°1979 Dalfsen (NL)
2009 - 2011 De Ateliers, Amsterdam
2002 - 2007 BA Painting, Academie Minerva, Groningen
Catalogue text, Psychopomp Counsel, De Ateliers, by Dominic van den Boogerd, 2011, Amsterdam
Painting and sculpture are closely connected in Coen Vunderink’s studio practice. Sculptural works function as a motif in his paintings, while he takes a painterly approach to many of his sculptures. The impetus for this cross-pollination is Vunderink’s interest in the genesis, the creation of the work of art, and the interplay of forces that come into effect to enable this process. His recent paintings, created with spray paint, home in on the dualism between figure and ground, between monochrome and stereoscopy, in painted constellations that appear to vibrate gently.
Exhibition text, It's not a house, it's a home, Galerie Gabriel Rolt, 2013, Amsterdam
The paintings on view are inspired by Vunderink’s fascination for MRI-scans; mysterious medical pictures of the human brain, black and white with ominous specks of colour that may or may not contain devastating information for the patient.
Using bare canvas as both the medium and the first layer, Vunderink applies vibrating layers of spray-painted photographic negatives picturing everyday objects and materials like carpets, lace, flowers or doormats. This creates photogram-like, monochrome imagery that is both familiar and abstract. To these images, Vunderink adds sparse, expressive brushstrokes, using traditional homemade egg tempera because of its transparency and subdued lighting.
The series on display recall Man Ray’s rayography and El Lissitzksy’s constructivist photograms, as well as paintings by Francis Bacon, who used rayographic images for the postures of some of his painted figures. Like Bacon, Vunderink aspires to ‘peer into’ the human mind, crossing the chasm between image and experience, appearance and emotion, the outward and the inward – much like the MRI-scans that inspired this series of paintings.
Classifying Vunderink’s work is difficult, and quite deliberately so. For at its heart is the interplay between mediums and art forms such as sculpture, photography and painting. By using photographic and sculptural works as source material for his paintbrush-and-egg-tempera paintings, he straddles the line between material and image, figuration and abstraction, tradition and modernity.
Vunderink’s artistic methods have evolved intuitively and experimentally. Yet the works they create have a deliberate duplicity that serves to express the artist’s ambivalence about both reason and emotion, or order and chaos, as well as his wonder at life and the possibilities of art.
Exhibition text, Paradise, Galerie Ron Mandos, by Steven van Grinsven, 2015, Amsterdam
In his exhibition the painter takes us on a subliminal journey to the depths of Paradise, long after god's eviction notice was put up. A series of new works visually channel the very desolate state of the Garden of Eden without it's inhabitants. The large-scale paintings show a more brutal side to Eden, where perfection is obscured by chaos. The wild overgrown landscapes, that echo the dream-like quality of Henri Rousseau's work, become the artists' personal narrative plains for dissecting the darker and lighter tones of the human psyche.
Vunderink in his work seems to want to cleanse the word Paradise from its more contemporary connotations and restore it to its biblical state, so that peace and tranquillity can reign once more. Paradise today has become synonymous with the very cardinal sin that led to it's closure namely, temptation. Media and advertising today seem to want to suggest that sampling the forbidden fruits of our time will cause an upturn in our existence. Holidays on sandy beaches in countries with rogue regimes, dating sites for those in 'committed' relationships or simply by popping pills in a variety of colours with an equal variety of promises. All docile solutions to not so docile problems. Vunderink's quest for Paradise however takes a more introspective approach. His paintings become a commonplace for life's most ardent questions; Why are we here? What could be our purpose?
Vunderink neither suggests to have the answers, nor does he allude to the existence of there being any. With his work he challenges his audience to find themselves in the dense blossoming garden that he lays out for them. Temptation awaits, live the dream, disappear here, happiness next exit on the left, your Paradise awaits.
Paradise #1, 2015, 200/300 cm, egg tempera on linen, photo by Robert van der Molen
The blessing of an empty paradise; reflecting on the painting ‘Paradise #1’, by Menno de Bree, 2015
Coen Vunderink’s paradise seems to be unpopulated – empty, in this sense. We see palm trees, suggesting a geographical place, on earth. We are not there, but we could be. We could strive to be there – just as with every other place we know of.
