In a new exhibition at Design Museum Gent, curator and DAMN°'s own Siegrid Demyttenaere, explores how Belgium artist Jan van Eyck experimented and applied his colour research and how design now benefits and strives to contribute to that knowledge.

“Nowadays we seem to be able to make any material in any colour, but tend to forget that colour comes from material and has material properties that you can work with. Painters like Van Eyck and Rembrandt understood this like no other and were able to excel because of it,” says Guus Kusters. Together with his partner in design Maarten Kolk, Kusters is part of a new, ambitious exhibition exploring the connection between the colours of the past and how designers use colour today.

Time Rock Stack, 2019-20, Dawn Bendick. Bendick was inspired by the way in which Van Eyck painted the reflection of light, especially in gemstones. The lighting changes the colour of her sculptures – from warm orange or pink to dramatic neon green and - blue. The shape references cairns, stones stacked on top of each other that mark a path or a special place. Time Rock Stack shows how subtle changes in the angle of the light indicate time slipping away. Produced by Max Jacquard, photos: Filip Dujardin, © Design Museum Gent

Staged at Design Museum Gent in Belgium, KleurEyck. Van Eyck’s Colours in Design is a contemporary response to Van Eyck. An Optical Revolution, an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts Gent (MSK) that charts the remarkable impact of 15th-century painter and local hero Jan Van Eyck. Van Eyck revolutionized oil painting, harnessing new techniques that helped speed up the drying process of the oils to transform the process of layering and applying colour, creating minutely detailed scenes and figures and using light and shadow to bring his images to life. Likely to be a major blockbuster, the MSK exhibition is the largest of his work in living memory and features the newly restored Gent Altarpiece – also known as The Adoration Of The Mystic Lamb – the most significant Flemish painting of its time.

The exhibition at the Design Museum takes this starting point and runs amok with it, using Van Eyck’s nuanced and technical appreciation for colour and light as a device to collect together contemporary design and research projects along with new commissions, spitting them out in a new, curatorial triptych.

Noisy Jelly, 2012, PPinaffo-Pluvinage, adapted version for KleurEyck, 2020

Sound and programming: Léo Baqué, partner: Madd-Bordeaux (detail image by Pinaffo-Pluvinage)

Noisy Jelly, 2012, PPinaffo-Pluvinage, adapted version for KleurEyck, 2020

Sound and programming: Léo Baqué, partner: Madd-Bordeaux (detail image by Pinaffo-Pluvinage)

108 lines, 2020, atelier Haegeman Temmerman, in collaboration with Nitto, HARU stuck-on design for KleurEyck. Photos: Filip Dujardin, © Design Museum Gent

“The modernity of Van Eyck lies in the mastery of the Arab optics of Alhazen (the first true scientist in the world from the 11th century). The light reflected from the objects provides all information about the texture of their surface,” explains KleurEyck curator Siegrid Demyttenaere. “Van Eyck’s lively colour palette is a direct result of this knowledge – he painted with light. When you look at the work of some contemporary artists and designers you notice some parallel thinking and processes. The research of how and why colour is seen, the variety of light playing and reflecting in one colour results in beautiful palettes.”

The exhibition is divided into three parts. One section showcases design and artistic research projects around colour, which in some ways can be compared to Van Eyck’s knowledge of optics, architecture, botany and other fields. The Pigment Walk presents 100 contemporary objects selected by Demyttenaere and co-curated by Sofie Lachaert. Featuring established and emerging designers, in addition to 20 works from the Museum’s collection, they zoom in and out on 13 details from Van Eyck’s Mystic Lamb and are gathered into ensembles based on colour groups. Then there are the Experience Rooms, set inside a series of historic rooms in the former Hotel De Coninck building that currently houses the Museum. This part of the exhibition is populated with installations commissioned for the exhibition that are often tactile and interactive, bringing together colour and the senses in playful and thoughtful projects.

ANIMA III, 2020, Nick Verstand, in collaboration with Salvador Breed, Naivi, NAP Framework, Pufferfish,

created for KleurEyck. Photos: Filip Dujardin, © Design Museum Gent

“All the designers in the Experience Rooms have something to do with light and colour, but all in totally different ways,” says Demyttenaere of her exhibition concept. The exhibition’s intent is firmly established with the opening work, an installation of artist Dawn Bendick’s Time Rock Stack. Referencing cairns, the totem-like stacks of rocks that are left as markers by walkers along the UK’s public footpaths and trails, Time Rock Stack is formed by stacks of dichroic glass blocks, roughly cut to look like stone, that glint and glisten as light passes through them. Set in a dark space, the sculpture featured in the exhibition brings to mind both Van Eyck’s paintings of gems and his use of light

“Colour impacts our mood, and light gives us information about the world around us. Like the natural light that falls on cairns (and is used in Van Eyck’s paintings) that shifts colour and space, the artificial lighting I use shifts the colour of Time Rock Stack from warm pinks and oranges to cool blues and greens,” explains Bendick.

