitals will never be absent, that which identifies a “sexual being”.

“A work of art is like a state of mind. It is a moment created by situations. Its construction is carried out with the energy of a circumstance in which something happens. My work is inspired by sexuality. I myself am a sexual being. Sexuality differs from eroticism. I am not looking to seduce with my art. I want to create a reflection of a sexual state of mind.”6

In sculpture’s three dimensions, Verf deconstructs by way of lines and spatial structures that recall chains of atoms, the typical poses of the nude model. A thin wooden rod that sags to the floor in diagonal is sufficient to imagine the recumbent body in the suggestive Desnudo en el reflejo de un espejo (Nude in the Reflection of a Mirror, 2007). The mirror is where the beauty verfies the efficiency of her beauty, it is an abstraction of “the other’s gaze” that supposes the nude. It is also, as conceived by the artist, the “reflection”, the information about an object, it is a fifth dimension added to that of its evolution over time. Torso in moonlight and Torso in artificial light take the mirror inside the boxes, as if a sort of panoptic that evidences every gesture, inflection or cadence of the “bodies” within in their space. One could suppose that perhaps, in this way, the body might wind up reflecting its soul./p>

The question regarding what we see, about the “reality” of perception has hovered throughout Verf’s production ever since the beginning. The dialectic image/simulation unleashed in his figures, whether reflected externally, as in the case of the sculptures, or internally, in the boxes. A posterior development of these ideas currently underway comes into play in his video installation Full foreground (2010). Here, the “viewing box” is projected onto the wall. A complete foreground is enlarged, without cuts, and it generates an environment effect that literally “sucks” the viewer in. The poetic dance of spheres pulled along by water currents seems to unfold in the same space where it is being viewed. The foreground, without any apparent horizon or limits and multiplied by mirrors and the water as a reflecting surface, hypnotizes. Like the shadows in the Platonic allegory, these images are constituted in our “real” experience of the space.

If, as Verf believes, every artist is a mirror, Mujer orinando (Woman Urinating, 2006), after Rembrandt, is an example of his theory regarding the mechanisms of creation. His version of the 17th Century print is also informed by another mirror, Picasso’s 1965 painting on the same theme. Rembrandt’s amazing print is a completely realistic depiction of the moment when a beggarwoman seeks refuge behind a tree to squat and urinate. The force of the liquid traces a diagonal that advances toward the viewer and draws his or her attention to the peasant’s –not at all idealized– vagina. The image, with its burlesque inspiration, was seen as an aberration in its time. Mujer orinando exhibits the disturbing attractiveness of the obscene, it is a beautiful representation of an ugly, vile, human as the opposite of erotic attraction. It is undoubtedly precisely this realism that makes no concessions to good taste that interested Verf; in his version, the energy of the urine ejected/expulsed is projected throughout the figure, like a cascade of three-dimensional reflections.

“Accepting the changing, ephemeral nature of the experience of perception, and if we accept that real as well as conceptual objects are appreciated in an analog manner, then it becomes reasonable to propose aesthetic objects that are localized partially in real space and partially in psychological space”.7 This is how Victor Burgin expressed the “situational” aspect of every work of art. Psychological space is the gap were both the artist’s subjectivity and the viewer’s response are vividly active. Anchored in the Dutch school of painting interiors (Pieter de Hoogh, Vermeer), Verf proposes a “situation”. As Marcel Duchamp does is his enigmatic Etant donné…, he visually ennumerates his actors and his particular “states of mind” that condition the rest of the elements present in the scene. The window (the veduta) that opens onto an exterior space, foreign to the interior, symbolizes the place where all the options generated by the scene no longer count. Synesthesia and metaphor tend to be the associative instruments with which Verf resolves each one of the narrative elements in his paintings. It is certainly in these emotional, poetic instances that he gradually threads the complex weave of meaning in his images.

“You are what you see, what your personal experience tells you that you are in a given temporal manifestation, your state of being”, states Verf, for whom an artist is in some way a “maker” of mirrors.

María José Herrera. Buenos Aires, enero 2012.

1 Representation of the eyes in human figurines from neolithic cultures.
2 Los Supersónicos, in Spanish, a cartoon created by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera in the US in 1962. It dealt with a family from the future who live in a city in orbit, where cars and robots move from one place to another without touching the ground.
3 See Rob Verf, The Moment, included in this book.
4 Cited in Poéticas contemporáneas, Ramona magazine, # 90, Buenos Aires, Fundación Start, 2009, p. 57.
5 Here I follow John Berger’s considerations of the nude in the book Modos de ver (Barcelona, G. Gili, 2000).
6 Ramona, loc. cit., p. 57
7 Burgin, Victor, Estética situacional, 1969.