Not having seen René Daniëls’ work prior to this solo exhibition at the Camden arts centre, it was the painting used in the promotional material that excited my interest. The Return of the Performance (1987) depicts a deep, narrow room, apparently an art gallery, receding from the spectator’s eye. There are a number of strange objects in the fore- and midground which seem to be upright pianos – two of which are floating in mid-air, and one attached to the right hand wall of the gallery. In the middle of the room is an object that could be multiple microphones, or indeed, a hat stand (the shadow of Magritte looms large throughout this exhibition). The colours are bright and flat, the objects depicted in a style so pared down as to be almost mere geometrical outlines; and this style, along with the gravity defying pianos, combine to lend the painting an eerie, surreal, unnerving beauty. And then there is the shadowy figure standing partially obscured by one of the gallery walls. Is he hiding, perhaps in fear or trepidation? Is he waiting to begin his performance? And is it the artist himself?
The painting, like several others in this exhibition, raises the question of Daniëls’ attitude towards and sense of belonging (or otherwise) within the art world. The motif of the gallery space painted from this perspective is repeated in a number of works, each as uncanny and quietly disconcerting as the last. Elsewhere the motif is reworked as a simplified bowtie form, dotted seemingly at random in other landscapes (or perhaps more accurately, mindscapes) – often threatening to overwhelm the space like a flock of gigantic birds (Mystic Transportation, 1987). The gallery is either a mysterious and surreal space or a terrifying presence, and the process of artistic creation a daunting exercise in self-exposure, much like a musical performance to which his paintings also allude.
Despite the strong architectural space of the gallery seen in perspective, there is nonetheless a sense of space as well as objects unanchored throughout the show. Galleries are partial structures, rooms with no ceilings or floating over the sea; in Paintings in Unknown Languages (1985) the paintings simply emerge weightlessly from an obscure dark void. In Historia Mysteria (1981-2) a bridge and the Arc de triomphe hurtle towards each other in space, as if in imminent collision. In a more playful mode, Gent depicts a series of tall crenellated Dutch buildings which would seem quite prosaic, were it not for the fact that between each of them a gargantuan nose pokes out, as if giant faces were hiding in the alleys.
Alongside this sense of disrootedness and ambiguity of location it was interesting to see a couple of works that seem preoccupied with mapping. Quays, quays (1987) and Spring Blossom (1987) both depict tree-like connected branches, each accompanied by hand painted texts. In the former each branch is covered like pine needles with the titles of his own paintings, as if charting a genealogical trace through his work. In the latter, each branch directs towards a locus with generic qualities rather poetically described: such as “places where people have the opportunity to get into contact with other people” or “places where people think they can take the worry out of life”. An art gallery perhaps? Not, it seems, for René Daniëls.