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The physics of looking at sculpture


If line is the fundamental element in Johan Gelper’s sculptures – be it the smooth, arcing contours of his Spatial Drawings or the sharp, clustered spikes of his Botanicals – then movement is their creative rationale. If there were a physics equation for looking at sculpture it would put the artwork on one side of the equal sign, the viewer on the other: a line in space has potential energy; as we move around to see it in three dimensions, its potential energy is converted into our own kinetic energy. Currently on display at Ricou Gallery, Gelper’s sculptures stay put, but they demand our movement – like kinetic-art-in-reverse. Positive and negative shapes change as we walk around them, our paths giving them dynamic shape. The sculptures cue our bodies, eyes, and brains to follow their curves and angles in, out, and around – considering not only where they go, but also where they might go.

Gelper’s sculptures also undermine and reconfigure utility. The artist transforms everyday, utilitarian objects and furniture into porous sculptural tangles. His Spatial Drawings are typically open-formed sculptures, perfect variables in our physics equation. Some are encased in huge, sweeping arcs, welded from the long elegant lines of tent poles and unraveled chair frames. The large work in the gallery’s entryway – an airy series of overlapping coils dotted with goopy fiberglass joins – could be a Miró painting in three dimensions, its lines suggesting irregular interstitial shapes in space.

As old-fashioned as it might sound, Gelper’s work (which is anything but old-fashioned) is incredibly well composed. Just as a painting with a dynamic composition draws your eye into it, suggesting pauses at critical moments along the way, the contours of his sculptures’ absorbent boundaries curve around and inward. They take your gaze with them as they circle into often-precarious bases that repurpose rakes, trolleys, vices, and furniture legs, with a knowing wink at their common materiality and a playful nod at the utilitarian function their constituents once had.

The Botanicals, Gelper’s other ostensive category of sculpture in the exhibition, are closed shapes adorned with hundreds of plastic cable ties, which shoot outward like colorful porcupine quills. They aren’t as elegant as the open-form works, and their sense of movement suggests the inverse of the Spatial Drawings’ inward directionality. They imply an outward surge of power and motion, embodying both the latent energy of slow, colonizing growth and the rapid expansion of an explosion. Their biomorphic shapes recall something organic, but also mechanical, robotic even. Perhaps they represent what would happen to the Spatial Drawings were someone to drape their frames in a prickly, plastic skin.


A set of recent drawings complements the sculptures. Their images have a logical yet volatile character that calls back to the sculptures’ well-reasoned balance and their suggestion of movement. The drawings aren’t exactly blueprints for the sculptures, though there is an obvious conceptual and aesthetic affinity that underscores the themes of the work. They are architectural, almost diagrammatic, balancing the hard edges and angles of pipes, gears, nuts, and bolts, with leaves, blossoms, and plant anatomy. After an initial appeal to reason, their irrational angles and overlapping biomorphic forms leave us uncertain of our own position, wanting to see the drawings come to life – like their sculptural kin in the gallery space – so we can walk around them, set them in motion.


Andrea Alessi

Press Release



The practice of Belgian artist Johan Gelper develops from in situ installations, assemblages and drawings, exploring the potentialities of the movement. Interacting with the surrounding space, his sculptures provoke a perceptive instability. Fascinated by biomorphic forms, and vegetative in particular, the artist erects organic compositions, consisting of fragile objects (umbrellas, fans, plastic tubes, brooms…). The tour de force of these assemblages lies in an injection of dynamic movement, by unifying seemingly disparate elements creating “drawings in the space”, architectural structures mounted on a precarious base.

As for the strictly speaking graphical work of Johan Gelper, it consists of geometric lines, schemas of mechanical pieces and plants, explicitly inscribed in a concrete volume. The interactions and intersections with other spatial elements propose new architectural forms. Within these intuitive and fortuitous networks composed of arbitrary marks, other three-dimensional shapes aim to twist the traditional system of the third dimension.

Each of these compositions tends to blur the visual and, by extension, spatial reference points of the visitor.

Johan Gelper was awarded the SMAK Young Artists Prize in Ghent in 2007 and 2008.

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