Squatting in front of an empty sheet of paper, with pencil or crayon at the ready, the artist draws a self-portrait. He looks in the mirror opposite, seeks a starting point somewhere on the surface of his face and establishes the first lines. Occasionally light-footedly and hesitant, increasingly resolute and forceful. The face breaks open, the surface acquires depth, and a space that he can explore is created. Then he pushes the drawing aside, grabs another sheet of paper or goes to work on a portrait that he began previously. His face consistently reappears: spreading out across the sheet, broken open, lines scribbled on top of each other, set down sharp and angular, with long, flowing movements or in hasty, short rhythms.
A drawing hangs on the wall of my landing. It is a full and almost fierce portrait. Solid, dark sweeps of conté in black, brown and olive green and subtle meandering lines in yellow, green and red jointly form a sketch of an elongated face. I call it a sketch because the composition of lines refuses to become a face. At the same time, it displays the essence of that. The face has been pulled apart: eyes, nose and mouth are intertwined in a new compilation whose relationship still seems unclear. Not only the question: ‘What do I see?’, forces itself upon you, but also: ‘How am I looking?’.
For a while now I have been wearing glasses and seldom have I been more challenged by the agility required for looking than in the past few weeks. Every turn of my head makes me slightly nauseous: at the centre of my vision, the world appears sharper and clearer than ever before, but everything at the periphery oscillates and careers around. My brain clearly has to become accustomed to the situation, and that may take some time, according to the optician.
Every morning and evening I inspect my own face in the mirror in the bathroom. Then I am reasonably satisfied, or perhaps less satisfied, I see old and new irregularities and I am surprised at the increasing amount of grey hairs. I look every day, but does that mean that I actually see myself?
According to the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the world that the artist expresses in the artwork is a world recognizable to us, because the artwork is primarily a physical expression that issues from the physical connection that the artist has with the world.*i ‘There is the ongoing enigma that my body is simultaneously viewing and yet is itself visible. That which views everything can also view itself and therefore simultaneously recognize, in that which it sees, the “other side” of its ability to see. It sees itself while it sees, it feels itself while it feels, it is visible and perceptible to itself.’*ii Merleau-Ponty believes that the aim of art (especially painting) lies in making visible rather than in reflecting or emulating the visible. In this belief, the artist displays that which hides from common view. In turn, the spectator can look ‘according to or with the painting’.*iii
Every time I go upstairs, I see the portrait hanging there. Sometimes I just walk past it, without paying any attention. But more often I slow my step and let my gaze glide over the surface. I regularly stand still and allow myself to be transported by the drawing. I look at the face on the paper. The self-portraits of Arjan van Es are more than a superficial exploration, they are a representation of a profound scrutiny of his own face. The artist breaks open his face and field of vision, and lets us see.
*i Philosopher Jenny Slatman thus summarizes the vision of Merleau-Ponty in her introduction to the translation of the collected radio lectures that he held in 1948. Jenny Slatman, ‘Inleiding’ (Introduction), in: Maurice Merleau-Ponty, De wereld waarnemen (Perceiving the World), Amsterdam: Boom, 2003, p. 23.
*ii Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Oog en geest. Een filosofisch essay over de waarneming in de kunst (Eye and Mind. A philosophical essay on perception in art), Baarn: Ambo, 1996, pp. 22-3.
*iii Merleau-Ponty used this description with reference to the paintings in the caves of Lascaux. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, op.cit., p. 26.