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13.04.24 - 29.06.24



Sacredly Tender: Gommaar Gilliams

You are an allegory, some thing, some one, who occupies a system without becoming a term in it, the doctor says to his patient and prisoner in J.M. Coetzee’s masterpiece, Life & Times of Michael K. If I begin this reflection on the Belgian artist, Gommaar Gilliams, thus, it is because he is as intrigued by the mystery of the allegorical, because it is both the visible and invisible cornerstone of his practice. Gilliams paints worlds which we can decipher, but only in part, because the true life and emotion of the work is largely encrypted. We see twinned human figures, twinned swans, and presume to know what they might suggest, but doppelgangers are notoriously elusive, doubled worlds more a paradox than a measure. If this is the case – if Gilliams’ art cannot to entirely rationalized or synthesized – it is because it also resists the foundations for its making, because it occupies the system of meaning without becoming a term in it.

Abstraction is the key, though Gilliams has also recognized its limits as a medium and method. As he rightly recognizes, the figure is always omnipresent, an inscrutable ghost. As to what figuration might mean, what role it plays in the work? Gilliams, here, acknowledges the core influence of medieval and renaissance Italian art, a religious and mythical poetics markedly absent from Flemish painting in which we find the grimly pedantic fetishization and objectification of the material world. In Gilliams’ paintings there is no attempt to fix or name the world. Rather, we find a deft eschewal of the known, a fascination with the non-secular and atemporal – the eternal and untimely – realms irreducible to any specific optic or culture. So, while the iconographic influence might stem from classical and pre-classical Italian painting, Gilliams’ image repertoire cannot be thus contained. This is because the artist is too skittish, too wanton and unbridled, because the sensation a given painting triggers – its affect – is never dedicated to the uncovering of a mystery or the deciphering of its symbolic content, but with the instantaneity of the experience in the making of a painting and its seeing, moments that are crucially elliptical.

More a wayfinding than a statement, one immediately senses the electricity of discovery in the instant of painting. Gilliams does not dissimulate life – his paintings are remarkably alive. All the more remarkably, their life – their generative presence – seems wired to affirmation. This is evident not only in the artist’s vivacious Matisse-like mediterranean colour palette, but also in the cosmography of his world, part human, part animal and vegetal, cosmic and elemental, though here we must not forget Gilliams’ attention to secular iconography, the fact that his world is as bonded to the material as it is to the immaterial, the elusively allegorical and weightily symbolic, as faithful as it is faithless, as rudimentary as it is fathomless, as consoling as it is tenuous. Why? Because for Gilliams paradox is inescapable. And here, it is unsurprising that the artist adores the novels by Paul Auster.

While in conversation Gilliams speaks of the inescapability of duality, I am not certain that this balancing act is in fact sustainable, that is, unless it is a balance found in the precarious act of painting itself. For what compels me most is not the riddling figurative content but its vivid composition. Certainly, expressionism plays a key role, but there is nothing narcissistic in Gilliams’ wildly expressive language. Clement Greenberg’s toxic cant about the surface materiality of paint as the final arbiter is not what Gilliams quite means when he says that ‘All serious painting is about painting itself’. Their views might seem comparable, but Gilliams has transcended the mirthless love affair with matter in-and-for itself, just as he has transcended the morbid Flemish obsession with things. Rather, what counts for the artist is the reconciliation of paint – the act of painting – with the articulation of that which is seen but which cannot quite be known. Awe and fascination matter far more than knowledge. Which is why Gilliams tenderly holds fast to his childhood memories of Italy’s churches and museums, to experience as a felt yet intangible substrate.

When looking at a Gilliams painting, it is the uncanny that prevails. However, while I find the paintings more consolatory, the artist insists upon their unsettling or uneasy quality. However we divvy up this matter, what they emphatically are not are arid duplicates of meaninglessness, any cooly insouciant zombie formalism. One is acutely aware that irony or expediency have no place in Gilliams’ world. The impacted and compacted layering of mediums, the spill and rush of a given painting’s choreography, are the portals through which we enter, for, remarkably, one does not merely look at a Gilliams painting, one enters it.

As for his latest showing at SMAC? It is titled ‘Celestial Garden’. As such, it as much about sacred spaces as it is about the cosmological, about how we can locate ourselves in this great world despite a shot GPS, distracted soul, unseeing eye, hollow heart, all the morbid symptoms of our current psycho-social vacuity. Against this sorry state which blithely and blindly disregards the sacredly tender, Gommaar Gilliams offers us his celestial garden, his elusive yet inviting sanctuary.

Text by Ashraf Jamal

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