‘When I endow the commonplace with a higher meaning, the ordinary with mysterious aspect, the known with the dignity of the unknown and the finite with the appearance of the infinite,’ states the German poet and philosopher Novalis, deceased in 1801, when reflecting and commenting upon artisthood. At the time, in the middle of the Romantic period, he explained and emphasized that art has a deep affinity with idealist philosophy, and poetry. Reality, for Novalis, served as a starting point for the imagination; an imagination that acknowledges aspects of strangeness and awe. ‘It is an art to create strangeness in a pleasant manner. It is a way to make things strange and at the same time familiar and attractive. It means to restore authenticity in the things of the world.’
Looking at the works of Henk Delabie, I am certainly not led to think of Romanticism, although the sensual and romantic aspects that are also components of his current sculptural work are not lost on me; I find them even striking. What did come to mind, when I first visited the studio of the artist, were these phrases by Novalis in which he prizes and glorifies the capacity of making things strange, while they remain, at the same time, familiar and attractive, as if – in a logical and natural way – they have, and always will, exist. This is the feeling I experience when I look at Henk Delabie’s sculptures. Unalterable as they seem, they also invite one to touch them, more even, to embrace them. No matter how strange they may seem, they somehow always remain familiar. As if they are part of a primal alphabet we all are familiar with, one that arouses a natural feeling in us.
‘Everything has to do with space,’ explains Henk Delabie about his monochrome sculptures, which I, time and again, cannot fail to see as site-specific installations in the space. They not only measure themselves with the space or appropriate a place within it, but they also incorporate the viewer into the space in which they are placed, so that we, all of a sudden, whether wanted or not, become part of the space of the sculpture. In a seemingly non-emphatic manner. Very subtly as well. Because of the way these sculptures are given a place in the space, the viewer will alternately become bigger or smaller, the space will alternately be forced upon him, or taken away. It is the sculpture that defines the space, delineates it, measures it, opens it. And not vice versa. Depending on the way it is integrated into that very space, it generates and creates a different reading. Remarkable are the reflections we perceive in the sculptures of Henk Delabie. These reflections not only bring the external reality into the inner world of the sculpture, but they also guide and disorient the gaze of the viewer. They provide a point of reference so that we can position ourselves in relation to the sculpture, and to each other.
The way in which Henk Delabie places his sculptures in the space always creates a field of tension between touching and not touching. How great the distance can be between one end of a sculpture and another. How the space and the sculpture can come near to each other, approach each other, call each other into question, lift each other, forget each other, overlook each over. Or how they blend into one another and become as it were a symbiosis, or, quite contrarily, not. There is always a play between open and closed. Most of the sculptures are closed, as if they were holding a self-contained secret. The sense of the uncanny, evident in the wall sculptures and inherently present in his work, is occasionally opened up. The gaze of the viewer can literally enter the sculpture, or is at least given the illusion that the sculpture can be stepped into, and is not only reflected by the outer reality.
No matter how large or small these sculptures are, the artist always confronts us with the organic aspect of a form. As if they were shaped with a certain obviousness, with the ease of the natural course of things.
The natural aspect of the form, of a fold, of a circle is defunctionalised by the artist so that the form can be only form, and function as an indication for the possible existence of the abstract in itself, tending toward the ‘absolute’, which requires no explanation, but in which ‘everything’ is already present in itself. It is the brain of people that always tries to make comparisons, that wants to see something concrete in a form, that wants to identify, to discover, as a human urge, as a mental support leading toward a frame of reference.
Henk Delabie shows us how abstract and delicate a form can be, how a form no longer needs a frame of reference and can simply be itself because it exists and is made in a contemporary relevant manner through the artist’s ‘thinking through doing’. Even if this form is based on a concrete (preliminary) study in which the movements of the human body are investigated.
For Delabie, the creative process is crucial, particularly at a time when most artists have become strangers to the art of self-making and work is outsourced. It is during the various stages of creation, namely filing, sanding, manipulating, and burnishing – to erase the traces of the previous layers and actions until a polished surface emerges upon which the play of light and space is given free reign – that most, and often the best, discoveries and innovations occur. This is also how the element of time sneaks into the sculpture, given that it takes an average period of 2 to 3 months to give shape to a single work.
The depiction of movement and counter-movement, of how every movement counteracts a counter-movement while at the same time creating harmony, is underlined by the use of colour. Henk Delabie uses very explicit, confrontational colours that appear to have as it were been stored somewhere in our memory and that we recognize. Although they appear artificial and pronounced, they also seem obvious. His red or blue cannot be anything else than this specific red or blue. Delabie’s colours recall the colours of toys or those we encounter in the street at times. They emphasize the tactility of the forms of his objects and bestow upon them the aura of something unapproachable. With Henk Delabie, a colour is never uncertain; it is, it exists. In the same way that he explores the extremes of what is technically possible, he examines what makes a colour a colour, and what effect a colour produces on a particular form, whether it is made of gypsum, clay, epoxy, … and vice versa.
Henk Delabie proves how rich a contemporary sculpture can be. Or to paraphrase the words of John Berger: if time flows like a river, then the act of making these sculptures by going against the current touches upon both the static and the moving, no matter how anchored they seem to stand in the space.