José Heerkens. Paint to Write

Words in art are words,

Letters in art are letters,

Writing in art is writing,

Messages in art are not messages,

Explanation in art is not explanation.Ad Reinhardt, Art in Art is Art as Art, 1966.

The series of paintings Written Colours and Notation were conceived starting from the same fundamental concept: set the colour in the foreground.

This statement is translated to art through a series of paintings dedicated to colours, simplicity of the forms and the essence of painting. There is no romance in José Heerkens’ work, just solid lines and concrete colours that declare their pure and vibrant identity. 

Every single work is independent of each other, but at the same time, they are all connected as an extension of a bigger painted environment. 

L29. Written Colours, 2013-14. Oil on linen, 150 x 200 cm. Ph credit Willem Kuijpers, courtesy the artist.

She composes her Written Colours and Notation paintings repeating simple lines and giving body to colours through her meticulous brushstroke. This gesture gives character to the form of lines and strengthens the colour through some sober layers of paint. Every painting grows as a pictorial event, a revelation for who is seeing the final artwork.

Starting from a sketch where forms are defined and colours are initially chosen, Heerkens proceeds with an iterative method regarding the choice of colours and their interaction with space on the canvas. When she paints, colours prevail and their final choice depends upon intuition as well as her acquired knowledge by experience. This experience drives her to a further step in her practice: every painting is the continuation of the previous research on colour.

The painted environment has no reference to reality; it has a spatial relation made only by lines and colours which are giving that optical perception in regards to her engagement in interaction with light and shade to create a breathable and fresh space.

L47. Notation, 2019. Oil on linen, 150 x 150 cm. Ph credit Willem Kuijpers, courtesy the artist.

The sense of movement and this visual rhythmic perception define the singularity of these paintings. Especially in her series Notation – where the background is left in the natural colour of linen – lines seem to rise and set in different areas. Colours are getting their independence and interaction both to each other and to the pure linen. Ultimately, they are free to float and walk over the canvas. 

The look is primarily caught by such coloured sequences, then eyes follow the colours reading them from left to right, from top to bottom and back. 

The bystander is invited to get a step into this harmonious painted world and have an onward journey into the life of these fugitive colours. 

She considers the life of colours alongside the colours of life: peace, beauty and freedom are all the feelings experienced by the viewer who is participating in this illusory space. Seeing is a matter of imagination, not simply physiological at all. 

Precisely, Heerkens’ paintings cross over the physical limits, canvas loses its edges, there are no frames nor borders, only colours-in-freedom to be read as a formal visual language where horizontal lines predominate over vertical structures. These inseparable elements characterise her oeuvre.

Her gesture is always controlled, the choice of colours is based on her practice and previous experiences, and the research of the essence of forms, as well as the equilibrium of blank spaces, allows the viewer to enjoy the reading of these ‘written colours’. 

P27. P28. P29. Letter in 17 lines and 5 colours. Watercolour on Saunders Waterford, 101,6 x 66 cm. Ph credit and courtesy the artist.

The absences of colour are also fundamental for the written comprehension as much as they are the silences, the pauses in an opus. Music needs those absences of melody, those interruptions that make it possible to listen to a song. “You set the colours against each other and they sing. Not as a choir but as soloists” (D. Jarman, Chroma: A Book of Colour –June ’93).

In Heerkens’ paintings, the breaks have the same function just like in a symphony, we need these silence places to breathe, to read and enjoy the harmony of colours. As a matter of fact, her dedication and repeated decisions to create the ideal rhythm and balance to set on painting the harmony between elements are expressed on canvas by full and empty spaces to give that sense of time as passing colours. Colours are connected and this sense of movement rises exactly from this well-tuned relation that stands out her visual language.

The linguistic elements in Heerkens’ paintings are parallels to the components in every sequentially written or spoken language. In her visual vocabulary lines and colours are set in a succession to create a sentence. These elements can also be compared to the notes of a musical score since they have the element ‘time’ in common. By definition from the Humanism, painting is defined only as a spatial art-form immobile and simultaneous, but Heerkens’ oeuvre demonstrates the opposite: her canvases introduce the dimension of time becoming then an ‘art of time’ (cf. L.B. Alberti, De pictura, 1435).

Written Colours, 2015 in VfaKR, Oberhausen DE.

Written Colours and Notation work as a proper universal language, comparable to music better than any other linguistic codes (‘Intersemiotic translation and synaesthesia (Music and painting)’ in How to read an artwork, O. Calabrese, 2006). Looking at these paintings, the audience is having an intuitive experience as it doesn’t need any specific knowledge of the common language rules as well as it happens in music. This contemplative and evocative dimension is becoming part of her painted environment grounded on balance and openness. Besides, the human scale of her paintings facilitates the observer to come into this colour dimension and take part in this visual composition. The heart of her art lies in the way it holds and releases voice at the same time, in the way it gives body and shape, and in the way, it distils space, light and movement from colour.  All these values are mixed and matched on canvas, into a completely fresh space arranged with colours and lines.