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9 Shows to See during Art Brussels Week

Wilson Tarbox
Jun 2, 2021 9:10PM

Antonio Obá, installation view of “Outros Ofícios” at Mendes Wood DM in Art Brussels WEEK, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Mendes Wood DM.

Slowly but surely, life in European cities is returning to normal. Masks are still ubiquitous features of daily life, but since the middle of May, bars, restaurants, museums, and art galleries have opened again to a public eager to reconnect with social and cultural life. The easing of COVID-19 restrictions has come at a perfect time for art lovers. From June 3rd through 6th (and through June 14th online on Artsy), Brussels, Antwerp, the coastal Belgian town of Knokke, and Paris will host a very special edition of Art Brussels, reformatted and renamed as Art Brussels Week 2021.

Founded in 1968, Art Brussels is one of the oldest and most prominent contemporary art fairs on the European circuit. This year, due to the pandemic, its usual dates in April were pushed back to mid-May, and then to June. The traditional fair-booth format had to be swapped out for something more closely resembling a gallery crawl. With travel still a complicated affair for many art lovers, Art Brussels Week 2021 has embraced the trend of digitized viewing with online interactive city maps and numerous galleries offering virtual tours in addition to online presentations on Artsy. Here, we take a look at nine standout exhibitions from this year’s event.


Antonio Obá, “Outros Ofícios”

Mendes Wood DM, Brussels

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Antonia Obá’s first exhibition at Mendes Wood DM’s Brussels space comprises eight oil paintings and 11 works on paper that seem to draw from both a new canon of African American contemporary painters and the specific Afro-Brazilian cultural experience. A work like Sentinela Nº 2 (2021) presents the viewer with a pictorial formula similar to the one popularized by Kehinde Wiley: Black figures set against a floral, decorative backdrop. However, the facture of these images is less polished than Wiley’s, closer to the flatness of Kerry James Marshall. Obá’s paintings also have something of the symbolic and compositional character of Marshall’s work.

Obá’s works on paper, on the other hand, are simple and often monochromatic, with a single color complementing compositions in black and white. There is something mysterious about their sparseness. Here, the artist’s claim to a variety of thematic and pictorial sources is more evident. The works look like modern hieroglyphs or instruction manuals for syncretic religious rituals. This mysticism permeates and unites the work, which is otherwise divided along the lines of contrapuntal oppositions between density and sparseness, saturation and pallor, paper and canvas.


Wang Du

Baronian Xippas, Brussels

There is something awfully Koonsian about Wang Du’s fifth solo show at Baronian Xippas. At first glance, his sculptures recall both the gimmicky hyperrealism and Pop art relatability of the controversial American artist’s work. There’s the pope, French president Emmanuel Macron, and a pair of explicitly sexualized female figures, one of which is actually engaged in the meekly censored coital act with a muscular male partner. But there is also something redeeming about at least one of these works: The bust sculpture of Macron, titled New Photo d’identité (2021), is missing the lower part of its face, precisely the zone that would be covered by a mask during COVID-19. For critics of the French president—who frequently deploys his gift for eloquence to embalm empty, often false statements—the idea of removing his speech apparatus must seem like a grim fantasy. It brings to mind the slogan “masked but not muzzled,” adopted by the striking French nurses and healthcare professionals whose pandemic heroism was deemed worthy of applause but not pay raises, increased staff, or any of their other demands from the French government. Here, Macron is not masked, but he is muzzled.


“Superamas”

Clearing, Brussels

Jean-Marie Appriou, Standing astronaut VI, 2021. Photo by Benjamin Baltus. Courtesy of the artist and CLEARING, New York and Brussels.

Jean-Marie Appriou, Seated astronaut II, 2021. Photo by Benjamin Baltus. Courtesy of the artist and CLEARING, New York and Brussels.

The gallery Clearing is not afraid of big group shows, though these can have the unintended consequence of allowing the more intriguing artists to stand out from the rest. Among the standout works in “Superamas”is Jean-Marie Appriou’s “Astronaut” series. Crowned with colored glass space helmets, the postures of these short bronze figures recall Egyptian sculptural archetypes. They suggest the continuity of humankind’s creative impulses through time and space in their blend of futurism and antiquity.

Lili Reynaud-Dewar, still from TEETH GUMS MACHINE FUTURE SOCIETY (Gironcoli), 2017. Courtesy of the artist and CLEARING, New York and Brussels.

Another stirring inclusion is a pair of videos by Lili Reynaud-Dewar, TEETH GUMS MACHINE FUTURE SOCIETY (Gironcoli) and TEETH GUMS MACHINES FUTURE SOCIETY (One Body, Two Souls) (both 2017). Nude and covered from head to toe in silver paint, the French artist and former dancer prances, smokes, and does push-ups amid the monumental sculptures of Austrian artist Bruno Gironcoli. There is something both enticing and unsettling about these videos. Gironcoli’s sculptures appear almost as if they are rendered in post-production; something about Reynaud-Dewar’s interactions with them seems hollow, as if she were moving about in an augmented-reality space. At times her painted body appears to merge with the metallic surfaces of the sculptures. Hard to say which of these works is more alien.