Modern Animism, 2019-2020, Patricia Domingues, in collaboration with VA Studio, (created for KleurEyck. Photos: Filip Dujardin, © Design Museum Gent

Un Jardin Miraculeux, 2020, Les Monseigneurs, partner: Verilin, photo by Siegrid Demyttenaere

RembrandtLAB – Constructing Colours, 2016, Studio Maarten Kolk & Guus Kusters. Photos: Filip Dujardin, © Design Museum Gent. Photos: Filip Dujardin, © Design Museum Gent

Nick Verstand’s ANIMA (III) performs a similar act, albeit from a more technological viewpoint. Humming menacingly, a psychedelic orb immerses the viewer into a relationship with colour that shifts and changes as it is observed. “We use an algorithm [in this case based on the colours of the Mystic Lamb] to create fluid dynamics morphing multiple colour layers in real-time over the surface of the three-dimensional sphere.”

What unites the seemingly disparate practices gathered together in the exhibition is a deep-seated thoughtfulness about colour and an idea that objects are far from dumb, instead engaging with their users in complex and varied relationships. Many of the installations in the Experience Rooms use human interaction as a force for transformation. Portuguese jeweller Patricia Domigues’ Modern Animism is a case in point. Blocks of stone – chosen to reference the materials from which many pigments were sourced in Van Eyck’s era – will be slowly fragmented into small pieces during the course of the exhibition. Visitors are invited to take a picture of their favourite stone and upload it, contributing to a new and evolving digital collage.

“When I think of the work of Van Eyck, I see the tangible immateriality of the sacred through his eyes. But I see, as well, the physical reality of the landscapes from which the pigments used in his paintings were extracted – lapis lazuli, malachite, jasper…” she explains. “I find it fascinating how man has made use of the material world to understand immaterial aspects of our lives. The world of beliefs is not so far from the virtual world. Both are intangible and immaterial concepts, collectively built and shared, through the use and transformation of our physical world.”

Colourful Kinaesthesia, 2020, mischer'traxler, workshop at Boisbuchet, making of Pink, created for KleurEyck

Photo: Lake Lewis

Another project that navigates the relationship between the physical and the digital but with a more playful and tactile approach is Pinaffo Pluvinage’s Noisy Jelly, a new version of an installation created in collaboration with the Musée d’Art Décoratif & Design Bordeaux. Described as a “sonic chemistry set” the installation replaces the usual smooth, hard surfaces of digital technology with soft, squishy and colourful gelatine blocks that make different noises when touched. What sounds should jelly make? What sounds should colours make?

“The colour is not applied on the surface but is in the material and so is very linked to the shape: because of the transparency, the same colour will not appear the same at all with different thicknesses, and surface details,” says Raphaël Pluvinage, co-founder of the studio with Marion Pinaffo. In previous versions, the duo had found the colours to be a bit unpredictable, so relished the opportunity to dig further into the world of pigments under the guidance of Demyttenaere. Experimenting with opacities they have created a new colour palette for the work, exploring the idea of what colours should sound like.

Re-table(au), 2020, Marente van der Valk (Food Lab – Jan van Eyck Academy), De Onkruidenier, Céline Pelcé,

created for KleuEyck, photo: Filip Dujardin, © Design Museum Gent

Even more literally playful is Joanna Reuse’s C S D H L A O P U E R (= colour + shape). In accordance to the designer’s “theory of reuse”, it encourages children to play with colour in a soft, foam landscape, presenting them with brightly pigmented, discarded objects sourced from a chain of circular stores in the Netherlands.

“Every reused object of C S D H L A O P U E R was a banal everyday product, but all with a particular colour and form,” says Reuse. “By constructing, assembling, arranging, joining, ranking… arise monochrome mountains, colourful changing chains, transparent towers, and flashy sculptures.”

C S D H L A O P U E R, 2020, Joanna Reuse, in collaboration with Vrijdaghs, Ateljee Recycling Shop,

created for KleurEyck. Photos: Filip Dujardin, © Design Museum Gent

Although there is a section of the exhibition dedicated specifically to research projects, many of the earlier installations are also the result of research-driven practices. Viennese duo mischer’traxler have created an installation called Colourful Kinaesthesia, based on a workshop with 15 students at Domaine Boisbuchet (the international research centre for design and architecture) in France last summer.

“Workshop participants had just four and a half days to work on a project and we also did not know who would be participating, so it was a very interesting challenge for us,” remember the designers. “We liked the idea to underline the movement of the body with designed objects.”

The designers and participants matched key words to primary and secondary colours, then translated the words into adjectives that related to movement before designing, building and performing a scenario in the grounds of Boisbuchet. A series of striking twists, turns and leaps of colour, in Gent we see projects from the workshop, photography by Martina Orska and a film by Holog Wang.

