Major breakthroughs in art and science not rarely happen when people have the courage to forget what earlier generations saw. They were achieved by those who had the courage to return to the uninhibited character of a child. The German 18th-century lyric poet Friedrich Hölderlin sighed, When I was still a serene child, and knew nothing of all that surrounds us, was I not then more than I am now, dipped into the chameleon colours of men.” And as one of the greatest mathematicians of the previous century, Alexander Grothendieck, said, Discovery is the privilege of the child: the child who has no fear of being once again wrong, of looking like an idiot, of not being serious.
In that sense, a genius comes closer to reality with empty hands than a learned high-flier with rich intellectual substance.
Which explains why it is impossible to create a relevant work of art by applying purely rational genius. Also the idea that a relevant work of art can be created by following a number of rules dictated by the intellect is comparable only to the idea that, technically speaking, man is capable of landing on the moon. That is all it says. Because then it would be possible to create any work of any significance with a calculator in hand, by whichever enterprise, even if it is a work with the slightest artistic feeling. There is clearly something else going on: vital instinctive powers – although dependent on the freedom they are given – drive the artist and ask for their release.
It is not surprising that in contemporary art the personal voice is applauded as a pre-eminent, individual artistic signature. Sadly we come across little originality in everyday cultural hustle and bustle, where shameless mimesis prevails. An exception to this is the still very young visual artist Ruben Stallinga. ‘Uninhibited character’ definitely applies to him. This makes his working method just as special as the result of his artistic efforts. Where a regular visual artist begins with nothing (an empty sheet of paper, a blank canvas etc.) and builds something up from scratch – in other words: uses nothing to create something – Stallinga turns this logic around: his artistic construction starts with actual deconstruction. He does not escape to but from matter, and confidently and passionately works his way through. Whereto? There is no predetermined goal, no plan, no design he wants to hold on to, not even an experiment.
This artist seemingly begins his work as a classic sculptor who knows he can release the image hidden in a big chunk of matter. He chips away at the stone until he is left with something: a material object. By contrast, Stallinga leaves the chunk nearly intact and touches the inside until he is left with empty, intrinsic shapes in a way which makes the context in which this emptiness appears, suddenly relevant. He, as it were, erases the rigid construction drawings and rhythmically turns a strictly composed score into a lively jazz, full of improvisation and including dissonance. That is the essence of his art. He inverts the artistic creative process, his art is inversion art.
To some extent, this working method reminds us of the negative voids in Henry Moore’s later sculptures: by hollowing out matter, his objects were given an immense power of expression. Moore’s massive material contrasts with Stallinga’s subtle wire mesh material. Neither does the latter reduce this material to achieve an explicit negative void, nor is his work deconstruction. On the contrary, his destruction is in fact construction because he badly needs the material worked by him to create his own universe.
Ruben Stallinga’s work deserves what the renowned art historian Heinrich Wölffin referred to as a ‘morphologic approach’. In this morphologic approach, the observer’s attention is transferred from the artist to the work of art. It is no longer the artist’s often romanticised life story which receives full attention, but the focus is immediately on the work itself. In this particular case, the focus is explicitly emphasised by the fact that this very young artist is autistic. Because it is not despite of, but actually thanks to, this restriction that he can produce original art: a blessing for contemporary art.
In conclusion, I would not be surprised if Ruben Stallinga’s authentic visual language, which is so difficult to classify as zero, constructivism, minimalism or conceptualism, will find a totally personal way in the packed domain of contemporary art and that, in due course, it will be given the place in the canon of 21st-century art it deserves.
Jorrit van Bavel (collectioneur)