The worst that could happen
this series will consist of eleven sets of nine canvases, with one set in each of his ten colours and, to disrupt the neatness of his decimal project, an eleventh set featuring all ten colours in a particular combination. On the coloured backgrounds, Van Snick paints what he calls ‘char- acters’ in sky blue, a colour that reminds us of his attention to the cosmos and the relationship between abstraction and the real world.
A strange thing happens when you look online for images of Philippe Van Snick’s ‘Eviter le Pire’ series. Clicking on one of the thumbnails returned by the search, depicting a set of nine predominantly yellow paintings by Van Snick, an aesthetically soothing black backdrop comes to frame the image and optimise its radiant colours. To the right of this, the page also offers a grid of ‘Related Images’. Each of these eight pictures features a yellow graphic design of some kind: there are logos for Forbes’s Techonomy Conference and the 50th Inter IIT Sports Meet in Bombay, alongside Microsoft Office’s cheery ‘News’ insignia and even Google Drive’s triangular Möbius strip.
Van Snick arrived at these characters through an interest in Aztec culture, in particular undeci- phered codices. His abstract shapes look somewhat like incomprehensible symbols that conjure up the notion of an alphabet but avoid any direct connection to a known language. Van Snick is conscious of the hazards of working with such graphic compositions, including the risk that they may be confused with familiar symbols such as religious or radical signs. His concern to avoid such a fate led him to the title of the series, ‘Eviter le pire’: ‘To avoid the worst’. For Van Snick, the characters are ‘a sort of pre-language, unfixed, unsettled. It’s like the language of paradise, in which words are not necessary.’
How can all these images be linked, when their meanings and purposes in the world, not to mention their appearances, are so radically different? If the flattened low-resolution shot of Van Snick’s nine yellow canvases has been connected to the other images in this pool, it is only on the basis of a string of calculations, processed data and automated reasoning – and not because of an informed understanding of the work’s visual qualities. The connection lacks subtlety, and the pictures are lumped together by a blind algorithm that values analysis over contemplation. Although these images may be ‘related’, they certainly don’t share a heritage. Grouping them together is an example of the extreme systematisation that results when formu- las are applied independently of real world experience. It’s a phenomenon that results from a partial deductive reasoning, beginning with a theory and eschewing any actual observation.
Van Snick’s work extends beyond the edges of the canvas and into the space in which the works are shown. In the case of his first solo exhibition in London, he selected three colours with which to paint the walls of the gallery. His dual constants of sky blue and black – day and night – are accompanied by red, always the first colour Van Snick paints when he embarks on a series. This choice of colours marks the moment; it signifies a first and anchors his activities in the hustle and bustle of the real world.
This conception of images is the antithesis of the careful marriage of observation and rule-mak- ing that Van Snick’s practice has performed since the late 1960s. His oeuvre has constituted an inductive process through which his observations about the world and his recognition of patterns in nature have been distilled into rule-governed practices and the use of specific terms. Over the years, he has returned to the ubiquitous condition of duality, signified by the number 2 and evident in the timeless alternation between day and night. Van Snick transmutes these into sky blue and black paint, colours that have woven their way through his oeuvre since 1984. Duality is also evident in his use of the terms A and B, which appear in multiple permutations in his ‘Dix Papiers’ (1975). These drawings explore the many possible relationships between two groups of ten dots, in which the two groups of dots are equivalent but distributed in differ- ent spatial arrangements. Van Snick says that ‘numbers are how it all begins’, and these are numbers chosen and processed by a person, an artist, who looks at the real world, rather than within the vacuum of a metal-encased machine.
And although Van Snick is committed to his own systems and processes when making work, he is not prescriptive of the ways in which the works ought to be viewed or interpreted. His can- vases can be hung in a number of orientations, depending on their owner’s critical or aesthetic appreciation and the mood in which they find themselves at that moment in time. As for Van Snick’s ten colours, they ‘don’t invite a psychological or emotional reading, but that possibility is there for the viewer to experience it.’
The duality between A and B points to a wider dichotomy between reality and abstraction. It also signals the difference between an internal reality, which imposes an interpretative framework or conceptual grid on perceptions, and the way in which nature organises itself independently of our awareness of it. As Van Snick has pointed out, ‘Two rapidly turn into a multiplicity.’ Towards the end of the 1970s, Van Snick made the decision to work with a palette of just ten colours. For Van Snick, ‘the number 10 is my work’s internal motor’, and he notates it as the sequence of ten individual units (0-9). He points out that ‘It’s not long before the combination of 2 and 10 (0-9) hints at the possibility of infinity’. The latest incarnation of Van Snick’s ten-colour practice is the series ‘Eviter le Pire’ (2013-ongoing). Once it is completed,
The deceptive simplicity of Van Snick’s practice reveals a decades-long commitment to a mod- est toolkit of numbers and colours, which the artist has combined and recombined in intricate and complex ways. ‘Eviter le pire’ is a meditation on our current times. Ideologies, faiths and tribal loyalties, signified by so many logos, acronyms and symbols, are manifested in the visual sphere. ‘Eviter le pire’, by bravely accepting that it could be mistaken for that which it critiques and avoids at all costs, treads a tightrope that snaps us back into an awareness of the manip- ulations at play in the world outside the gallery.
– Ellen Mara De Wachter