Allow me to paint you a picture. The wildly talented visual artist and illustrator Brecht Vandenbroucke has had his work splashed over anything from the New York Times to Prada shirts and don’t get us started on those unforgettable Walter Van Beirendonck collabs. With a relentless eye for detail, this young Belgian picks up on every little perversion of our daily realities and mirrors them in painted comic strips and collages, even sculptures, with an unignorable candour mixed with pop iconography relatable to all. Speech bubble: it should come to no one’s surprise that Brecht Vandenbroucke was hand-picked by Alice van den Abeele and Raphaël Cruyt, taste level impeccable as ever, to be co-curator for MIMA’s new expo “Art Is Comic”, opening June 23. The exhibition is meant to provide solace in a world of terror, a belly laugh to counter the stomach ache that watching the news can give you. To achieve this, the team of three gathered the cream of the cartoon crop in the form of visual artists Brecht Evens (BE), HuskMitNavn(DK), Joan Cornellà (SP), Mon Colonet & Spit (BE), Jean Jullien (FR) and Brecht Vandenbroucke himself. Always evolving, these days Vandenbroucke wants to lighten up the visual – but keep the message clear as day – by working around the theme of “Bread and Circuses”. “Art Is Comic” will feature new Brecht Vandenbroucke pieces such as a giant foosball table as well as much-liked (@brechtvandenbroucke is on its way to 50K followers) artworks from his archive. We sat down with the prolific artist to discuss the curating process, art in the age of the troll and lessons from Walter Van Beirendonck.
KNOTORYUS: What’s the origin story behind your collaboration with MIMA and the artist picks that were made for “Art Is Comic”?
BRECHT VANDENBROUCKE: “Alice and Raph had previously bought one of my works for the permanent collection of MIMA, a piece from my book “White Cube”. About a year ago, they asked me if I felt like helping them curate this new expo and I immediately said yes. I knew A.L.I.C.E. Gallery and I had already visited the MIMA, I think it’s a marvelous museum and I’m really glad it exists. Finally there’s a place for contemporary visual culture here, whether it’s street art or illustrations, with a real connection to the online world, to the now! Once we started brainstorming about which artists we had in mind for the show, it was a very organic process like a dialogue. I immediately thought of Jean Jullien, I knew his online work but a few months ago I had also visited an expo of his sculptures in Ghent. I enjoyed seeing his ‘flat’ works translated into 3D. To me, his sense of humour is really refined, he has a very different take on things.
I had also previously painted with Joan Cornellà at a French comic strip festival called “BD Aix“, together with Herr Seele. We did a panel in Washington together as well, so I’d gotten to know him better. He has masses of followers and a gigantic online presence, his work has almost become something of a meme, which is also a new phenomenon for imagery. I think his art is really suitable for that kind of massive sharing, because there’s a certain emptiness there. You can project any kind of emotion into those dark-eyed faces.
The next artist, Brecht Evens, I went to college with. We’ve worked on several projects, held expos together and we sometimes draw together. He has a different way of working, he creates books and full-length stories. That is a common thread of all the artists present, making very narrative, figurative art of today. Whether on a vase or a table, all of the artists can draw. Alice and Raph proposed to add HuskMitNavn and Mon Colonel & Spit so since the amount of space is limited too, we decided it would be fantastic if we could get everyone together in this way.”
KNOTORYUS: As a curator, what did you focus the most on?
BRECHT VANDENBROUCKE: “Firstly, I had to contact the artists and convince them to participate. They’re very busy; big artists like Joan Cornellà or Jean Jullien get tons of requests, so I was very glad that they agreed to participate. I followed up with the artists and we frequently held meetings about who to feature in which space, who’s showing what, to create a kind of storyline, a course. We didn’t want someone making a sculpture and another artist putting another sculpture right next to it.”
KNOTORYUS: What did you find the most challenging in taking on this role?
BRECHT VANDENBROUCKE: “All of these artists have their own identity and the most important thing to me was showing that. It’s not easy creating an overarching storyline in the expo because everyone is so different but to me it was more essential for all the artists to have good personalities and their own oeuvre and then do that justice as much as possible. You can’t forcibly draw connections if they’re not there. But I think that organically, a story is being told here.”
KNOTORYUS: You also created a couple of original pieces for the expo, when did you start working on those?
