That Pieter Vermeersch has been kindly asked to provide some clarification on his work may not come as a surprise. It might well be that works by the painter, who was born in 1973 into a family of artists – beginning with his grandfather, painter and sculptor José Vermeersch – instinctively attract people while also leaving them with a big question mark. His oeuvre is at once abstract and sensuous. Its driving force is time and space: “The depth of those concepts is so immense we can’ t possibly grasp it.” Which is exactly what Vermeersch has been trying to do all these years. He attempts to take hold of what is elusive, and he does so by painting in a near scientific way that ultimately results in vibrating colour-gradients. His paintings have an immediate impact on the viewer, who is indeed often left speechless, as if undergoing a mystical experience.

Early on in his career, Pieter Vermeersch abandoned the frame, which has proven to be another constant in his work. “I paint on various carriers, apart from canvas and paper.” His Off The Hook performances, presented on the sidelines of the Over the Edges exhibition in Ghent in 2000, formed a key period in his evolution. Every day, Vermeersch painted three windows of an abandoned building in different colours. The audience stood and watched. The colours he used then – and for many years thereafter – were bright primary colours. The colours of the works currently being exhibited in Paris are very different: light, earthy tones, in-between-colours. “At that time, photography was not so present in my work. Nowadays I start from an abstract photo – snapshots I’ ve taken with my phone: daytime and night-time images, pictures of architecture in which the context is left out, photos of landscapes that are unrecognisable, zoomed-in pictures of ancient masterpieces. The spatial context has been omitted; bold colours don’ t occur in this context. These images are an echo of time and space.” Pieter Vermeersch considers the work at Galerie Perrotin crucial. It is a step, a transition. “I see this exhibition as the confirmation of an element that has gained more and more importance in my thinking and in my work: I wanted to add an element that was of a different order, a reference to something recognisable and palpable – yes, a trace. I wanted to introduce this into the ephemeral, pictorial image. My recent work is therefore more connected to the here and now. I feel that in these newest paintings, time and space come together.” That new, surprising component: marble.

Untitled, 2013 Acrylic paint on seaside façade Permanent site-specific installation Galeries Lafayette, Biarritz, France Commissioned by Citynove, Galeries Lafayette Group Photo: Boris Frantz
“Stone is very primary. If you break open a boulder from the river, you can see millions of years fixed in its veins. By mining, cutting, and polishing – human intervention, culture –we make nature more visible. The passing of time becomes palpable! And we get a glimpse of something that was not previously visible.” Which is exactly what Vermeersch has been aiming at. “The history of stone has an almost cosmic dimension, which I want to reactivate in my work.”He recalls how as a kid he was really into geology. “This fascination for stones was brought back to life when we were living in an old house in Brussels where the ornaments were made of marble. I was intrigued, and I tried to unravel the periods of time that were present in the stone.” Marble is stone that is metamorphosed under the influence of temperature, pressure, or hydrothermal fluids; it is often millions of years old and contains fossils. “Such a piece of marble is like crystallised time and space.” Those ornaments inspired him to visit Van Den Weghe, a Belgian high-end natural stone company that processes marbles from around the world. “Beautiful marble from Italy, Brazil, Germany, Spain, Iran, Portugal, and India. I sometimes go rummaging in there for days on end, choosing slabs, taking pictures.” Marble is now part of his universe.

“My painting practice keeps evolving; it has been a kind of free association in paint: one step follows from the other. I usually know that a transition is happening when I’ m in the middle of it but often need some time to analyse it. In any case, the work only leaves my studio when the nature of this development has become clear to me, when I know what’ s happening. These transformations are a very slow process, but they cannot be ignored. Even though this marks an important point in my work, it may reappear in all directions. Perhaps I’ ll become more minimal again in my painting, or maybe just more baroque? We’ ll see!”

Untitled, 2006 - Acrylic paint on wall, mirror - 400 x 4200 cm, 328 x 500 cm - Exhibition view 'Ergens/Somewhere', MuHKA, Antwerpen, Belgium, 2006 - Collection M HKA, Antwerpen - Photo: Pieter Huybrechts
His audience might also be in transition, we suggest to him with a wink, referring to the monumental mural he painted in Biarritz, France, commissioned by Galeries Lafayette. From abstract painter to urban artist? Vermeersch grins and doesn’ t seem averse to the notion. “During my survey of the place, I was reminded of Le Rayon Vert, a film by Erik Romer from 1986. At the end of the movie, somewhere near Biarritz, the amorous couple is waiting for the sunset and, more precisely, the appearance of ‘ le rayon vert’ : a green flash that occurs on the sea at the horizon when the sun has just gone under, but only if there’ s not too much evaporation, which of course is quite a rare condition near the sea. That ‘ rayon vert’ inspired me to create an appearance in the urban landscape, a metaphysical, ephemeral image through which I wanted passers-by to see the environment. By adding something immaterial, the material world around it would be reactivated, that was the idea. A manifestation of time and space.” Especially in the summer this phenomenon is impressive – you suddenly notice something. It’ s pulling the environment open and you’re attempted to look around with fresh eyes, just as the painter wants us to do. Did we already mention that Vermeersch ’s work is subdued sensational?

