Nicholas Tammens
On the work of Jef Geys
Essay
2018

 

Jef Geys (Leopoldsburg,1934—Genk, 2018) lived and worked in Balen, a town in Flanders, Belgium that is situated in De Kempen, a natural region that encompasses part of the low countries that extends east from Antwerp and terminates in the southwestern part of the Netherlands. Much of his work centres on this locale, reflecting the artist’s position in the region’s environment, history, language, and social relations—what Geys referred to as “terroir.”

 

Geys taught “Positive Aesthetics” (his own invention) at the state middle school in Balen from 1960 to 1989. This precocious approach used Geys’ own practice as an artist alongside the presentation of contemporary works of art—from Piero Gilardi to Daniel Buren to Roy Lichtenstein—to heighten an awareness in his students of the world around them, presenting concepts usually considered only for educated adults.[1] Geys staged projects in his classroom with his students and listed these activities among an inventory of artworks that he kept up to date from 1947 until his death in 2018. What is most important about this inventory is how it establishes an equivalence between forms, between activities of the artist in everyday life and all that is commonly recognised as the production of an artist.

As early as 1966, Jef Geys began using his red heart motif, as both a signature and an arbitrary form. It appeared containing a list of numbers extracted from his personal identity cards and licenses, set within a self-portrait on the front cover of his newspaper the Kempens Informatieblad; on bottles of Champagne during Geys’ tenure co-running Bar 900; and within the same contours, was baked as loaves of bread and sold in a gallery like any work of art. As a logo or signature form, it was modelled to point to the artist as its referent while alluding to whatever associations one might equate with the heart and the breast.

In Geys’ work, the heart was one of the early examples of his interest in how a form can function as a mode of identification. He was interested in understanding what structures establish the channel of communication between a form and its referent, and to attempt to create associations of meaning beyond art’s established codes

Precisely during the period 1960–63, I was preoccupied with such things as “form” and what made “form” look different: camouflage and mimicry, in short, the hidden, the things which one seems to see.

Images-forms which are shown in a certain way, i.e. in a studied “correct” way, under “correct” guidance, embedded in a “correct” strategy, are readily accepted, as if they have existed all the time. Repetition, while creating habit, nearly at the same time leaves a taste of déjà vu. The end is an accepted boredom. Images-forms, no matter how strong they are, may appear perfectly normal, submitted, tame, having reached the saturation point. The images are experienced as something “retinal,” which is also the experience one is looking for: the significance underneath is kept at a distance. We are inclined to dispose of any images which cannot be used to finish our homework, as mere scenery for more important things that we supposedly have on our mind. To demonstrate this obvious wearing out of images, I started looking for basic forms with a very simple structure but a heavily loaded content.[2]

It was the fundamentals that interested Geys most, not as established universal truths, but as the basic assumptions that we all start with in making sense of the world—for instance, what structures classify hues into colours, line and space into shape. This began early, while Geys was studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp: “I’ve always been interested in the truth behind things, the motivation, going back. At that time I had this problem of classifying, of visual thinking. It’s your environment that turns you into an artist, just as art is made. Actually the word art is artificial.”[3]

This sociological question, of what fashions an artist, would be elaborated after graduation when Geys received his license to teach and returned to Balen for work. It was at this time that he designed the Colouring Book for Adults (1963–65) to alleviate his own impasse, creating this instructive work almost to teach himself how to be an artist. The Colouring Book infantilises its subject, prescribing to its user an action as banal as colouring in the most commonplace of culturally loaded forms. It contains the themes of: 1. the gendered female form in art history; 2. maps and geopolitical borders; 3. the mid-century model home; 4. human anatomy; 5. the masculine image of the soldier; 6. consumer commodities; 7. the automobile.

As an educational tool repurposed for the adult world, the colouring book follows a pedagogical theme in Geys’ work that reflected the language surrounding his vocation, while throwing its purpose into sharp contradiction. By being displaced into adulthood, the coloring book served a divisive purpose, irritating Western art’s fixation on the creation of the autonomous work of art by a singular individual, as well as the perceived need for a tool to serve a clear function.

This search for model forms lead Geys to “rediscover” the golden ratio as a metric based on the human figure. In many ways, the body became ground zero for Geys, pointing back to how he oriented himself toward the world, as a resident of a small town, a teacher, organiser of community groups at socialist community centres, and as an artist within these contexts. His primary influence for making this central to his teaching and his art, was from Soviet architect and educator Nikolai Ladovsky, who imbued his teaching of architecture at the Vkhutemas (the Soviet equivalent of the Bauhaus) with the “physiological effects… and spatial properties of form” as derived from practical human use and spatial perception.[4]

With his I-form of 1968, a year that saw considerable police violence in Europe and abroad, Jef Geys outlined his body on the pavement and photographed what remained. As with the heart, he was interested in dealing with the shape of the body as the simplest identifying form of the individual. It signaled toward a broader dialectic in Geys’ work between the particular (the body of the artist, Geys himself) and the universal (the body as a general form). This remained a productive contradiction for Geys, underlining the problematics of a humanism based within the contingencies of the individual’s own body, Balen, Flanders, Belgium, ad infinitum.

