The Voeten Collection represents a unique combination of both Belgian and international works. Currently it comprises over 1700 art pieces that have been collected during a period of more than 40 years. They are exhibited in two separate locations – at the Art Center close to Herentals and at the sculpture park near Gheel.

Joseph Havel 

Nothing!, 2007, labels, wood, plexiglass, 62 x 62 x 4,5 cm

The remarkable green art work Nothing! (2007) of the American artist Joseph Havel (Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA, °1954) resembles from a distance a monochrome abstract and minimalistic painting. When you take a closer look though, this illusion is gone and you see what this art work is really made of: about 30.000 stacked fabric labels from shirts against a wooden background, 'framed' in plexiglass. As they are midway between painting and sculpture, Havel calls them "sculptures of paintings".

The monochrome green colourfield, formed by the labels, refers to the Colourfieldpainting, that is part of the abstract expressionist painting initiated in the 1950s in the United States, with Barnett Newman (1905-1970), Mark Rothko (1903-1970) en Clyfford Still (1904-1980) as protagonists. By applying colourfields, this movement calls upon the expressive power of colour to obtain a meditative mood by the viewer. In addition, the attentively organized labels of Havel form patterns, similar to modernistic grids, that are reminiscent of the subtle white lines in the colourful canvases and "Black Paintings" of Frank Stella (°1936) and the mural drawings of Sol LeWitt (1928-2007), both representatives of minimal art.

The artwork carries a hidden message: the word nothing is printed on each label, though this is barely – and often merely half – visible, revealed along the edge of the frame or on a few places where the label is pulled out of the stack. Joseph Havel made several artworks with labels, in different colours, such as white, pink and blue, and with diverse words. Comparable is the work Forget (2007) and the cycle Seven Variations of (White) Nothing (2008-2010) that exists out of seven monochrome white labelworks. About the work Hope and Desire (2012), ten plexiglass boxes densely stuffed with blue shirt labels embroidered with the words hope and desire, Havel explains: "Humans are messy creatures. With these pieces, I've tried to put all that messiness back in there, hopefully in a way that's poetic and shows history". The words that the artist places on the labels are chosen out of books that strongly influenced him, such as the poetical compilation The Dream Songs (1969) of John Berryman (1914-1972).

Transforming everyday motifs is central in the work of Joseph Havel. The use of clothing labels is an extension of his earlier works with textile where the artist used bed clothing and linen, table-cloths, curtains, flags and collars of white shirts. Examples are the shirt sculptures and curtain sculptures. Havel defines his artistic process as "uncovering the activity of still objects". By turning common and recognizable objects into abstract, sometimes bronze sculptures the meaning associated with these objects is both amplified and changed. The domestic and personal is transformed into something poetic, minimalistic and thus universal and timeless, the everyday object acquires the status of a perpetual art piece. By doing so, the artist challenges the viewer to reassess the common connotations linked to familiar objects, an invitation to approach these pieces from a different angle.

"The white shirt is an adequate medium that can represent many sociological, economical, historical and biological ideas", explains Havel. The shirt is thus in his art pieces bearer of social and gender issues, more specifically the constraints of male gender roles. Havel refers for example to the masquerade of the male middle class, the class to which the artist himself probably relates to. Furthermore, it is important that the labels are made by a clothing wholesaler in Dallas, creating hundreds of units a day. Besides that, the artist insists that he arranges the labels in the plexiglass all by himself. According to him, the ego can namely be transcended by this repetitive act. In that way topics such as appearance, identity, role patterns and the clothing industry are addressed. Personal, 'little' stories are interwoven with grand historical moments.

Joseph Havel lives and works in Houston, Texas and is director of the Glassell School of Art, part of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. His work has been exhibited widely in the United States and Europe, and is in the collections of many museums, including the Centre Pompidou, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. Havel is represented by Hiram Butler Gallery in Houston.

Text: Sarah Gallasz, October 2015