Before time was time, we lived with the shadows. Each morning the dark gauze would recede, pulling back into hollows and corners, before again lengthening and stretching out over us. Before we thought even to name it as time, it measured itself out before us in the rhythms of bodies rising up through the sky, in the regular trade-off of light and dark. Shadows were the imprint of these backs and forths, the children of these rhythms, and in the shadows we could read the details of their passage. Anything – a tree, a rock, a person – could become a tool to locate ourselves within the rhythm: short shadows that followed closely at the peak of the light, growing oblong and distant as the sun retreated.
When the sundial was first created is unknown; the sundial is less a technology that was waiting to be invented than simply an observation that was highlighted, isolated. A stick stuck in the ground to see where its shadow fell could give an indication of how much light had passed, how much was yet to come. The reliability of the observation, that it could be done around the same point each cycle, suggested something more permanent, and so designations came to be: days, months, years. Time came to be imagined as such, an entity in itself, a thing that ran endlessly onwards. Buildings and structures oriented themselves around this idea, sundials built as public markers of the changing hours, the sundial plate set into a façade or ground surface with a perpendicular protruding gnomon, the arm that casts the shadow. Obelisks in ancient Egypt served as monumental timepieces; in later handheld sundials simply a piece of string would act as gnomon. The name for the gnomon is derived from a Greek word for ‘one who knows’. In Plato’s Cave, as he describes in the Republic, shadows are all we know, an indistinct vision of reality. But rather than a shackled impediment, we might treat this as an advantage. The sundial’s shadow directs us beyond objects, towards a knowledge of how things actually act in the world. It is the shadow, it seems, that is the knowing one, the inverse of light that knows more about the light than the light itself.
The recent paintings of Peter Van Gheluwe are filled with light. In MA (2013), a grid of light hits the floor of a dim, blank room, the shadow of the security bars that cover a window just out of view making a carpet of light. A faint reflected echo of the shape angles off on the wall, lighting up the rest of the room. The titles of the works are cryptic initials, shorthand for a place, or sometimes with numbers, as if noting the coordinates of where the light was seen. The large diptych M-1 (2013) depicts a deep windowsill and a doorway; again, the window remains out of sight, and we see the outlines of its frames and bars run up along the sill and in a large swath cut across the room. The interior of the doorway remains unpenetrated and densely dark, while the physical gap between the two canvases which make up the diptych becomes the actual corner of the room within the image. We are, it suggests, within the room, as the light wraps itself around us.
But the light in Van Gheluwe’s paintings is always an indirect light: we see only the floor, the wall, an interior emblazoned with the slanted impressions of the windows that the light falls through. The people and faces who populated his previous paintings have left, leaving us alone in these empty rooms, places with blank walls and uncluttered corners. We don’t see where the light is coming from, just the sense that we have to trust that it is sunlight from outside the image rushing in. All we have are just the oblong shapes it throws onto these deserted rooms, sometimes displacing a table, or touching on a board that leans against a wall. These quiet spaces are usually depicted in muted browns, greys and yellows, tones that give the constructed interiors an earthiness, a natural reservedness. The brushstrokes are visible, thick but precise, carrying with them the sense that a photograph hovers behind the painting as a source; like some of his contemporaries, Van Gheluwe uses photography to find his subject, translating the hard edges and mechanical clarity of photographic images to hazy, personalised figurative paintings. But the remarkable focus of his practice distinguishes it: for the past few years, Van Gheluwe has focused exclusively on these depictions of not-sunlight, the capturing of brief moments that could be easily overlooked and quickly forgotten. These paintings depict one exact moment in time, when the light reflected and reverberated in just a certain way. In their lack of detail, the paintings allow that moment to become untethered; where or when exactly it took place becomes unimportant. These are unspecific portraits of specific moments, resisting, if not entirely indifferent, to the world drifting by. It’s how they sustain that gaze, simply but intently insisting that we hold our attention on these fleeting phenomena, that we find a new focus. What comes through is an extended meditation on duration and the rhythms of light and time.
The Moravian philosopher Edmund Husserl began his 1928 study The Phenomenology of Internal Time-Consciousness with an epigraph from Saint Augustine: ‘What then is time? If no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not.' In part a reaction to the growing sciences and their insistence on knowable absolutes, Husserl instead turned inwards. He accepted that there was an objective time that was ticking away, what he called ‘world time’, but he stipulated that there were also two other senses of time: ‘internal time’, our subjective inner clock, as it were, as well as our ‘consciousness of internal time’. It was not simply that we had our own sense of duration, but that the awareness of that inward sense was itself an experience of time, and one that preceded and permitted all the others. A perception of that internal time created it, and that internal time in turn created a sense of an external, shared span. Despite that succession, and his suggestion that it is our thought on time that brings it into conception in the first place, Husserl’s levels of time still accept that third, outermost time as transcendental, an undeniable fact.