Two years earlier, in 1966, the artist’s outline served as a series of paper cut-outs, like paper dolls but with a 1:1 human metric. In Geys’ typical elaboration of a theme, the same year saw similar “dolls” in three-dimensional form, routed in wood and painted in different guises—“camouflaged” with signifying colors of football teams, flags, and military insignia. An object of childhood again greeted the adult world in abstracted form. Termed Schildwachten [sentinels, or more literally, “paint-watchers”], these wooden inferences of both personhood and standardization give a sly acknowledgment to fellow Belgian René Magritte’s bilboquet motif.[5] Once painted, they resemble giant table-top football players as much as they suggest the shape of the American bombs that were decimating Vietnam at the time.

The Schildwachten refer to military guards, in name and resemblance, not unlike what Geys would have seen coming of age in Leopoldsburg, a small military town that was occupied by Germany in WWII. We should pause to place importance on Geys’ proximity to the military context, to its strategies, codified language, and flags of signification. Much of the content for Geys’ work was drawn from these surroundings, including the quadrant grid design of the town’s military camp. The Roman grid appeared consistently throughout Geys’ work as a reference to the universal metric of land division and town planning, a design which was exported from the lowlands during colonization, made emblematic in New York, and common to every modern city since. He reduced the quadrant design to 2×2 meter squares, and installed it in his own garden as planter boxes to grow seasonal fare. The grid of quadra in his garden provided a ground for which many of his future projects were based:

For me nothing is so binding as the laws of the grid. Trying to escape the rules of the game makes the game unnecessarily false. Grids are there because we need to speak, because rules and laws try to dominate our traffic. Sometimes the invisible rules of the game are more interesting than the game itself. In the beginning there are rules that we all can and want to recognize.[6]

Characteristic of the sense of contradiction that runs throughout much of Geys’ work, the prescribed rules and protocol that he established for his own production were used equally in their capacity for limitation as they were for their productivity. For instance, Geys seemingly established a serial structure arbitrarily or retrospectively, e.g., when he annually painted the design of one of the seed packets from his garden between 1963 and 2017; or when Geys published All the Black and White Photos until 1998, which compiled all of his contact sheets without editing or censoring. By camouflaging the logic of the work with a new rubric, he invited a legible meaning that speaks at a different register, one which may even be out of his hands. It was a way of deceiving himself and remaining suspicious of his own intentions, throwing a net over poetic choices to give the appearance of order. Jef Geys saw structure as a necessary deception:

Through the art of Jef Geys runs a chain of variations on the theme of concealing: wrapping, travesty, con-trick, kitsch, camouflage… Most of the time the artist attacks the social deceit indirectly. He seems to adapt; but at the same time he provides shifts which reveal his critical intention; which make the machine of deceit grind and shudder. Complicity and sabotage.

Recurrent questions are: how do those who are in control, deceive “the masses”; which part of their memory do they try to erase? The non-conformist who asks those impertinent questions, has an amazing stock of popular candour and brutality. But no smug naivëty; he knows he is neither a saint nor a hero; he knows that the idea of art itself has been open to suspicion for long. Therefore Jef Geys passes criticism on art and the para-artistic phenomenons while at the same time he shows he is conscious of his own ambivalent position: he cannot remain completely outside the deceit. (Nobody can.) This explains his sharp camouflage-games; they caution the public or make them feel uncomfortable. (Sometimes: as if someone is lecturing you about the deceit of the world while he is pinching your wallet.)[7]

Indeed, deception was central to Geys’ work—in his strategic dealings with the art industry, he often proposed the unrealizable or absurd, not as self-sabotage but as productive sleights-of-hand. There was his famous proposal to blow up the Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp; his letter to dealer Ileana Sonnabend suggesting she exhibit his vacation photos from the South of France; his bid to install a structurally unfeasible viewing platform at Le Magasin, Grenoble; or his many letters to appointed bureaucrats suggesting they allow Geys to plant vegetable gardens on state property, one of which was addressed to French president Jacques Chirac. For an artist interested in the “the invisible rules of the game,” these were productive interventions, revealing something particular in each instance, be it either cultural or common sense, about the structures that circumscribe what can and cannot be done or said by an artist.

Establishing the mythic persona of the artist was a strategy that allowed Geys to put into question the relationship between the private life of the individual and the public identity contained within the role of the artist, continuing the theme that Joris Note identifies as a form of “concealment.” Not unlike dressing the Schildwacht in a variety of painted appearances, Geys intentionally displaced the role by appropriating other identities—what he called “disguises.” For instance, there was Mary Davenport, a nom-de-plume assumed by Geys for a body of work picturing equine figures; and Geys’ adoption of the name of a village boy, Gijs Van Doorn. Geys elaborated his own persona like any other form in his work, and with considerable foresight, saw the complicity between the activity of the artist and their public persona as a site to establish one’s autonomy as an artist.