One project in the Experience Rooms contains narratives told by the many, many plants featured within the landscape of The Ghent Altarpiece, sees De Onkruidenier (Ronald Boer and Jonmar Vlijmen) collaborate with Marente van der Valk (Food Lab – Jan van Eyck Academy) and food artist Céline Pelcé. De Onkruidenier (or weed grocers) have a history of exploring the wild origins of cultivated plants to reveal the relationship between humans, plants and landscapes through short stories and gestures. One work focused on a ‘rare’ dandelion and speaking to dandelion expert Karst Marer led them to discover the common weed’s importance to biodiversity, and use as an ingredient in cooking and medicine. For the Gent exhibition the team members have created Re-Table(au), a project that evolves with the change of the seasons. Revealing new colours, tastes and smells as they are harvested throughout its presentation, the piece grows through time extrapolating the seasons that Van Eyck had beautifully blended together. The installation is one that visitors can taste and interact with. First we see plants as raw materials, various stages of fermentation and as a printing material. Then there is a second part that displays plant parts cooked in glazed ceramics, plant extracts and preparations, and a video diary of the whole process.

‘We are living in Van Eyck fantasy landscape; it is part of our weekly routine when we go to the supermarket to buy tomatoes from Spain in December. When it is possible to buy whatever food whenever we want, people lose their connection to the season and the value of the cultivation of their groceries,” says Vlijmen

KleurEyck. Van Eyck’s Colours in Design, view on the Pigment Walk

Photo: Filip Dujardin, © Design Museum Gent

In a similar vein mischer’traxler’s project The Idea of a Tree, which explores using natural process as a production technique, is also on show in the Pigment Walk alongside pieces like Stéphane Mouflette’s Peinture au Chevalet. A “transgender object” that identifies as a painting, tool and light fixture, it has been designed as a riff on classical modes of painting and features a chromatic colour scale supported by a white structure.

“I designed this piece as a tool for contemplating colour and its variations,” explains Mouflette. “My productions are similar to toys for adults, which questions the idea of maturity, acquired knowledge, and everyday boredom in an environment of standardized objects.”

In the Pigment Walk there are also a number of works created especially for the exhibition. One of those is Picobello Peeters by British artist Ann Carrington. It contemporizes references and influences from 17th century Dutch and Flemish still lifes and takes its name from a type of tulip and the painter Clara Peeters – she was a pioneer of still lifes during the period, and when an exhibition of her works went to the Museo del Prado in 2016 it was the first solo show devoted to a female artist in its history. In the form of a bouquet made from spoons, goblets, vases and plates, it maintains the delicacy of its decorative predecessors. Another such project is a specific version of DWA Design Studio’s Hacker Vase series. Made from remnants of Carrara marble – the designers were determined surplus didn’t equal ending up in a skip – its link to Van Eyck is in the use of lapis lazuli, the precious stone from which the artist got his blue pigment.

The research section is populated mainly with extant projects, some with rethought displays for the exhibition. Founder of Grace of Glaze, Simone Doesburg, explores how ceramicists can use new and more vibrant hues by combining the coloured porcelain or coloured glaze more generally used. Creating a special series of the Colour Library that forms the basis of all her works, the research is displayed grid-like and shows three colours of porcelain and 25 colours of glaze and porcelain. Alongside the grid, there are porcelain objects that reference the colours of the Mystic Lamb.

Polychromy Plays, 2018, Navine G. Khan-Dossos

Courtesy of Navine G. Khan-Dossos, The Showroom London & Imperial Health Charity

London-based Greek designer Navine G. Khan-Dossos is presenting Polychromy Plays, a project that came out of a residency at St Mary’s Hospital in west London. Over a series of workshops with patients, Khan-Dossos developed a new colour palette to be used in a medical setting to improve the experience of being on a ward. There were three outcomes of the project: individual colour palettes developed with children who were long-term patients on the paediatric wards; a working colour palette with names developed in small groups; and a final publication of the finished palette that was given out by the hospital.

“I was surprised by how many of the references of names were brand based, but also political references,” says Khan-Dossos. “We saw a Netflix Red alongside a Trump Orange. I also encouraged the children I worked with to think about colours that weren’t always pleasant or ‘nice’.”

Although the range of work on show is extremely wide, there is a sense that many of the designers are still coming to terms with their own understanding of a relationship with colour. Uninterested in becoming ‘masters’ like Van Eyck, they are concerned with experimentation and understanding.

Peinture au chevalet, 2018, Stéphane Mouflette

“We’ll never look at colour the same way and even though we’ve studied colour for quite some years now, we’re still rookies,” says Kusters. Studio Maarten Kolk and Guus Kusters’ RembrantLAB – Constructing Colours project is perhaps a perfect encapsulation of the exhibition, with the clearest connection to the artworks that have inspired it.

Carried out over the course of a year and originally commissioned by Museum het Rembrandthuis, Museum de Lakenhal, Leiden Marketing, Culture fund Leiden and partner Rijksmuseum, it picks apart the origins of the layers of colour used by Rembrandt in his paintings and reapplies them to ceramics as a way of understanding their material properties.

“There were just 20 final colours, but it took four people working full-time for six months and approximately 1000 glazing recipes to create it,” says Kusters. “By presenting the work for the first time in a very edited way [for KleurEyck] visitors will not see the enormous amount of research behind it, so we’re taking a risk in that way.

“But we want visitors to see what we see when we look at a Rembrandt. To see how pasty, rich, flat, deep, shy and bright colour can be, and hope the next time they look at a Van Eyck or Rembrandt they will look at their paintings in another way.”

by Anna Winston

This article appeared in DAM76. Order your personal copy.