It’s hard not to smile just a little at the youthful bluster behind Belgian painter Michiel Ceulers’ West Coast debut at Mihai Nicodim Gallery — an exhibition in which the 26-year-old artist is said in the press release to “strip the medium [of painting] right down to its skeleton, peeling away all the unnecessary accouterments laden on poor paintings by thousands of years to find out as best he can what the act presently and personally means.”
Ceulers is hardly the first to attempt such a feat, and he will surely not be the last. Indeed, it is among the more conspicuous lessons of modernism that every attempt to detach painting from history only ensconces it in another sticky layer of the stuff.
That Ceulers knows this is evident, to some degree, in the playfulness of the language. (The show’s title, taken from an old Jacques Brel song, translates from the French as “How to Kill Your Wife’s Lover When You Were Raised With Tradition?”) What trace of irony the language implies is overshadowed, however, by something far more interesting: the sincerity of Ceulers’ engagement with the material.
Every painting student asks the existential questions at one time or another. Few have the feel that Ceulers clearly has for the actual material life of a painting — which is to say, the instincts, sensibility and aptitude to make the question of “what the act presently and personally means” feel relevant and fresh, even urgent.
Most of the 13 paintings in the show follow the same basic method of construction: a relatively smooth, monochromatic ground is overlaid with a grid of tiny, chunky white squares, presumably created by slathering oil paint across a gridded stencil. All but one of the canvases are rectangular, varying in size from roughly 2 feet tall to 8 feet tall.
Within these simple parameters, however, the subtle variation is enthralling. Ceulers is not especially fastidious in his treatment of the grid, but nor is he conspicuously sloppy. Each canvas strikes its own odd, organic balance between the many paradoxical capacities of paint: the cohesion of the grid and the sprawl of the field; the clarity of line and the sensuality of the smudge; sculptural texture and atmospheric tonality. The strongest of the works somehow manage to combine the qualities of a tattered rag and a glowing window.
There is no ridding painting of its baggage. As is often the case with really good painting, however, Ceulers’ adept, energetic investment in the luscious materiality of these and the show’s handful of other works — blocky, tattered collages made from cut-up scraps of other paintings — offers a stirring testament to its bearing on the here and now.
Mihai Nicodim Gallery, 3143 S. La Cienega Blvd., Unit B, Los Angeles, (310) 838-8884, through June 30. Closed Sunday and Monday. www.nicodimgallery.com