BRECHT VANDENBROUCKE: “The foosball table sculpture we started on around the new year. The paintings I worked on these past few months. I was mainly into the idea of sports and games, ‘Bread and Circuses’. Because on social media, everything is jumbled together. If you scroll down your Facebook feed, you’ll see a very political video and next up is a cat tripping over something. I wanted to represent the mixture of those two things, but translate it to a result that’s not too heavy. My work is always very influenced by pop culture and direct communication. I don’t make abstract paintings, I want there to be a story, joke or idea being told. Evoking emotion. Sometimes it’s very dark, sometimes it’s sad and sometimes just plain funny.”
KNOTORYUS: That direct aspect of your work is also what makes it very shareable online, it gets people to react a lot.
BRECHT VANDENBROUCKE: “Indeed, sometimes those reactions are good, sometimes they’re bad. It’s about subjectivity. Sometimes you publish a post and you think: “Oh dear”. There are few subjects that are not sensitive.”
KNOTORYUS: The expo is meant to provide a positive counter-reaction to the issues of the world, we were once more reminded of the importance of that this week in Brussels.
BRECHT VANDENBROUCKE: “A sense of humour is very important here, I think. It’s very difficult for all of us to come together because everyone is part of the media now, and the media tends to focus on extremes, on those who yell the loudest. And everything in between sort of disappears, but those are actually the people who are just… living their lives. That’s very tiring. It’s a kind of complex, confusing mess. So the sculpture I created contains all these different concepts. There’s not really a clear enemy figure represented, there’s a double unfairness going on when you see a lot of small foosball figures who could be turning against one big guy blocking the goal. You could interpret it in two ways, I leave it to the visitors to decide who the bad guy is. It could be about populism, with all those little followers and a big one representing a certain ideal. Or it could be about a social movement trying to create progress which is being blocked by a single person. That’s also something we’re dealing with today. It’s up to you to decide how the game should be played, and if it’s even possible to play.”
KNOTORYUS: Are you frustrated by what’s going on all around us?
BRECHT VANDENBROUCKE: “It does something to you. I try to consume less information online. I’m not on Twitter.”
KNOTORYUS: That’s probably for the best.
BRECHT VANDENBROUCKE: (laughs) “Yes. It’s very hard to find any nuance on social media. Which in itself is an issue for me, because I sometimes create extreme things. Which makes me stop and reflect on whether I’m doing the right thing. You can’t escape it, it’s a continuous search because the world was different just 3 years ago, even here in Belgium. You have to keep evaluating what’s good and what’s bad. So I created a painting with a football ref proclaiming that he doesn’t even know the score anymore, and there are a bunch of yellow and red cards falling from the sky. Amidst all the chaos, who am I to judge?”
KNOTORYUS: The idea for the expo is to bring your family and your kids along. You’ve also mentioned before that your work contains a lot of references from your childhood, so maybe kids will come here and create new references for themselves.When I was a kid, I was obsessed with reading comic books and drawing my own. I use to make one called “Super Britney”, which is exactly what it sounds like. I’d like to know what you would want kids to take away after seeing the expo, even though the themes are sometimes more adult?
BRECHT VANDENBROUCKE: “I hope the expo creates new references for kids visiting, my work for example is about such a mixture of things. I put up paintings here that look at the world in the way a child does. As a child, you ask a lot of questions because everything’s new. You try to understand the world and, it’s funny, you immediately check if something is good or bad, wrong or right, allowed or not. Kids are constantly asking why something is the way it is. I feel like grown-ups often lose that. They decide something is what it is, and “I won’t change my mind”. Hopefully we can make the adults see things more like kids do. It’s all about not getting set in your way of thinking.”
KNOTORYUS: What were you reading and watching growing up that shaped your world of references?
BRECHT VANDENBROUCKE: “I was raised on “Suske & Wiske” comic books and I’m a big fan of “Quick & Flupke”, I thought that was great when I was a kid. I watched a lot of TV, mainly cartoons with action figures, and soaked up pop culture like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Batman. I grew up on a farm with four brothers and we’d all draw. I had my own monthly, with deadlines and articles that I wrote, I made games and collectible bonus points and collector’s cards… Just copying everything I’d see (in real life). I also made a Nintendo from paper, with a controller and cables cut out of paper. Just making things.
KNOTORYUS: I can really relate to that, there was this phone I wanted as a kid but I didn’t get it so I made an exact replica out of cardboard. Maybe it’s a kind of way to create a reality that isn’t there for yourself?
