Take the time to really lose yourself in a painting and realise that what was solid becomes fluid and that what were limits are illusions. So it is when one really looks at the work of Brussels artist Thierry Goffart’s exhibition across the German border in Düsseldorf.
Before I try to explain and show how this psychological perception shift works, let’s start at the beginning, as the past can help us appreciate the present. Thierry was an architect – a “manager of space” before falling for art, life drawing, sculpture, abstract colour fields and the dance of white and black for the last decade.
Thierry explored the lines and geometry of nudes and faces, seeking to understand the shape, volume, weight, how every part connects to every other part, whether through line or shadow or form. Thierry researched and drew, sketch after sketch, with a delicate line, exploring and understanding how the human body sculpts and manages its own space.
He went beyond geometry to movement. Below is his astonishing broad-shouldered, proud-buttocked back, strong and stable like a marble statue but boasting a hundred moments of movement. The paints are dried and still, yet the painting forever moves.
His sculptures, too, explore the essence of form. I love the presence and the power – the weight on the feet of the left one is palpable, the head shifting left to observe us a moment of movement. In the second, the body of rough-hewn wood twists left. Despite the angular cuts, the curved motion, another moment of movement, is clearly there.
Thierry could have drawn or painted or sculpted people. He chose another path, more philosophical perhaps, at first sight abstract, yet starting and rooted in reality – his decade-long exploration of the relationship of white and black, of painting one black form while watching the act simultaneously create a white form (I’ll explain), and the emerging rhythm of forms on the canvas to the edge of the canvas and beyond this physical limit (again, I’ll explain how I understand Thierry’s magic to work).
Let’s start with the tree that inspired Thierry Goffart – he always begins with the real (whether tree, cathedral, clouds, people). Honest and modest, Thierry quickly concluded that “a tree is much better than me” at representing a tree. So he explored the sensation of seeing, of what the light between the branches looked like, what forms it creates, how these are in constant change in the wind, how it is infinite in movement and form, a pattern, a moving rhythm of white and black. A simple tree can show so much if we look. Apollinaire apparently said to Matisse that a painter desires to create, and ordered chaos is the act of creation. Much like a poet captures a moment with words that resonate, so does a painter. There is infinite information out there, and the artist and the poet create a beautiful crystallising snapshot that captures something, creates, resonates. A hundred brushstrokes or a hundred words ordered in verses capture reality.
See the painting below; we can easily imagine Thierry looking through the tree’s canopy, with leaf after leaf blocking some of the light. There are gaps that let the white sunlight through; there are places where several leaves work together to capture more light. Look at the painting below and imagine standing under a tree in a spring breeze, seeing the light, the shapes, the shadows, the rhythm – and see the final result somehow capture the movement in static paint. The static creates a sense of motion within us. The final result is geometrical but hardly abstract – it resonates with a moving reality; it teaches us how to see. This is part of Thierry Goffart’s magic.
Thierry’s vision, his philosophy, his creative experimentation with sight and representation do not end here, nor his quest. He is intrigued by limits, or rather by things that appear like limits but are not. The edge of the canvas is a limit, but looking at the above, we can easily see that the rhythm continues beyond. Thierry may have stopped painting at the edge of his canvas, but what he sees, what he captures, goes on, forever. Look at the painting above long enough, and the edges of the canvas become meaningless; they are just accidental edges.
He also explores how the outside somehow integrates the inside space and how the space inside somehow communicates the outside. This may sound far too philosophical for a short article, but the thought is easier to understand than one might first fear. Take one of his more zoomed-in works (yes, he also explores with close and far), and now we see just a few black forms and white forms. We know that it can represent part of a wider picture, so what we look at inside the painting hints at what is outside the painting. To bring it back to the tree – we focus on the form of a few leaves and branches and the shape of the gap, but know that there are hundreds of others moving shapes of shade and light. So we see near but can think far. We look in and can see the outside within the inside, echoed. Once the rhythm has been found, there are no limits.
One more step. Take a white canvas and imagine Thierry painting an arc in Indian ink with a broad brush. As he paints the arc of darkness, simultaneously he creates a shape in white. Painting the black paints the white. Forming an arc creates a rounded triangle in the white. And with each black stroke, the white changes. It is as important to watch the whole change when painting the black as it is watching the black shape grow. Somehow, the artist has to look at the whole while focusing on the part. That is a fundamental skill.
You will have noticed that Thierry’s work is not simply black on white or black and white. The breadth and depth of black is an essential part of the work. Black is not a wall. It is something to dive into. Also, it is not just light and shape but the relation between the white and the black; the existence of one creates the other. There is an existential dialogue and symbiosis.
One last example and two last works of art. Thierry is also intrigued by cathedrals. They are paragons of stability and create clear limits (apparently). Having occupied the same space for hundreds of years, defining that space, mastering it. But stand inside, see the play and rhythm of the arches, see the pattern of lights shine through the glass windows and play on the marble floors – there is a rhyme and movement in the arches and the sequence; there is a forever changing play of lights. What we thought was static and constant and fixed, with clear limits defined in rock, isn’t. The cathedral entices us with its structural rhythm into a movement beyond the walls; the lights on the floor and on the stained glass windows are in forever flux. Go to a cathedral and stare at the arched ceiling, at the playing lights, and ask yourself – is this static? Are the walls a permanent limit? The cathedral pulls you into the space and we dissolve into the gaze, the rhythm, the lights, the arches.
Just as gazing at the tree pulls us close and makes us feel welcome, so does beholding a cathedral (Royan’s Holy Concrete and More and Urban Lighthouse by a Brussels-born Architect). See two more geometrical, architectural works below and think back to the first white and black painting. What you see is a part of a wider “whole”, and you will notice that the edge of the painting is no longer a limit.
I leave you with a quote Thierry shared, by Paul Eluard – “Seeing, is to understand, judge, transform, imagine, forget and forget oneself, be or disappear” – that captures what I’ve been trying to say.
Thierry Goffart’s work will be exhibited in Düsseldorf, Germany, from 10 February (vernissage) to 10 March (the finissage) 2024 at the plan.d. produzentengalerie. He is also represented by Galerie Didier Devillez in Brussels.