“Nonsense is that which does not fit into the prearranged patterns which we have superimposed on reality… Nonsense is nonsense only when we have not yet found that point of view from which it makes sense.”
‘Nonsense’ is the degree to which reality can be pushed, as Gary Zukav, the American spiritual teacher explains; and so the absurdist nature of this concept allows for whimsical and often abstract properties when applied to art. When nonsense and reality collide, modern art becomes a visual exploration of humanity; in his case, Dutch artist, Jan-Hein Arens explores a myriad of ways in which it can make sense.
In an exhibition at the KickArts Contemporary Arts gallery, Cairns, in mid-2013, Arens’s works, Cowboys, Swap Minds, They Felt Better and Wolves each explore this relationship. The use of mixed media to construct his works, along with the variety in the style of his imagery and word play, are his main strategies for drawing the worlds of reality and nonsense together. The composition of these pieces is built from realistic freehand sketches and then accented by felt tip, comically stylised, details, and complimented through satirical textual explanations. Therefore they precisely and quite obviously bring together the two worlds of reality and nonsense as one.
‘To swap minds with a cactus, it is unlikely but not impossible’—the satirical quote in the work Swap Minds (2013)—complements the artist’s realistic vision and the comical details of the image. Ultimately Swap Minds explores the need for humanity to explore endless possibilities and how even things that may seem beyond our reach are never as impossible as they seem. Arens adopts a philosophy here that some may believe is nonsense, but points out the inconsistency of this position in a world where many believe the rhetoric of endless possibilities. His other works build on similar relationships in humanity, whether they be our habit of discovering misled loyalty, as displayed in his work Wolves that contains the quote: ‘The wolves dressed up as her children. They took her to the amusement park to secretly meet other wolves’, evoking the audience’s response to discover their own experiences of being misled or deceived. Similarly, our urge to find meaning is shown in Cowboys, in which the text reads: ‘Just to confuse people, god created cowboys’, suggesting to the audience that not everything in life must have been done for a purpose.
These audience responses to his works are the purpose behind Arens’s career in absurdist art. Behind what seem like nonsensical abstract works lies a deep connection to the ways of humanity. To further emphasise these connections, Arens uses primary, block colours to construct his works. This dramatically emphasises the simplicity of each work, ensuring its success in drawing the audience to make connections between aspects of the image that bring the meaning to life. As the images themselves are quite superficial on their own, this simplicity is necessary to emphasise the text, and helps appeal to the audience’s opinions and relations to the work; much like the artist’s own influences. Arens’s artistic expression is crafted from his exposure to COBRA, a European avant-garde movement promoting the complete freedom of colour and form. His main influence, however, is his seven year old daughter’s drawing from which he imitates the freehand and simplistic styles, and therefore has realised the connections between his own reality and his works.
From the intricacies of detailed meaning, to the simplicity of colour, Jan-Hein Arens’s work encompasses the notion of reality intertwined with the nonsensical world at a detailed level. By realising the connections between human behaviour and our habit to believe in the unusual, and conveying this through art, Arens taps into the concealed realm of the human psyche and presents our nature at a relative position. Pushing nonsense to reality has never been more black and white.
They felt better, 2013. Pastel crayon, ink and paint, 300 x 300mm
Swap minds, 2013. Pastel crayon, ink and paint, 200 x 200mm
Cowboys, 2013. Pastel crayon, ink and paint, 300 x 300mm
Wolves, 2013. Pastel crayon, ink and paint, 200 x 200mm. Images courtesy the artist and KickArts Contemporary Arts, Cairns.