When Jean Claude Wouters used to see people hawking Van Gogh postcards, kitchen aprons and other kitsch in tourist traps outside the Louvres, he was almost as thrilled as Jesus was running into the moneylenders outside the temple.
"I used to be upset by the mercantilism, but now I appreciate all of those manifestations as they are ways for people to have portable receptacles to carry the spirit of the work," says the Flemish artist, whose exhibit Portraits & Buddhas is on view from Nov. 11 to Dec. 17 at NOHO Modern in Los Angeles, Calif.
According to Wouters, who describes his native Belgium as "a country with no tangible reality" on his website, something "strong" or "real" has removable layers. "The truth will appear even more blazing or flamboyant," he says.
In the series at NOHO, Wouters' first solo show in the country, he photographed images of Buddhas from books and then painted over the photographs, sometimes re-photographing the result. According to the NOHO release, this sometimes "marring," sometimes "expounding" mode evokes a larger tradition of "defacing" art, from Rauschenberg's De Kooning erasure to the Chapman Brothers defacing Goya etchings.
"But Wouters does it without irony, humor or self-satisfied art-historical referencing," according to NOHO.
Asked if he was concerned about being accused of sacrilege in his defacement of Buddhas, Wouters said there was no danger of that, since the materiality of the work, which is simply a piece of paper, has nothing to do with the spirit of the Buddha.
"I am deeply interested by the nature and mystery of fakes, copies and originals. The material does not matter," he says, citing wooden Japanese temples that have been rebuilt several times and are still considered 13th century.
"There was an American woman who copied Van Gogh's paintings," he says. "Because of the nature of the cheap paint Van Gogh used, the colors have changed through time. Now her works are closer to his colors than his originals are now. Therefore, the actual material does not matter."
Like the fake Van Goghs which are more real (in some ways) than the prototypes, Wouters says his photographed and rephotographed Buddhas approach the essence of the Buddha, which is abstraction.
"To me, Buddha is not a spirit, a person or a god," he says. "Instead, Buddha is a more abstract idea. His name means 'initiated' or 'enlightened.' In that sense, I believe that my work more explores notions of 'true nature' in the Buddhist sensibility."
But it would be a mistake to judge Wouters' faith on the basis of the title of his show.
"I am not particularly a Buddhist," he says. "But, as Egon Schiele put it a long time ago, asked what he thought about modern art, his answer was, 'For me there is no such thing as modern art, art is spiritual, and therefore, ethereal.'"
Image: Jean Claude Wouters. "A Crystal Bird Carrying a Vase - 17th century." 2004. Silver gelatin print, oil paint, graphite. 67 x 49.5 inches. Courtesy of NOHO Modern.