Galerie Fons Welters - Amsterdam

The Man From Delft

For his new exhibition in Amsterdam, Folkert de Jong removed the body of a man from Delft from his coffin, the Dutch prince William of Orange (1533-1586), and suspended it, leaving it hovering subtly in a gallery space. The dead prince’s charred hands lie crossed on his lavish, fur-trimmed dressing gown while his sleep of death produces not monsters but visions full of meaning. A gigantic harlequin sits on the floor, thoughtfully watching him and the four other figures, unnoticed; he is the eternal outsider, who does not easily allow himself to be bound by any system, but observes and reflects on that system all the more keenly from the periphery. The harlequin figure is a constant theme in De Jong’s work, possibly the artist’s alter ego: free but consequently alienated from today’s society, with its emphasis on structure and efficiency. De Jong’s harlequin appears in a different guise each time. In the present exhibition, his body is slowly becoming overgrown with fragile nettles, symbolising what is new, untamed, and above all unpredictable.

The bizarre company surrounding the harlequin resembles a petrified tableau vivant, a theatrical conundrum that the viewer has to solve. They consists of a slim 19th-century dandy in a splendid white suit, an elegant lady from the same era, a jolly Dutch girl advertising dairy produce, and a grey-haired, hunchbacked old man carrying a lamp, who might have stepped straight out of a 17th-century painting. The names that the artist has given the figures hint at their significance. The dandy is the King of Water, ruler over one of the four elements that has become a commodity, which therefore deserves the title and attention of royalty. The mythical king who had to create order in that intractable element has gradually turned into a capitalist ruler who converts water into gold, thus appropriating what was free and universal. The Queen of Coal blesses a different commodity with her royal name, based on the examples of the queens Emma and Wilhelmina, who gave their names to coal mines in the Dutch province of Limburg. De Jong conjures up the magnificence and grandeur of the age in which capitalist forces started to take shape and raw materials were claimed in a masquerade of names. ‘Dutch Lady’, the merry blonde sexy farmer’s wife in her clogs, with her inviting, saucy smile, is the cliché of the Netherlands’ export identity. She is an iconic image that is used worldwide by numerous companies, including some under part royal ownership, to advertise Dutch products that are not always what they promise. This image has therefore lost its innocence and functions solely as a sign of present-day capitalism that uses images in a parasitical fashion. The final figure in the company is the philosopher Diogenes, who according to legend went in search of a single sincere human being, looking in the daylight and with the aid of a lamp, but was unable to find one. De Jong also refers to paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in which a man with a lamp points the way to others amid the chaos, which hence carries a suggestion that indicating a path amid the tumult should perhaps be the role of art.

De Jong deals with historical and symbolic figures at the same time without distinguishing between the domains of the real and the imaginary: the Dutch Lady or the King of Water are just as real as William of Orange. Not seeking to make any moral judgment, De Jong shows that rulers wield power through rituals and cultural symbols and simply appropriate the images they need.

The artist transforms materials with the same facility as meanings: he turns the airy polyurethane foam into a solid construction, he displays the material remains of the production process as chance elements that have been factored in. His drawings are accumulations of rapid, energetic strokes with coloured felt-tip pens and areas of colour that interact and challenge each other in different ways. De Jong presents art as the ultimate transformation.