The abstract-looking works of the Dutch painter Han Schuil (Voorschoten, 1958) throw the gaze off balance. They fascinate the eye like vaguely familiar acquaintances while being completely alien at the same time. Painted on aluminum and having evolved from their original contexts, they stand entirely on their own. Schuil thereby deprives viewers of an 'aha' moment, compelling them to look and holding their attention captive.
While Schuil's work may appear to be abstract, his motifs always have origins in visible reality. Following the basic principle 'I do not seek, I recognize' - an allusion to the famous words of Picasso – his eye often gravitates to fragments from the world around him. Anything from comic strips to MRI scans, from speakers for a monitor to infrared photographs and video games. Once 'recognized' as useable they will, sooner or later, be subject to Schuil's manipulation. He isolates them from their surroundings, zooms in on them, reworks them with techniques that include turning, mirroring or doubling, and then places them on 'the canvas' in a new constellation. Untitled (1997, collection Stedelijk Museum) betrays, for instance, a fascination with road markings; and in a photograph of a jubilant speed skater passing the finish line, Schuil 'recognized' the potential of an astonishing as well as strong form by rotating it (untitled, xxx). "Gebaselitzst," (roughly translated: 'Baselitz-ized') as Schuil would put it. The origins of his motifs are sometimes still partially recognizable. But the work draws attention particularly because of the icon-like appeal that Schuil brings to the surface, thus giving shape to an unexpectedly new and above all powerful world. "I strive for an image that has the bang of a traffic sign," he himself once said, "and the intensity of a Flemish Primitive."
From 1985 onward Schuil paints only on aluminum. He plays with the work's volume - which occasionally enters the space - but also with folding the aluminum over edges, with rivets that fasten the sheets together, and deliberately makes dents, giving the work a both sculptural and industrial feel. But perhaps even more important is the chemistry between the color and the aluminum. The aluminum lends a different intensity to the color, while its smooth surface gives an almost sensual character to the paint - indeed, like the panels of Flemish primitives. That sensuality is heightened by the meticulousness with which Schuil applies the paint. He paints 'as though no hand is involved', yet at the same time it is undeniably handwork. Initially he creates razor-sharp areas of color - with the aid of masking tape - which bring to mind pictograms. In his later work, in which he becomes fascinated with thermal images, he also uses spray cans, giant compasses and marten-hair brushes, thus heightening the tension between the paint and the image. That tension plays an important role in the series Heat, which Schuil based on medical thermograms. While Schuil zooms in on the thermograms and brings their tiniest details very close up in his work, the result looks like an image of the universe with luminous stars and heavenly bodies, something light-years away from us. Schuil intensifies that disorienting opposition due to the precision with which he paints: the gentle transitions - applied with a spray can - the dots painstakingly painted with extra fine brushes and, by contrast, the severe horizontal and vertical blocks (an enigmatic visual element) that now functions as a signature), all of which contribute to the meditative and timeless suspense of the work. In these works too, it can be said that the motif, the origin of the image that caught Schuil's eye, has come to lead a life of its own. With his motifs Schuil keeps on creating new realities and does everything possible to have us believe in that.
text: Esther Darley
translation: Beth O'Brien
photo: Machiel Botman