Glazed Frost Possible, 1991, oil on canvas, 180 x 180 cm.
The Belgian artist Max Selen, born in Turnhout in 1932 and living in Kasterlee, has made an interesting artistic path. From 1956 to 1961 he studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. He became a teacher at the Academy of Arts in his hometown and built up his career as a painter and graphic artist.
In the 60s he was inspired by innovations in modern and contemporary art. Geometric shapes and confusing perspective characterized his cubist early period. In the spirituality, imagination and dreams of the symbolism he brought upwards his unconscious psychical feelings. The artist was experiencing the impermanence of life as very threatening. This anguish can be palpated in his expressionist and surrealist works.
In the 60s and 70s he was influenced by pop art, a 'popular' art movement that refers in its images to the consumption society and is accessible to everyone. Vacuums, sinks, toilettes and urinals are among the everyday reality. The artist won the Prize of the city of Knokke in 1963 with a very realistic painting of a vacuum. In several locations, including the Louvre, cafes and barracks, the artist noted the diversity of the sanitary appliances. Max Selen showed this 'hierarchy' of toilettes in many works.
Finally he was inspired by the hyperrealism. The sophisticated technique and perfectionist style of this movement fascinated the artist. He learned the detailed and fine work from his father who was a well-known house painter, specialized in imitation of various types of wood, for which he had a special training in Brussels.
The movement of hyperrealism, which originated in New York and California between 1960 and 1970 as reaction to the abstract art, brings a photographic depiction of reality, cool, without any subjective emotion. However, the Belgian hyperrealists, including Max Selen, added a new dimension to it. Along with the ultra-realistic representation of reality there is a little more space for imagination. Max Selen depicts everything exactly as real so the viewer has the impression to see a photograph. However locally the paint seems to drip and so the artist breaks through this illusion and brings the work back to the freedom of painting. In 1973 the artist participated in 'Hyperrealists in Belgium', a group exhibition in the Museum of Fine Arts in Gent.
The hyperrealism of Max Selen evolved into a very personal style. He took part in various exhibitions and won several awards. His work has been enthusiastically received by organizers and visitors. In the beginning the artist didn't use photographs to make his hyper-realistic paintings. At the end of the 80s he began projecting slides. Then he started making use of Photoshop. Max Selen depicts hyper realistic people on a background of painted photographic negative images of big cities or landscapes. Therefore he is sometimes called a negarealist.
Glazed Frost Possible, a work from 1991, is a typical example of the painting technique he uses. The artist first paints the landscape from negatives of photographs. The work shows a classic line perspective leading to a vanishing point on the horizon. A lone hiker takes the spectator to this point in the distance. He steps on a road with lots of traffic signs which are positioned both on the right and the left side. Striking is the prohibition sign for pedestrians on the left side of the painting. The artist denounces the numerous road signs, a reference to the road of Kasterlee – Turnhout, where he daily drives on. The landscape, though painted photorealistic, has a strange, apocalyptic effect, partly due to the coloring. The gray sky, typical of the northern climate, becomes suddenly a large, menacing, purple cloud mass with different color intensity. Blue traffic signs are yellow and the familiar red edges of the plates are turquoise. Dark green trees seem covered with snow. This winter look indeed makes Glazed Frost Possible, inscribed on the plate and referring to the title of the work.
The strange feeling is strengthened here by the dripping of the paint that breaks the photorealism which proves that the viewer sees a painting and not a photograph. The hyper-realistic American artist Richard Estes used reflections in windows that provide rhythm, overlapping and depth. Max Selen has its own technique for this. The man, pictured his back to the public, the painter afterwards painted on the canvas. Domien Van Dael, a friend of Max Selen was the model in the studio. The artist made him take place in his studio to paint him on the canvas as if he was really standing on the road. The shadow of the figure visible on the painting is the one projected on the wall of the studio. The man on the painting is the result of this painterly collage technique.
Since the hyper-realistic view of the figure takes time and lots of patience the artist eventually uses a doll dressed in the outfit of the model. The man and the road are portrayed realistically. On the other hand the landscape seems to belong to a different world. It is like a visual hallucination in which the images, although very recognizable, not really correspond with reality. There is a threat that comes from the work. Max Selen fascinates and intrigues. The artist gives the photographic reality a unique character to express the alienation and lack of contact in our society.
Text: Myriam Geurts, December 2016