The first of Xavier Verhoest’s images that I encountered were in a small exhibition space in Nairobi. They were large pictures which seemed to resist the confinement of the gallery space and expand into a picture space which was both figurative and abstract, the figurative elements providing access into to a deep internal space dominated by blues and grays, a sort of atmospheric perspective of the mind. One in particular suggested an open sea stretching to a distant horizon crossed by breaking waves, but strangely, this “seascape” did not present openness and vastness, the usual characteristic of such a construction, but rather enclosure and containment.
It is this apparent visual contradiction which is a theme running through much of his work, a theme which is at once unsettling and quite beautiful at the same time.
It’s not easy to write about Xavier’s work and the layers of visual metaphor. If it were, I guess the images would be redundant. They certainly have an initial visual impact, and this belies the intricacies of small detail and thoughts, often expressed in written phrases which weave from the surface, where they should be, into and around elements in the picture space, sometimes fading as if rubbed out by the weather they encounter.
Thought integrated into the fabric of the picture. And the thoughts, the metaphors, seem consistently to focus on our inability to break free, from oppressors, taboos, clans, and in the end ourselves. Hence the contradiction in the painting of the wave. It originates in Gaza or from his experience with migrants, people contained, where the sea seems to offer an escape, but in reality it is of course another barrier, a further constraint. There are flowers from the border between Syria and Turkey, the place where thousands escaped, there are trees falling from the sky, have they been cut, did they really die? Because they can live hundreds of years, longer than any human beings, one can think they are between heaven and earth just like us, suspended. With time, despite these various imageries used ( sky, water, tree, flowers) one feels that these paintings express something much more personal, much closer to the artists own experience of displacement, separation, a quest of belonging to the higher.
The metaphors expand. It’s as if we are led by these small details of tree or petal or stem, always natural elements, into an internal space which by its very incoherence is quite repellent. There is no peace here. This is not a safe place. It is the place of the dispossessed and the displaced of the world, a place of vulnerability and fragility.
These are benign and beautiful images of skies, sea, flowers and trees, a powerful reflection on the nature of the human condition, in its social, political and personal manifestation, without forgetting the environmental issue.
And we are left with the contradictions with which we started, and which are at the very heart of the matter. The truth in Xavier’s work, the final extension of the visual metaphor, is that we cannot but be a part of, and yet we are of course, all of us, displaced.
Dale Webster, ex-lecturer of Art Theory at the University of Leeds (UK)