BRECHT VANDENBROUCKE: “Indeed! I’m also fascinated by everything artificial, that’s why I like toys and such. There’s a painting at the expo about a selfie, that’s points out the artificiality of certain aspects of life. The limit between fake and real gets lifted in a drawing. If you paint something photo-realistically and juxtapose it with a cartoon figure, it clashes. It’s like Roger Rabbit, suddenly it’s real. I like toying around with that, that’s also a part of mixing everything.”
KNOTORYUS: It’s clear your hunger for pop culture hasn’t abated since childhood.
BRECHT VANDENBROUCKE: “It hasn’t, albeit it’s a bit less geeky now because my world has expanded. I’m more invested in visual arts now, I think it’s fun to juxtapose that with pop culture and see what comes out. There’s no division between them, to me. It’s all part of visual culture. I try to look at what an artist doing as an individual. If the intention is to make something childlike and to entertain, and it’s working, that’s good work to me. If you can combine both low and high culture, that’s good for me too.”
KNOTORYUS: This week in Paris, the Walter Van Beirendonck took place. There’s big Brecht Vandenbroucke hanging up at home in the form of a FW16 “WOEST” invite. Can you talk about how you ended up working together?
BRECHT VANDENBROUCKE: “I’ve been a fan of Walter’s for years. I think I first saw his work when I was sixteen, at the expo “MODE 2001 LANDED – GELANDED”. “Mutilate” was one of the exhibitions he curated for that, I just remember seeing his work for the first time and immediately connecting to it. So I just followed him ever since. Then one day he spotted my work in an episode of “De Canvasconnectie”, a Belgian show documenting the work of different artists. There are some correlations between what we do, so he asked me if I felt like painting the “WOEST” show invites, which was of course the case. He also proposed making T-shirts featuring the invite print, but I was determined to create a separate piece for those. It was such fun, because Walter Van Beirendonck always has a big story behind his collections. He knows how to tell a new story each time, and they’re very well-documented. He told me what the collection was about and showed the elements of the story he wanted to tell at that time. That creates such a rich soil to base a drawing on. And eventually I also painted the shoes for the runway show, that was amazing. We even did a window display for Coccodrillo Antwerp for those shoes. What he does is just amazing. It’s always so positive too, I think that’s something I can learn from his work. Sometimes there’s a certain cynicism that’s pervasive in my art and with him it’s very focused on the positive, I really think that’s wonderful. I believe that’s what the world needs, especially now.”
KNOTORYUS: The world does need a little more Walter, preach. Has this experience impacted the actual work?
BRECHT VANDENBROUCKE: “Yes, I’ve noticed I’ve started doing different things since then. I still use my art to protest, but I’m actually a very happy person. I don’t seek out conflict. There are a few things in the expo that could be a touchy subject to certain people, there’s an ironic use of humour, but it’s there to get a point across.”
KNOTORYUS: Your work is often quite charged and satirical and it has also featured big corporations in that context. Has that ever gotten you in trouble?
BRECHT VANDENBROUCKE: “I don’t really make that kind of work anymore; I don’t feel like it at the moment. The paintings I did featuring big name brands are mostly from five years ago. The world has changed and I’ve grown up too. It’s still my work and I stand behind it, but I’ve noticed I’ve moved on to different things. I’m creating my own world and my own fantasy, because the real world is so dark. I think it’s a good thing to go all-out on escapism, it’s not a bad thing. As soon as you make some sort of statement, you get piled on from all sides. I haven’t faced too many problems with this, fortunately, but I don’t feel like adding to the drama in this moment. I feel that what we need now is more middle ground. Healthy common sense.”
KNOTORYUS: By evolving in this way, you’re creating your own references and icons, like my fave: Shady Bitch. I have to ask, is Shady Bitch inspired by anyone real?
BRECHT VANDENBROUCKE: “Oh, by many people. (laughs) Friends, even! I just wanted to make a new comic strip and actually, I wanted to have “Shady Bitch” pop up behind my name when people googled it. I thought that’d be funny. Now I make new episodes of “Shady Bitch” for a French magazine, every two weeks. I enjoy doing that a bit more, it’s a bit lighter.”
KNOTORYUS: Do you work on new art each day?
BRECHT VANDENBROUCKE: “I work every day. Not as much now because I’m busy here, but I’m usually creating something. The fun part of it all is that it could be anything, an assignment or my own thing, fashion design. It’s very varied, that’s what I like the most. Making a sculpture for this expo was also great fun. As long as we’re working.”
