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Still Lifes with Borrowed Furniture

Jan van Toorn

(Top) The nature of things,
Jan van Toorn, 2012

Leafing through my findings,
Jan van Toorn, 2012


Still Lifes with Borrowed Furniture
is a series of 10 digital prints, format A0, shown at Galerie Vivid in Rotterdam and Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam (2011/12), among other places.
Still Lifes with Borrowed Furniture 2 is a series of digital prints, format A0 (ongoing).

CA Position

 “It is the aesthetic experience of the artwork (or of any other cultural object: literary text, photograph, cinema, theatre performance, musical recording, [design], etc.) that counts in a cognitive sense. The power of any cultural object to arrest the flow of history, and to open up time for alternative visions, varies with history’s changing course. Strategies range from critical negativity to utopian representation. No one style, no one medium is invariably successful. Perhaps not the object but its critical interpretation is avant-garde. What counts is that the aesthetic experience teaches us something new about our world, that it shocks us out of our moral complacency and political resignation, and that it takes us to task for the overwhelming lack of social imagination that characterizes so much of cultural production in all its forms.”

Among other things, this quote of Susan Buck-Morss Susan Buck-Morss, Dreamworld and catastophe. Cambridge 2001motivated me to set up a practical research that connects and extends the existing social and aesthetic tools of communication design with a necessary and more realistic form of committed mediation. Working towards a more meaningful use of visual language starts by engaging with the viewer/reader and challenges the designer or visual journalist to break with the ingrained assumptions and artistic patterns that guilelessly connect the actions of communication design with the ideas and conditions of neoliberal capitalist culture.

Starting point was and is the development of an integrated editorial method as the foundation for a liberating strategy for a new meaningful relationship between content and expression. The explicit intention is not only to invest in widening my theoretical and strategic insights but above all to enrich the practice of making. To arrive at a multi-stranded editorial tool for interpretation, which offers the potential for meaningful intervention in the message as a basis for recasting its form. This will facilitate a visual practice that acts beyond modernist institutionalization and harks back to the fresh roots and experiences of the cosmopolitan and dialogic heritage of early modernism which tries to interpret the world with a view to changing it.

Falcon plein, Jan van Toorn, 2012

The theme of the prints is based on the traditional notion of the still life. See Els Kuijpers, And/or, on contradiction in the work of Jan van Toorn. The subjects are often domestic and also consist largely of outdoor material that influences our doing and thinking. Each still life is a collage of lifeless things: pictures that are simultaneously shown and disrupted as a substantive, structural and visual commentary on the web of visual stereotypes and values we normally deal with.

These still lifes differ from the usual form of criticism as an approach to the subject from a particular viewpoint. Striving for the desired dialogic agency, they attempt to arrive at an immanent form of criticism that questions the ordinariness of things on all three levels of the message: meaning, structure and form.

The calm of luxurious wilderness,
Jan van Toorn, 2016

False flat, Jan van Toorn, 2015

Jan van Toorn

Jan van Toorn [Tiel, The Netherlands, 1932] studied graphic design at the Amsterdam School of Printing [1948-1949] and the Institute of Arts and Crafts in Amsterdam [1950-1953]. He has been a freelance designer in visual communication since 1957. He lives and works in Amsterdam.

The emotional charge of van Toorn’s designs stems from his interest in investigating visual meaning and the social role of the profession as opposed to purely practical requirements. His radical teaching and practice were highly influential on the younger generation of Dutch designers. He taught graphic design and visual communication for many years at various academies and universities in The Netherlands and abroad, including Gerrit Rietveld Academy, Amsterdam [1968-1985] and the Department of Architecture at Technical University Eindhoven [1982-1983]. He was the head of the Multi-media department of the Royal Academy of Arts, Amsterdam [1987-1989].

From 1991 until 1998 he was director of the Jan van Eyck Academy in Maastricht, transforming it into an international postgraduate centre for fine art, design and theory. In this context he organized Design beyond design, critical reflection and the practice of visual communication, a conference devoted to the discrepancy between the socio-cultural and symbolic reality of the information-economy in 1997.

He was associate professor in the MA programme of graphic design, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, USA [1989-2008]. Van Toorn is a member of the Alliance Graphique Internationale (AGI) since 1972.

Online interview Jan van Toorn at Dutch Profiles

Meanwhile the circumstances as described by Susan Buck-Morss have deteriorated dramatically. Now that private and individual interests have become rooted on a massive scale all over the world, to the detriment of the public and general interest, the potential of using (visual) language to signify and confer meaning in the media has been considerably corrupted by professional mediation. It is an accommodation in which design plays a dominant and visually determinant role, which leaves its reductive mark on representation and style, on individuality and skill. In short, communication design has shifted from the sphere of the ‚exchange of meaning’ to a formal stylistic orientation driven by a technological, managerial and promotional discourse.

In this light, the “social imagination” of the practical instruments of criticism is more than urgent. For me, this constitutes a reason to not only invest in the understanding of the socio-cultural field, but above all in the making of composite forms of visual language that turn looking and reading again into a liberating experience.

That does not make these prints and this text a plea for the abolition of the achievements of the current practice of communication design. On the contrary, they are an argument for a broader, dialectical, journalistic and political approach, which makes it possible to define the commission in the light of the current conditions of perception, reception and production. At the same time it is a plea for a more profound interest in the workings of the message and a practical investment in an open, multi-faceted use of visual language without which a truly critical practice cannot exist.

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