Surrealism as the madness of banality

On the works of Stefan Serneels

The mysterious works of the Belgian artist Stafan Serneels seem to perceive the everyday life, however recognizable, in a highly personal manner, as in the loneliness of insanity. In his drawings and paintings for example Serneels establishes unusual connections between elements that are on their own ordinary, suggesting an unknown individual experience. His surrealistic style is averse to frivolity. Like in the work of Neo Rauch it remains pointedly serene, which for example stems from the depressed body language and facial expressions of the depicted characters. Absurdity is taken seriously in Serneels’ work, so that it all the more evokes a feeling of alienation.

As a result the everyday scenes gain an almost theatrical weightiness, which reminds you of the play The Homecoming of Harold Pinter, where a creepy atmosphere is created in the most domestic environment. In Serneels' series of paintings The Hikikimori studies (2007) ‘Hikikimori’ for instance refers to a Japanese phenomenon where young persons choose to lead a hermit ' s life. In all their banality the living rooms in these paintings particularly create the impression that something is not right.
Because the furniture and the wallpaper for example have a 'grantparental' style and the works are mostly painted in black-and-white, a certain melancholy is evoked. Most strikingly however, this feeling occurs as a kind of intangible recognition, where the logic of the domestic is subverted. On the one hand recognizable matters seem to lose there everyday meaning as they are deformed and intermingled. On the other hand some trivial forms or objects, like a black spot, a straw or a cactus, precisely seem to gain a special meaning, when the characters pay attention to them or when they are depicted several times. As a spectator you do not have insight into this special meaning. The isolation and insanity of the 'hikikimori' are expressed by the suggestion of an incomprehensible logic. Like the evident is contrasted with the unintelligible, so is, stylistically, the beautiful, the complete opposed to chaos. Among figurative forms unrecognizably abstracted forms are placed, which underline the irrational threat expressed in the work.

Serneels also made a short film on the subject of ‘Hikikimori’ , named Hikikimori style (2007). Here we see a character who again isolates himself in an outmoded room. He spends his time with, among other things, stamping a book using ink and a piece of potato. As pieces are cut from the film and the actions of the character rhythmically 'jump' to the most essential parts, their ritual meaninglessness becomes even more striking and even humorous. The threat of insanity and isolation is sought by Serneels in the absurdity of the ordinary but is at the same time being countered by it and made more light-hearted.

When the character ends up in another dimension through a hole in his mattress, he still cannot escape from his ordinary existence. From this other world he returns with only a wrapped up human figure, to which he cannot relate and which turns out to be nothing more than an insignificant object. He stamps the figure many times with a piece of potato, just like his book, after which he finally puts it away in his mattress again. Because Hikikimori style is in the strict sense a story without a point, it demonstrates that when you cannot find any significance to life, only the logic of the ritual remains.

Serneels' work emphasizes that a personal experience is unique because it cannot be precisely shared with others, but also because it cannot be precisely repeated or remembered. Especially his sculptures bring attention to this. In Restpiece 2 (2001-2002) a replica of a mattress is hung to the ceiling with ropes. While nothing remains of the mattress itself, its copy, which consists of white clay, has crossed to a colder, more 'bathroom-like' atmosphere. A hole in the mattress replica and the whitely stained bedstead beneath it suggest that an event has taken place. It seems that a sleeping person, maybe in a dream, has fallen through his mattress. But if this 'decomposed' bed portrays a dream state, it has nothing magical. If the sleeping person has had a meaningful experience, then the sculpture can only suggest this vaguely, like a memory of a dream. The only actual thing that remains is trivial reality.

Van de Vel Matthias, 2007