Interview: Bent Van Looy and His Colorful Scores
A show titled The Vessel, the Jerk, and The Edge of Reason tantalizes and provokes, A lyricist must be behind the mischief, and so he is. Renowned Belgian-Flemish singer and songwriter Bent Van Looy’s first solo exhibition opens June 4th in Brussels at the Super Dakota gallery, a big ebut for the artist who recently rediscovered his love for painting.
With this body of work, Van Looy explores the values and aesthetics of Romanticism as a traditional colorist for whom the drawing comes secondary to the composition. Building his images on layers of bold gestures and a concentrated candy color palette, he suffuses a specific atmosphere on any subject of choice. Whether portraying a person, painting a landscape, or capturing a moment, his hues infuse the setting with sheer fantasy..Although working with nods to traditional scenes, such as maritime or landscape, he uses these formats as basic constructions through which he can explores emotions and self-expression.
We've been intrigued by his work that evokes Edgar Allan Poe’s visions, the Période Vache of Magritte, or even Walt Disney’s early movies, so we got in touch with the artist and talked a bit about his artistic journey and the background of his work.
Sasha Bogojev: As a kid, you went to the Rudolf Steiner school. How did that experience inform your work and worldview?
Bent Van Looy: I spent my entire school career in the Steiner system. I was brought up with a very specific esthetic, based on the vision of the 19th-century Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. A world with a lot of color in it (think magnolia pink curtains, red carpets that evoke the warmth of the uterus, baskets filled to the brim with precisely the right brand wax crayon sticks. Stockmar, in case you're wondering). Children are encouraged to really explore the inherent power of color, using expensive, rich water-based paint, silk cloths, and archetypal fancy dress costumes. Stories are told in the tradition started by the great Rudolf himself, as teachers draw scenes and figures on the blackboard, making the subject matter almost come alive. Although in retrospect, it all may seem a little formulaic at times, the esoteric world of Steiner is deeply ingrained in who I am. For the first time, I let it seep into my works, too.
You actually came back to painting after a successful music career. Can you tell us a bit about that?
About three years ago I came back to painting, after having been on the road with my bands Das Pop, Soulwax, and lately, as a solo musician. I had studied painting in my early twenties, and it was weird and exciting to pick up the brush again after a two-decade hiatus. It took a while to find my footing.
What informs your limited color palette and how hard it is for you to stay within those limitations?
Oddly, it was the colors that opened up the door. At first, I would use a more natural pallet which was just fine, but as soon as I made a conscious decision to limit myself to more saturated, saccharine colors, I felt liberated, like I had permission to leave observation and the real world behind to explore a more literary, narrative space. It's good for me to make this clear choice about which colors to use in a painting. Limitations push me to find solutions that are often more interesting and, at times, surprising. So in a sense, it's freeing, rather than constricting.
What do you use as references for your images, or is it mostly fantasy?
Although my work seems very fantastical, more often than not, the images are based on things I see in the real world, be it on the street, in friends' Instagram feeds, or on TV. I may start from a certain landscape,, but this dramatically changes as the painting progresses. A train station may become a rock formation, a lost figure may appear and that fluorescent pink tower was never there in the first place!
What triggers those shifts and transformations?
Sometimes seeing certain things will give you an electric shock of sorts, opening a portal in the creative mind. I also remember a visit to De Efteling, an amusement park based on the world of an old-timey illustrator named Anton Pieck, where I took my daughter. The twee and kitsch representation of a past that never existed, the fairy tale scenery, and the heightened surreality of the place brought back childhood memories and triggered a desire to explore these deep archetypes one finds in the world of the Brothers Grimm and the 19th century Germany of the Romantic era. With its big ideas, respect for the natural and the supernatural, and the magic of poetry. I feel our times-echo certain aspects of Romanticism, but rather some of the darker ones. There's a purity in these ideals, but also a dangerous sense of superiority and a tendency towards nationalism and what have you.
Can you explain the meaning of "Disneyfied ersatz version of Romanticism" which is cited as a practice that you emulate?
I'm fascinated by the mechanisms that color our way we see things. I was brought up without television and was, of course, totally fascinated with it whenever one was playing at friends' or grandparents' houses. At night my mother would read to my brother and me the Brothers Grimm (grim, indeed) fairy tales in their raw, original Germanic form, with gallows, beheadings and all.
However, seeing them come alive through Disney's eyes, suddenly changed them forever. The ancient darkness was sponged out a little ,and mystery turned into a formula. The almost perversely sensual lines, sugary hues, and cartoonish exaggeration of people, animals and inanimate objects hit me, and they hit me hard. Disney is a language we all have in common, a communal place of wonder, a shared hallucination. Once Disney has told his version of an ancient tale, we can never go back to its unpolished, murkier origins.
What is the source of the title of the show, The Vessel, the Jerk, and the Edge of Reason?
The title is meant to entice, mystify, and annoy in equal measures. Reminiscent of woolly titles of the prog-rock double albums by the likes of King Crimson or Yes, these words conjure up a world. In this show, I present a cast of characters (amongst whom: The Jerk), objects (oh hello, The Vessel), landscapes, and ideas for the viewer to get lost in. The title just opens the door an inch or two.
Bent Van Looy's solo show is on view through July 11, 2020.