Regardless, everyone was captivated by the magic of the wall. With this piece, he had a much different audience; people were taking selfies and posting images on Instagram – not necessarily the same sorts of people who go to galleries, as Vermeersch is used to. It pleases him. Another work was a landscape in Japan where he placed a fluorescent yellow line in a beautiful, virgin valley. “It’ s like the brushstroke on marble. The aim is to reactivate. That is a constant in my work.” His first windows were no exception. “It’ s the reactivation of pure, abstract art – like I was making back then in the public space, where abstraction loses its autonomy and thus reactivates.”

Untitled, 2013 Oil paint on Lambda print 12 x 9 cm (93.5 x 70 cm framed) Courtesy of ProjecteSD, Barcelona
Untitled, 2016 Oil paint on marble, 240 x 160 x 2 cm Galerie Perrotin, Paris, France, 2017 Private collection Photo: Pieter Huybrechts
Despite all this mysticism and abstraction, the artist is a man of flesh and blood. For the past 15 years he has lived in Brussels, commuting between his charming 19th century villa in the leafy outskirts of the city and his studio in the hoary industrial zone, where he paints. He says he needs oxygen after all this time in Brussels, so he’ ll soon be moving to Turin, Italy, the land of Carrara marble – a coincidence? “Arte Povera originated there, and Italian cinema, as well as the Slow Food movement. There’ s a lot of innovation and creativity in the air. Turin is an industrial city in decline, which results in plenty of empty buildings that are ideal as studios for an artist like me. And then there are those mountains! In some streets, the horizon is formed of mountain ranges and snowy peaks...A fantastic spectacle!” Vermeersch will join his brother, top-notch car designer Lowie Vermeersch, CEO and Creative Director of automotive design house Granstudio, who has been living in Turin for nearly 20 years.

Both are clearly descendants of the prominent Vermeersch family of artists. “I realise how unique it is and also how well we all get along. There is no jealousy or competition.” Several times, various family members have exhibited their work together, once it was even the entire extended family, artistic aunts and uncles included. “I was asked to curate the show and decided to give each artist a container. More than a diplomatic choice, this was a statement: the work of the youngest is worth as much as the work of the eldest, and equally interesting too.” Asked whether there’ s a link between all of them, apart from being blood relatives, Vermeersch answers, “We all share a love of good food and interesting conversation. Besides this, my father, Rik Vermeersch, once said that we are all leaning towards the mystical, and he’ s probably right. Yet our work is incredibly diverse, mine being the most abstract of the bunch, even though I do start from a representation of reality. And we all seem to have inherited a characteristic of our grandfather’ s work: everything is always very existential."

At this stage, Vermeersch still owed us an answer to that one burning question. “I would like to quote Wittgenstein, who says Nicht wie die Welt ist, ist das Mystische, sondern dass sie ist. It is not how the world is that is mystical, but that it is. And that’ s exactly my position as an artist in the world”, he concludes. Therewith we must content ourselves.

Pieter Vermeersch ’s latest work is on view at Galerie Perrotin Paris, France, until 11 March 2017.

This article appeared in DAM61. Order your personal copy.
Untitled, 2016 Oil paint on marble, 240 x 160 x 2 cm Galerie Perrotin, Paris, France, 2017 Private collection Photo: Pieter Huybrechts
Untitled, 2016 Oil paint on marble 20.5 x 16.3 x 2 cm Galerie Perrotin, Paris, France, 2017 Private collection Photo: Pieter Huybrechts
Untitled, 2016 Oil paint on canvas, marble 280 x 280 cm, 150 x 222 cm Courtesy of Galerie Perrotin, Paris, France Photo: Claire Dorn
Untitled (Kenpoku), 2016 Enamel paint, wood, metal Installation view: Kenpoku Art 2016, Ibaraki, Japan Photo: Keizo Kioku
Work In progress I, 2000 Gouache on glass Exhibition view: Off The Hook, Ghent, Belgium
Work In progress I, 2000 Gouache on glass Exhibition view: Off The Hook, Ghent, Belgium