Painting at the speed of light

by Peter Theunynck



Jus Juchtmans’ paintings are ponds in which you can see your own reflection.You can drown in them. The light sucks you into the abyss, into the undercurrent, into the whirlpool and everything underneath the surface shimmers and vibrates.

I have seldom met a painter whose work absorbs you, the way Jus Juchtmans’ (Mortsel 1952) paintings do. I don’t know of any paintings with a greater intensity and depth. Pictures that invite you to look beneath the surface, that surprise you at any given moment, because they are as changeable and tricky as light itself. Juchtmans is a painter from the Low Countries. A painter of light. A painter with the light.

Higher level
Juchtmans’ works are paintings. Yes, I suppose one could call them that. They consist of paint applied in various layers on a prepared or unprepared canvas stretcher. They are light: easy to put on the wall. They are light: they catch it and reflect it. They are ever present and intense. Even the small ones. They vibrate in the room. With Juchtmans, art and its observer reach a higher level.

Inventor of colour
Jus Juchtmans’ paintings are plain beautiful. Are we still allowed to say such a thing? They shine and reflect. They astonish because every day Juchtmans invents new colours in his lab, his studio. They seduce us with their sensuality, yet aren’t casual, coquettish or superficial. They aren’t easily consumed, they draw you out, they invite you to participate. Juchtmans’ pictures are completed, but not frozen. They can change at any given moment, because they are colour and colour is vibration, writhing and acceleration. Colour has the speed of light. Colour breathes. Juchtmans’ paintings come at you at light speed. They are basically impossible to photograph, just like the Northern lights. Each photograph is a snapshot, one of the million possible manifestations of the picture. Each reproduction of a painting by Juchtmans would be a betrayal of that painting, because it narrows it down to a single moment, while it is ever-changing. A picture by Juchtmans is a chain reaction, a solar prominence, an alluvion, an eternal coming and going of light and colour. It is a natural phenomenon.

Isn’t this true for any painting? Monet’s Waterlilies, Rothko’s ascetic abstract pictures, Richter’s photorealism. Yes and no. Juchtmans’ paintings come at you with the highest intensity of colour in the world. How come? Because his pictures are in fact installations: a multitude of layers of colour that reveal themselves through the transparency of the medium. Juchtmans’ paintings work like diamonds. Each layer breaks the light in a different way. Each different kind of light creates new observations. They are allotropes: within their fixed aggregate state they have multiple physical manifestations. Pictures by Juchtmans are more than a visual experience. They are a total sensation, a happening. A painting – or rather a pictorial installation by Juchtmans – drags you in; you participate, experience, change with the light. You have to. This is the true strength of the work.

Nothing to see
What do you see when looking at Juchtmans’ pictures? Nothing special really. Spots, smudges, lines, shimmers and colours. The latter above all. In grazing light you can also see dragging marks and scratches, minuscule air bubbles, sometimes little holes. These belong, because perfection doesn’t exist. The paintings are not airbrushed. They are not serial work. Each canvas is like a beach smoothed by the squeegee of the sea, time and time again. So what do you see when looking at Juchtmans’ pictures? Everything. Through the reflection of the paintings the room, the surroundings, the sky, the clouds, the light, the lighting, even the observer are sucked into the painting. At any given moment you see something different. Juchtmans’ pictures aren’t dead matter; they are very much alive.

Juchtmans doesn’t depict; he researches, he creates. Compare him to a child on the beach, playing with sand, water and seashells and with the sunlight and the shadows, waiting to see what the sea might do to his castle, anticipating and reacting. Or to a scientist experimenting. Someone who questions all the given variables and plays with this. An alchemist mixing until he ends up with gold.
Juchtmans’ pictures are like the Earth. They consist of geological layers. And like these layers are exposed in the landscape when positioned on faults, so are the layers of Juchtmans’ work exposed at the edges of the canvas. The edges tell us about the history of the painting. It is the fingerprint, the memory of the picture. The key to the secret of the painting.

What are the variables Juchtmans plays with in his studio, his lab? How does he go about creating his work? The canvases are not placed on an easel or hung on the wall when he is painting. They lie on two beams at working height supported by trestles. The painter’s canvas is like a chessboard. He applies colour. This is a matter of a few minutes. Then elements like fluidity, friction, coagulation and solidification make their move; just like they would in nature or after the big bang. When they have played their part and the canvas has dried (about a day later), the painter sees how the cards have been shuffled and boldly makes his next move. This might be a transparent layer or a new explosion of colour. This goes on for days until he has created layer after layer and the canvas has the desired intensity and expressiveness. So doesn’t he know beforehand where he is heading? He often does. For instance wanting to create a flesh tone, like a demiurge would, or a scientist in his laboratory. And sometimes he wants to engage in dialogue with the work of his predecessors, like Picasso’s ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’. The process can be somewhat guided, but remains dependent on the elements. Humidity, for instance, affects the painting process, whereas light comes into play after the painting is finished

Can a picture fail? Can the painter be checkmated? Each move by the elements, the variables, is a challenge to which the artist has to respond. The more layers a picture has, the more challenging it has been, the more intense the struggle between opponents and chessboard. Sometimes the painter can be overcome with doubt. He then has to distance himself and let time run its course. But the painter always has the last say.
I have tried to unearth the soul of Juchtmans’ work using metaphor and description. But just like the photographer, the writer is bound to fail. Do you want to know what it’s really about? Go and see Juchtmans’ painting for yourself. Experience them. Let them overwhelm you.