But when thinking about ‘paradise’, we are not just reflecting on an ordinary place. The word ‘paradise’ has strong normative connotations. ‘Paradise’ is another word for a certain type of perfection. A paradise must be good, true and beautiful – otherwise it wouldn’t be a paradise. For the very same reason, inhabitants of a paradise are necessarily happy, beautiful and good.
In other words, ‘paradise’ is the golden standard of places. When you are not in paradise, you want to get as close as possible. You want to reach it. The idea of a paradise alone steers your wishes and your actions. And when you are in, you know that being kicked out of it is not a good thing. Matters will only get worse.
So, what should we think about the fact that Vunderink’s paradises are empty, that traces of human beings are entirely absent? One could argue that Vunderink’s view is pessimistic, but I would like to argue that this is not the case. An empty paradise is a blessing.
A paradise is a place where everyone feels fine. It’s always summer, living is easy. But would you really want to spend your life in such a place? Suppose, as a famous philosophical thought experiment goes, that you are offered to spend your life in a kind of dream machine, a capsule, and that this machine will manipulate your brain, causing an endless sleep and giving you a continuous flow of great sensations. Would you step into it?
If you think that being happy is the same as feeling happy, it would be perfectly rational to answer ‘yes’. But to put it in Nietzschean terms: what you would choose then is a life filled with pills: a pill for the day, a pill for the night, and, when it all comes to an end, an extra pill for the moment of your death. Easy living.
We humans are ‘the most chronically and profoundly sick of all sick animals’, Nietzsche wrote. We are indeterminate beings, not capable on acting upon impulses alone, as healthy animals do. Rationality, our capacity to think, to determine what we should do, the instance by which we can regulate our impulses – it is not a characteristic that makes humans special and valuable, as the we often tend to think.
On the contrary, it is a major source of our suffering, as Nietzsche’s philosophical predecessor, Arthur Schopenhauer, already argued. Because we are rational, and because we have to shape ourselves, we are not capable of living in the moment. We live in different simultaneous worlds at the same time; we are continuously considering possible scenarios of our projects and our lives. Our daily business is making plans, identifying and anticipating problems, dangers, and treats, and we are constantly re- evaluating our options and possibilities. We have to, because we are sick.
And by means of our rationality, we are also able to discover that we are the sickest of all animals. That knowledge is almost unbearable. We need the idea of a paradise, in order to be able to cling to the idea that our world is (was, will be) just, good, right, and beautiful. Maybe not always. Maybe not for everyone. Maybe not to its fullest potential. But some grains (or even the promise of some grains) of truth, beauty and goodness are better than nothing.
So, ‘paradise’ is not only a physical place, something out there – the idea of ‘paradise’, of perfection, is in our minds, in the way we look at ourselves, and look at the world. It shapes the way we act and react. It indicates for us the direction we should be heading for. It helps sick animals to survive.
For Descartes, this idea of perfection that is in our minds, could function as a proof of the existence of God. If we look around us, we see all kinds of things in all kinds of qualities. But we don’t see perfection – only imperfections. The only way we can know of perfection, of paradise, Descartes argues, is thus by an act of God, the most perfect, true, good and beautiful One. God is good, and that’s the reason He let us know something we cannot know by ourselves.
But for us, human beings living after the death of God, it becomes increasingly difficult to see perfection as something unconditionally positive. True, we act - and when we act, we implicitly assume that we will improve something. If we won’t think that our actions will not better our situation, we would not act at all. So there is an idea of perfection working on the background, an idea of paradise, an idea about what is valuable and what is worth striving for.
But at the same time, we know that many of the goals we set, are just expressions of our preferences, nothing more. Our goals change when we grow older, when we reflect more, and sometimes everything we do just seems futile. And when we are committing ourselves to what we do, when we are striving hard to realize an ideal, we often become convulsive, blind, one-sided, caged... or worse. A relation, or a society, based on a too rigid idea of perfection, all too often ends up in the use of violence.
So... the idea of a paradise is a difficult one for us. Possible dangerous, even. But we probably can’t live without it. It might be the best strategy to blend commitment with mild irony. We should cherish our ideals, but always keep in mind that they are just all to human – and that we should not make the mistake to think that our ideals are fixed, ‘objective’, that our paradise is external to us and God-given.
In this sense, it’s a good thing that those paradises of Vunderink are empty, not reached or populated by humans yet, and that they are sometimes a bit unsettling to look at.
Copyright 2015 COEN VUNDERINK All Rights Reserved / designed by Coen Vunderink Studio