Looking for personal definition

Drawn with light, Jean-Claude Wouters' ethereal prints show that less can reveal more

by Marius Gombrich

Art is always a collaboration between the artist and the viewer. Whatever the artist paints, sculpts or photographs is just so much dead matter until it comes alive in the mind of the viewer.

What is true for all art is particularly true of the art of Jean-Claude Wouters, a Belgian artist, whose exhibition at the Marunouchi Gallery in Tokyo makes a particular appeal to the viewer’s empathy, sensitivity, and ability to visualize. This is because Wouters creates images that at first sight hardly seem to be there. Yet, by some perverse rule of psychology, this seems to draw us to them all the more.

Although Wouters has a long track record as a “creative type” in a number of fields — painting, dancing, film — it is his recent work using photography that is of real interest. The well-preserved 53-year-old, who still has the spritely carriage and lithe bearing of someone trained as a ballet dancer, uses a technique of carefully re-photographing photographs under a sheet of glass, using purely natural light, before producing high-quality, selenium-toned silver prints.

“The Japanese say ‘shashin’ which means a copy of reality,” Wouters tells the Japan Times on a visit to the gallery. “In English or French, we say photography, which means to design or draw with light. What I do is drawing with light.”

This distinction between photography as the mass-produced copying of aspects of reality and photography in its more poetic and etymological sense as the artistic act of using light to draw is an important one for Wouters.

There are two reasons. First, because he produces unique, one-off prints, not series; and second, because his photographic technique, developed for portraits, is designed to get at essence rather than details.

“Normal photography just captures you in the moment,” he says, pointing out a large portrait. “I did this portrait of that young woman two years ago. If I make her portrait in five years, it will look quite the same.”

This is largely true because, while the photographs used for the portraits are taken at a specific moment, the extremely soft and low-contrasted quality of the final image gives it an element of timelessness, while preserving the individuality of the subject. This is similar to the way our long-term memory works. “If you think about your mother, you mix instantly 100,000 impressions of when you met her, including when you were 3 or 5 years old,” he explains. “That impression of your mother will always look younger for you than for me if I met her today.”

Rather than imposing his image of people in his artworks, Wouters effectively takes a step back to allow other factors to come into play, whether it is the softening light that he allows to flood the prints or the memory and imagination of the viewer. I found myself relying on the latter as I used the traces of gray in the portrait to construct my own image of the subject in my mind.

“What I want to do is to give people an image that provokes a kind of human warmness when you discover the image, and a feeling of spirituality; and, also, I wanted it to be very discreet because, when you have a flashy painting on the wall, after two days, your sub-consciousness erases it and you don’t see it anymore.”

For this exhibition, the subtle photographic technique developed for his portraits has been turned to other subjects, namely Japanese Buddhist statues that the artist encountered on a trip to Kyoto and Nara that had been suggested to him by Mr. Hoshi, the president of the Marunouchi Gallery.

“Since I was 12 I’ve been always very interested by Zen,” Wouters enthuses. “It’s something that is quite natural for me. It’s not exotic in itself.”

The softness of Wouters prints, reducing distracting details to a minimum while allowing the ethereal qualities of the religious icons to shine through, is a perfect fit between technique and subject matter. But the most spiritual and Zen element comes from the sense of an artist letting go and trusting the forces of nature — time and the vagaries of natural light — as well as the minds of his viewers.

“I think if you control everything the result would be quite poor because life and nature is so much stronger than we are,” he comments.

By speaking with a quiet artistic voice, Wouters makes us listen all the more carefully to his artworks. Ironically, this enhances their power and reality in a way that more solid shapes, sharper lines, and louder colors could never do.

“Jean Claude Wouters: Bouddhas” at the Marunouchi Gallery, runs till Dec. 26; open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. (til 6 p.m. on Sat.), closed on Sun.; free admission. For more information, visit www.marunouchigallery.com