KNOTORYUS: Are there figures in TV or pop culture that interest you today?
BRECHT VANDENBROUCKE: “There’s so much. I like Broad City.”
KNOTORYUS: Oh my God, yes. The new season is coming out this summer.
BRECHT VANDENBROUCKE: “I saw the trailer! I follow a lot of illustrators too. Simon Hanselmann is a cartoonist from Tasmania. He has created these three figures, Megg, Mogg and Owl and they’re just incredibly funny. I think that’s going to become a new classic. I read a lot. I always fall asleep watching films.” (laughs)
KNOTORYUS: Belgian comic books have a very rich history, but they’re often problematic when it comes to representation. What I think is so great about your work is the vast diversity of the world you show; your characters aren’t always good or bad but they’re always real. Why is it important for you to portray this?
BRECHT VANDENBROUCKE: “My group of friends is very diverse, so I try to feature that in my work too. I feel like you just have to today, you can’t leave anyone out. That’s just absurd. It’s a logical step.”
KNOTORYUS: But a step that so many still don’t take.
BRECHT VANDENBROUCKE: “It’s strange how a lot of people aren’t conscious of this yet. I think, in the world of illustration, it’s getting better. It’s good to see that evolve, having more diversity in drawings. I draw a lot of people, it’s a conscious choice. I pay attention to body diversity too. Bigger people, thinner people, people who are androgynous or gender non-conforming. That can sometimes offend people, I got some angry comments on painting a guy in a bra. But then I just think: “Yeah… So be it.” (laughs) I’ll make what I want to see.”
KNOTORYUS: Which is why I think your work is futureproof.
BRECHT VANDENBROUCKE: “I don’t know, I hope so. It can go any which way, it’s hard to predict what the future will look like these days. It’s still hard for me to discuss. I draw figures with darker skin tones, but I don’t have that skin tone, so people ask me how I could even paint that. I get criticism from both sides of the aisle. Which leaves me wondering who I am, what I’m allowed to do. It’s hard for me to talk about, so I prefer to just put it in the work.”
KNOTORYUS: I feel like it would be different if you were to focus on one specific reality or race or gender that’s not yours, but the work is framed in a vast amount of diversity of all types. There’s so much there.
BRECHT VANDENBROUCKE: “That’s true, but people like picking things apart. They wonder why a certain character is placed there or why certain characters are women. And it’s actually good that those things are being reflected upon.”
KNOTORYUS: Especially online.
BRECHT VANDENBROUCKE: “Sometimes commenters ask why I’ve drawn a man for a certain character. I’ll think: “You’re right”. But I’m interested in men. (laughs) So sometimes I just feel like drawing a man. But then you start wondering if it’s appropriate. Some paintings could be interpreted as an idealised representation of masculinity, if you were to see the work in an isolated space. But I feel like it becomes more clear if you see my work as a whole.”
KNOTORYUS: You’re only seeing one image at a time if you’re on Instagram.
BRECHT VANDENBROUCKE: “That’s just it, people are seeing everything very fleetingly or they end up on your @ by accident and wonder what is going on.”
KNOTORYUS: Do you let online comments get to you?
BRECHT VANDENBROUCKE: “I think everyone’s sensitive to that, but I try not to listen too much. No one knows the truth, no one is always right, you can only do your best. I think if everyone did their best, we’d be better off. We’re all trying. (laughs)
KNOTORYUS: What are you looking forward to this year, rumour has it a new book is in the works?
BRECHT VANDENBROUCKE: ‘Yes, I’m working on that but there’s so much to do still. I’d like a vacation now! I have my fixed jobs going on, and I make illustrations for certain outlets. So I’ll do that and finish the book. But I’d also like to create a book with all of my works in it. I started in 2008, so I’ve been working for 9 years now. It’d be nice to make a compilation of all of that work.”
KNOTORYUS: “10 YEARS OF BRECHT”.
BRECHT VANDENBROUCKE: “You know, I’d call it “75 YEARS OF BRECHT”, just to confuse people. “He’s been at this for 75 years? How old is this guy?”.
ART IS COMIC
June 23 2017
6 PM – 10 PM
June 23 2017 – December 31 2017
Quai du Hainaut 39-41
Curators: Alice van den Abeele & Raphaël Cruyt in collaboration with Brecht Vandenbroucke
Scenography: Alice van den Abeele & Raphaël Cruyt in collaboration with Antoine Bouillot for Maison Renard