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The silence of the night is enshrined in his paintings

Exhibition "The World of Beckett", Geel, May 2024

In a unique way, Johan is a soul doomed to paint who is looking for the core of existence. You can read in his canvases the importance of life, which is difficult to grasp.

Existential questions come to the fore, they always occupy a prominent place in his canvases. There are also underlying issues of faith, which in turn raise new questions. As with one of his abstract paintings "Dialogue. With God". Nevertheless, the artist seeks and finds inspiration from philosophers, poets and other artists in order to ultimately paint the stillness masterfully. The color palette is dark and murky. Brown and black are always present. Sometimes the paint is mixed with sand and a granular matter is created, which causes a relief to be noticeable in some works. The artist continues to work steadily on what is now a gigantic body of work. He builds this carefully and solidly. 

The titles of the artworks are carefully chosen and help the viewer on the right path to what the artist had in mind when creating his canvases. The titles often contain a striking link to the literary world. They refer to writers, concepts, and metaphors. Sometimes they are literal excerpts from, for example, the oeuvre of Samuel Beckett. Beckett is an important source of inspiration for the artist in several ways.


Kris Cuypers
February 2024


In the labyrinth of metaphysical doubt

Exhibition “Doubt”, BNP Paribas Fortis, Leuven, October 2023

Wittgenstein writes in his posthumously published work 'Über Gewissheit' (no. 160): "The child learns by believing the adult. Doubt comes after faith."  In his analytical thinking, this philosopher slaloms along the boundaries between knowledge, certainty, faith and doubt. Doubt occupies a prominent place in philosophical thought, even though uncertainty and doubt have rather degenerated into a sign of weakness in the community.  Confucius, on the contrary, called it a "watchdog of insight."  Aren't the places in which there is room for nuance, uncertainty, presupposition and doubt increasingly threatened?

Reducing the concept of doubt to not being able to choose between two possibilities, this is too simplistic. Quite apart from the fact that there is usually a multitude of ways, the question remains: is doubt necessarily resolved by a gratuitous decision? Such as a decision under pressure of circumstances, for example. In existential doubt, however, the meaning of one's own existence is the subject of numerous questions and reflections. It deals with fundamental ethics, namely: what should I do? Not in the sense of what is expected of me, but rather: what is in accordance with my inner compass?

In the history of philosophy, of course, we cannot ignore the famous methodical doubt of the seventeenth-century René Descartes. His cogito ergo sum, the I think, therefore I exist, questions everything that can be doubted, to end with the certainty of the very doubting by a subject. Existence, the outside world, God, etc., could be deduced from pure doubt itself. But isn't doubt here merely a means to achieve a basis of certainty? Descartes' universal doubt is a search for a definitive, objective ground of scientific certainty. So it's essentially putting an end to the doubt. This intellectual doubt is quite different from the wrenching doubt of a Kierkegaard. In Kierkegaard's work, the experience of doubt is agonizing and oppressive. It is in a frightening ignorance. This nineteenth-century existentialist doubted not only God and Christian truth, but also himself, the meaning of life, his relationship with his father, his studies and so on. This growing doubt prompted him to write down his musings in order to curb the unrest. I quote: "This is what my soul thirsts for, like the deserts of Africa thirst for water. This is what I lack, and that is why I am like a man who has amassed furniture and rented rooms, but has not yet found the beloved who will share with me the ups and downs of life."

In this way, doubt can be a source of creativity. Perhaps even a lack of doubt is a lack of creativity. The process of creation is a constant combination of struggle and entrustment, of passion and doubt. In this way, Johan Heylen allows numerous doubts in his artistic work. The questions that arise in his life about femininity, relationships, finiteness, passion, misunderstanding, sexuality, loneliness, sadness, vulnerability, faith, indeterminacy and lack, they simply belong to our human condition. They are man's. But by wanting to express these sensitivities in a plastic medium, he gives them breathing space, he opens them up, he frees the particular from them in a universally recognizable pallet. If you have sharp eyes, you can also see the cracks in the wall. They are musings that are captured in images.

This emotional, existential doubt stems from deep experiences. Experiences of being on your own when it counts. Or deep sadness in the face of loss. This is something to be taken extremely seriously. Here is a deep ground to break free from your ingrained beliefs of the past. What do you choose? Which story is credible?


But in his artistic outpourings, Johan Heylen goes further than this. The artist himself describes it as a metaphysical doubt. First of all, metaphysics was described by Aristotle in the fifth century B.C.E. as "meta ta physica" (Gr.), i.e., everything that comes after physics. That was how he had arranged his writings. All the questions that remain open after we have painstakingly empirically examined everything, all those other questions about ethics, religion, meaning, politics, the good life, etc., that always remain unanswered. That is the field of metaphysics. It is also true that the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty once described it: "Whether it is my body, the natural world, the past, birth or death, the question is always how I can be open to phenomena that go beyond me and yet exist only insofar as I take them up and live them." The moment that passes, an insight that surpasses us, Johan Heylen lives through the desire to be able to paint it, to want to visualize it. We may never be able to fully understand what we see appearing, and we don't have to. Spirituality played a crucial role in the birth of modern art. The exploration of inner reality and human consciousness is also an orientation for Johan in his creations. Doubt and rapture are not mutually exclusive. Questions do not arise from the negation of the world, but from the realization that asking is also an action. It is a unique opportunity to come face to face with the riddle of reality. He likes to be inspired by the mystical writings of Meister Eckhart, when he speaks of a path of 'letting go' and 'emptying'. In this view, man must be 'depicted' of his own images.