Let us, though, return to observation of the light; like any sundial, it is the imprint of the sun that might tell us about time. The sunlight in Van Gheluwe’s paintings comes through the windows at an angle, casting slanted illuminations. It’s a low sun, at those points when it pierces unexpectedly further, reaching deeper into your interiors. The paintings, although understated, glow - suffused with that particular thick, golden light that arrives just before sunset and just after sunrise, when the air takes on a corporeal weight and particles swim and swirl as if in water. It would seem that these moments collected here are from the low light in morning or the evening, captured from within the pensive atmosphere of magic hour. In that tainted haze the world seems to slow down, things feel like they’ve taken on more significance. Surrounded by these paintings, we are in a prolonged evening world where we might look closer, and forget, for a moment, how long we are there.
The centuries have seen a slow but steady standardization of time: where once summer hours were longer than winter hours, a single hour unit has come to regulate our days. The advent of trains saw the varying clocks in towns and cities gathered together under unified time zones. As the trains rolled out over the lands, another machine was also altering how we viewed duration: the cinema. Here, moments could be seen sped up or in slow motion, and re-played again at will. One statistic from the twentieth century film industry stated that close to 70 % of the footage taken for mainstream films was shot during magic hour, that window of diffuse red-tinted light that comes with the appearance and disappearance of the sun. In order to create a sense of light on celluloid, apparently this one type of light was better. This particular, intense light used throughout the cinema, though, also became ingrained in our sense of light itself – that all light should be like this, that all days should be so illuminated. Magic hour, then, could make life seem like a film, and so somehow more real. Extraordinary moments, or piercings of insight, become described as ‘filmic’ rather than simply lived. This conception of cinematic light has contributed to our increasing sense of weighted time, where time becomes Time: sundials have been forgotten, observation of the sun and the moon replaced by watches and digital clocks on phones. Time emerges as a fully-formed concept, a rule, a deity, Time as something that doesn’t begin inside of us but entirely external, governing and untouchable.
In the charcoal drawing G-5 Drawing (2014), a large piece of paper rests on a tile floor. A long, thin strip of sunlight runs diagonally across the composition, brightening the dark floor and creating a stripe across the paper. The light highlights the uneven surfaces of the paper: how it had been folded in the middle creating a small bow, one corner creased slightly upwards. The paper itself is also a drawing, largely empty, but we can see one sharp corner that delineates a darker section, marking the outline of another piece of paper, or perhaps the edge of a windowsill lit by the sun, another imprint of the light. Here, the doubled layering of the drawings – a drawing of light hitting a drawing of light – lets Van Gheluwe make plain what he is doing. All of his paintings contain this contradiction: this is chiaroscuro without any subject but the impossible task of capturing light itself. The drawing within the drawing remains indistinct, feeling slightly distant, but through that slight inertness it lets the other light that illuminates its surface seem more present, more alive. Through the cracks and smudges of the charcoal we can sense the sunlight, and though we are being shown that this is simply a drawing of sunlight, it has an immediacy that pulls us towards the present, as well as towards our own memories of similar moments, and asks us to be ready to anticipate those moments to come.
In image after image, Van Gheluwe asks us to stop, to look slowly at these instances of incandescent emptiness. He places us in a perpetual dawning, here to wander around alone. This series is a discrete reclamation of a particular light, and of a particular sense of reflection. The familiarity of the observation, its mundane focus, is held as a crystalline instant to endure. These are not paintings of light, but paintings of the observation of light, paintings of the feeling of a moment of light. If Van Gheluwe’s paintings should bear the responsibility of being ‘about’ anything, what they address is simply the essence of time. In their delicate play of abandoned sunlight, they quietly suggest the instantaneous occurrences and intimate durations that make up our lives proper. It is this ever-present, but overlooked, shimmering surface, what Maurice Merleau-Ponty once described as ‘the vibration of appearances which is the cradle of things’, that Van Gheluwe asks us to re-invest ourselves in. They suggest that the essence of time is imaginary, that its passage is always and only from our own interwoven perception of its liminal moments. These paintings act as the gnomon for our contemporary sense of the cycles we have forgotten: all time, Van Gheluwe reminds us, is internal time.
1975 - 1979
Hoger Instituut voor Beeldende Kunsten
- 1978 - "Hoppeland" prize for pictorial art - Poperinge
- 1979 - Prize for pictorial art - Kuurne
- 1979 - Prize for pictorial art - Lions-Club Ghent (honorable mention)
- 1980 - Provincial prize for Graphics - East-Flanders (distinction)
- 1982 - Prize for Graphical Arts - EBES Gent
- 1983 - Young Belgian Pictorial Art - Brussels (distinction)
- 1983 - Prize for pictorial art - Leuven (special mention)
- 1983 - Provincial prize for Pictorial Art - East-Flanders (distinction)
- 1984 - Europaprize - Ostend (bronze medal)
- 1986 - Young Belgian Pictorial Art - Brussels (distinction)
Works in possession of
- the Belgian state (Flemish Community)
- Collection of the Belgian National Bank
- Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Ostend
- Collection of the city of Aalst
- Collection Raychem, Louvain
- Collection Graphics of the Frans Masereel Centre
- Collection "Het Depot", Wageningen (the Netherlands)
- Private collections in Belgium and abroad