This remains as evidence of Geys’ singular attitude towards his position in the world, it was an idiosyncratic political stance, underwritten by a radical equivalence between all that he did. This is evident in his position on aesthetic experience that he elaborated in his work, promoting a social equality that disregarded the classist connoisseurship on which the art system has been established, ever since the invention of taste. He equated the engineering and finish of a BMW as equal in beauty to a Rubens; botanical forms as elaborate and “useful” as pornographic drawings or corporate images; and the production of a painting factory in Leopoldsburg that produced paintings of “common” Flemish taste to be as insightful on the state of artistic production as the authorship of the artist himself.

Beginning and ending in and around De Kempen, Jef Geys made this equivalence most legible by maintaining his lifelong inventory of works. While constantly referring to and reinterpreting his own output, the continuity of this index retains a steady equilibrium, giving all of Geys’ divergent activities as an artist the same standing. Above all, the taxonomy of this expansive list is rooted in a sentimental materialism, cataloging everything from the commonplace to the perceptively eminent: a class field-trip to visit the studio of Marcel Broodthaers; the natural products of Geys’ garden; a drive with cabbages around the region to “show” them the countryside; exhibiting at Documenta; the presentation of a snake handler in the classroom; the book compiling all of his black and white photographs; appearances on television; and a number of letters addressed to heads of state. Within all of this was a spirited questioning of art’s position in the world, and consequently, the role of the artist in social life. Jef Geys rearticulated modernity’s question concerning the purpose of the artist into a mode of working that sensed the boundaries of the role; he tested its limits, asking what circumscribes the expectations of what an artist is and does.

Geys and Lili Dujourie consult their work on Geys’ blackboard), 1984. The image was used as an advertisement for an exhibition of the collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Ghent at the State Middle School in Balen which was curated by Geys with students and faculty, and which included works by Lucio Fontana, Daniel Buren and Piero Gilardi, among others.

An image from the classroom in Balen where Geys taught “positive aesthetics” from 1966 to 1989. In the foreground, an artwork by Piero Gilardi.

In 1971, Geys began publishing and distributing the newspaper Kempens Informatieblad, a local publication which he delivered house-to-house, and were often produced in conjunction with his exhibitions. The issue above shows Geys' heart icon.

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Jef Geys, Coloring Book for Adults, 1964-65, detail of 6 panels.

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The Coloring book for adults (1964-65 …) formed an insidious comment on the middle class suburban lifestyle and its neo-modern aesthetics. Books and prints and panels featured schematised line-drawings of details, functions and gestures that relate to what Geys conceived of as the seven fundamental categories of human life: women, home, car, body, military, world and objects.

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Jef Geys, i-form, 1986

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Jef Geys, Schildwachten (Darth Vader), 1990–94

Ploymere and lacquer, 185 x 40 cm.

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Al de zwart-wit foto's tot 1998, 1998

30.5 x 25 cm, 500 pages

Published by Provinciaal Centrum voor Beeldende Kunsten Begijnhof, Hasselt (Belgium).
 

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Jef Geys, Cabbages in car.

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by Mary Davenport

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Jef Geys, Sombras de Lisboa (Shadows of Lisbon) , 1998-2019

In 1998, Jef Geys travelled to Lisbon, hometown of the legendary fado singer Amália Rodrigues (1920–1999), who held a fascination for him. During his brief stay he took dozens of photographs of shadows cast on pavements and walls. For his exhibition at Yale Union in 2019, Geys commissioned seven folding screens, leaving it up to the curator, Nicholas Tammens, to choose the images that would cover them,.

[1] Anna Harding, “Jef Geys School Projects 1960–2005.” In Magic Moments: Collaboration Between Artists and Young People, Anna Harding, ed. London: Black Dog, 2005.

[2] Jef Geys, “STORY.” In Jef Geys, Architecture as Limitation, exh. cat., São Paulo Biennial, 1991.

[3] Jef Geys, Wien, Vienna, Wenen, exh. cat., Bawag Foundation, 2009.

[4] Jef Geys, “STORY.” In Jef Geys: Architecture as Limitation, exh. cat., São Paulo Biennial, 1991. For further elaboration, see Jamie Stevens, Chalet, exh. text, La Loge, Brussels, 2017.

[5] Thanks to Dirk Snauwaert for this important connection.

[6] Kempens Informatieblad, Special Edition Biennale Venetië [Venice Bienniale], 2009.

[7] Joris Note, Jef Geys, ABC Ecole de Paris, Stichting Kunst & Projecten, 1990.