Without wishing to be guilty of an exhaustive interpretation of Johan Heylen's work, I would like to point out a number of details. In 'The last walk' we see a gloomy head-footer emerging from the darkness. A barely concealed, hollow skull is only slightly connected to the earth with its swollen legs. We return, naked and emptied, to the great nothingness from which we came. More abstract and enigmatic, he designs an idiosyncratic drawing language in 'Study for a funeral'. In a magical square, subdivided into nine squares, we read the experience of a pure figuration that folds and unfurls within the confines of its cave. Here the reference to the tradition of the mythical secret code of lost civilizations predominates. "And with that, the soul bids farewell to the whole world and ascends to its true life in the eternal God," Eckhart wrote. The work 'Corps crucifiés' describes an act of erotic intimacy between two bodies as crucified. This visual association of the act of love as a crucifixion connects the pain of physicality with the ultimate redemption. Alienation and fusion merge into each other. An iconic image within the theme of the exhibition 'Doubt' is the work 'Dream'. In a framework (Bacon or a four-poster bed?) a being dwells in the capacity of an exclamation mark in a night dream. Is life itself no more than a dream? Or what do dreams have to tell us about what the spiritual life hides from us? In this way and in a hermetic style, Johan Heylen designs a visual language that invites us to reflect on our own existence.


Joannes Késenne, PhD in Art Psychology

October 2023

20Sept2022_campagnebeeld_Expo Jan & Johan Heylen in stadsmuseum Diest.jpg

The backworldsmen

Exhibition museum “De Hofstadt”, Diest, October 2022-January 2023; curated by Elise Verhaegen en Olav Grondelaers

Johan Heylen's oeuvre is characterized by mysteriousness and an undefinable sorrow. This causes feelings of melancholy, but also triggers a form of recognition amongst those who are amazed at the absurdity of existence. The artist is inspired by the work of mystics, existentialists and metaphysicians. In addition, poetry is also an important source of inspiration. The incomprehensibility of "Being" and the position of humanity in this mystery is a recurring theme. Creatures walk around aimlessly, with no hope of salvation or forgiveness, ignorant of their guilt, and not understanding their punishment. There is a holy horror, which stems from a radical alienation.

Titles are often extractions of essays by poets and philosophers, referring to this work. For example, the work "Malone meurt" refers to Beckett's novel of the same name. Malone has shaken off all pose and pretense. The situation is insane, the atmosphere is toxic. At the moment of death, in the midst of God's scarcity and not in His abundance, the core of human existence can be laid bare.

The works "Sur le monde" and "Sous le sol" can be seen as a diptych. Both earthly and non-earthly existence is an enigma, a labyrinth without an exit. The creatures are lost, groping and searching.

Despite the substantial adversity portrayed, Johan's work contains a vulnerability and tenderness. Everything is ambiguous, every painting is multi-layered. His work has its own formal language, a sincere idiom of recalcitrance and wonder.

The works succeed in putting their finger on the wordless wound and shifting the attention from the banal material to the mystical unspeakable. Any attempt to put these works into words folly, since the unspeakable cannot be lucidated.




Johan Heylen was born in 1967 and lives and works in Leuven (Belgium). He is passionate about philosophy, poetry, and modern and contemporary sculpture and painting. He is self-taught. 


Existentialism solidified in paint

Studio visit to Johan Heylen- The ArtCouch, 2023-2

Une vie, c'est fait avec de l'avenir comme les corps sont faits avec du vide", wrote Sartre in the novel L'âge de raison. The protagonist, philosophy student Mathieu, comes to this realization when he realizes that everyone around him makes life-defining decisions; they move forward, cause their personal future, even if it is indeterminate and meaningless. He himself is entangled in a defined pattern of thinking, full of beliefs that ultimately turn out to be shaky. An existential doubt.

Is there an age limit to this doubt? You might think this would be a privilege for young people. That with age comes more clarity in the usefulness, in the destiny of all this. Not necessarily. Why should it? For the vast majority of our lives, we do not enjoy the freedom to think about such matters, let alone to doubt. Sooner or later, rather late, life holds up a mirror to you, like a reckoning. You come face to face with the possible place you have taken in a larger whole. This thought need not necessarily be gloomy or melancholy, nor is it a "happy science." Everything depends on what you do with this science.

These are reflections that accompany our conversation, while Johan Heylen guides me through his oeuvre. They serve as undertones. The paintings are externalizations of his philosophical quest, afflicted with the absurd and the essential loneliness of man, in the tradition of the existentialists, but also with a profoundly humanistic, almost sacred certainty: somehow all this must have a higher meaning. Each work bears witness to a milestone on this tortuous road, an insight that was whispered to him by the numerous thinkers from the past who accompany him on his path. Together they form the becoming human being, searching, doubting, prey to an existential desolation, but nevertheless on the move, driven by an elusive, incomprehensible necessity. An élan vital that drives every artist to create, even if the significance of this is unprecedented.

There, perhaps, lies the essence of what art is: the freedom to proceed to the act of creation independently of meaning, without rational considerations. The act as an act, as a mere will without a destination. The words of the French philosopher Jacques Rancière accompany me when the door of the studio slams behind me: "art liberates as soon as it no longer wants to liberate us."


Frederic De Meyer

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