Art loving Amsterdam!! Where were you on Saturday?? Yes, the relentless cold and three inches of snow made the Van Ostadestraat a treacherous destination, but I'd expected the Dutch to be more courageous, ready to brave the weather for something good and a free beer. The opening of Izaak Zwartjes' exhibition at the Upstream Gallery was, apart from a few bespectacled friends who enthusiastically exchanged ideas gathered around the drinks table, deserted. It was unusually quiet. Undeservingly so.
Crossing the Threshold, as the show is called, presents new sculptural work by Zwartjes, in which the artist solidifies his style and continues his personal quest. Since graduating from the Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague in 2008, Zwartjes has become known for his larger scale installations, disorienting environments in which human characters – men and women – can be found stranded, strangled, deserted or lost. Concerned with the searching human soul in an age dominated by technological developments – in a world where continuous consumption has taken over the role of the church in giving solace – Zwartjes created human figures in a state of desolation. His tableaux sometimes recall those of Folkert de Jong, but where his contemporary's work always has a cheerful sarcasm to it, Zwartjes' early work is daunting; his figures are decomposing, their surroundings derelict.
In the current show Zwartjes displays the remnants of a recent journey by exhibiting (and selling) the wooden tricycle he built for a pilgrimage. It's a slow (3,7 miles an hour), cumbersome machine with a faulty motor just about powerful enough to carry him to the country's South. Stripped of all society's luxuries, it was a small, rural adventure, the story of a guy on a truck. Retreating in this manner has made his work more abstract: there's a certain stillness that wasn't previously there. The dark desolation has made room for more geometry; his shapes are more defined, the works, perhaps, more finished.
Izaak Zwaartjes, The rape of Dithyrambos, 2013, 215x210x225 cm; Photo: Gert Jan van Rooij; Courtesy of the artist and Upstream Gallery, Amsterdam.
Although his work can read as critical social commentary, particularly in its earlier iterations, this is not the intent. Zwartjes typically works intuitively with objects he finds on the city streets and it's often the materials that determine the works’ eventual shapes. Like many, he's obsessed with the fine filth of our society's leftovers but – unlike colleague accumulator Agathe Snow who simply displays her urban trophies – he likes to burn them, paint them, or cover them in manure. The Rape of Dithyrambos (2012), centerpiece of the current exhibition, exemplifies this way of working as do the brilliant smaller sculptures in the back of the gallery, made from found rope, fabric, animal skulls, and in one instance, horns. The tiny creatures, often wonky and one-legged, bring to mind totems of a mythical tribe. There's something primal, something deeply subconscious and recognizable that shines through in these works.
As a self-made pilgrim in a society obsessed with order, Zwartjes is willing to explore, dig through the dirt and face the demons slumbering in us all. Let's hope he continues to travel, that he finds what he is looking for. And that his next opening is somewhere warm.
(Image on top: Izaak Zwartjes, Untitled , 2011, ongoing-carriage and video, 290 x 155 x 130 cm; Courtesy of the Artist and Upstream Gallery / Photo: Gert Jan van Rooij.)