Nathalie Du Pasquier

Galerie Greta Meert, Brussels

Imagine extracting everything that defines Memphis furniture—its bright colors, its angular geometry, and its quirky playfulness—from the actual functionality of furniture. What is left is something that is, paradoxically, devoid of everything that characterised the Memphis zeitgeist: unbridled and shameless consumerism, an associative decoupling of geometry and furniture from the virtues of functionality and rationality bestowed upon them by socialists and the Bauhaus. Reagan and Thatcher are dead, leaving the Memphis-adjacent aesthetics of Nathalie Du Pasquier’s work free to fill us with entirely different sentiments. There is something both nostalgic and lively about the artist’s new works on paper being shown by Galerie Greta Meert, which have something of the ineffable allure of a period film. With one foot in the past and the other firmly planted in the present, their simple shapes, hand-drawn lines, and muted palettes with fluorescent accents recall the optimistic abstract traditions of an earlier age.


Jeffery Vallance, “Cultural Ties”

Bernier/Eliades, Brussels

Jeffrey Vallance, installation view of Cultural Ties, 1979, at Bernier/Eliades Gallery in Art Brussels WEEK, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Bernier/Eliades Gallery.

Between 1978 and 1979, American artist Jeffrey Vallance sent a necktie and a personal letter to every head of state in the world. In return, these world leaders were asked to send their own neckties. “I wanted to see if we could learn something about the personalities of world leaders by their choice of neckwear,” the artist explained of his project “Cultural Ties.” Out of the 160 solicited rulers, 47 responded. Some dutifully sent back their own ties; others returned the ties that Vallence had sent. A third category sent other items such as books, photographs, a religious medal, or a headdress. Some showed signs of wear and tear, while others still bore their dry-cleaning tags. Some of the accompanying letters were handwritten, others typed. Some clearly came from the hand of the solicited politician, while others were written on their behalf by subordinates.

Jeffrey Vallance, installation view of Cultural Ties, 1979, at Bernier/Eliades Gallery in Art Brussels WEEK, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Bernier/Eliades Gallery.

The framed and mounted fruits of these exchanges line the walls of Bernier/Eliades. Although Vallance has said that he conceived of the project as a “collaborative performance piece,” it is also an impressive archive of late 1970s geopolitics and a remarkably successful mail art project.


Stefaan Dheedene, “35 SYNONYMS FOR ‘HAMMERED INTO’, A FAMILY PACK OF YOKES, ONE PUDDLE AND A FIRM PROMISE OF FUTURE SCHEMES”

Annie Gentils Gallery, Antwerp

Two series of works presented in Stefaan Dheedene’s exhibition at Annie Gentils Gallery seem to speak to each other, opening an absurd dialogue about the idea of progress in human civilization. The first, “A Firm Promise of Future Schemes,” consists of a series of calendars, dated between the years 2083 and 3118. Unblemished by any conceivably projectable event, they appear as bland abstract grids, banal artifacts for the corporate cubicle of the distant future.

The second series, “Synonyms for ‘Hammered Into,’” consists of odd wooden tools set into wall mounts and titled according to their number: 7 Synonyms for “Hammered Into” (2020), 4 Synonyms for “Hammered Into” (2020), etc. Although some are freshly painted, others appear awkward, like primitive tools. If the mastery of tools signified humankind’s emergence from the primitive state of nature and a step on the long road toward civilization, the calendars serve as a reminder of the precariousness of historic progress. They point ironically to a latent awareness of the destructive consequences of climate catastrophe, which promises to plunge us back into the state of nature faster than you can name five synonyms for “hammered into.”


Luc Deleu & T.O.P. office, “Red and Blue Barricade”

Keteleer Gallery, Antwerp

Luc Deleu & T.O.P. office, installation view of Red and Blue Barricade, 2021, at KETELEER GALLERY in Art Brussels WEEK, Antwerp, 2021. Courtesy of the artists and KETELEER GALLERY.

The goal of Gerrit Rietveld’s iconic Red and Blue Chair (1917) was more than just physical comfort; it was the user’s spiritual well-being. Rietveld and other De Stijl artists wanted to create a utopia based on a harmonious human-made order, which they believed could renew Europe after the devastation of World War I. Nearly a century later, we still feel stuck in brutal and confusing times. As much is suggested by Luc Deleu and T.O.P. office’s installation at Keteleer Gallery, Red and Blue Barricade, which features dozens of Rietveld’s chairs stacked into a rather rational and orderly barrier obstructing a passage from one part of the gallery to the next.

Two left-wing traditions seem to symbolically coexist in this installation: the more constructivist vision of early Communism that imagined a world of high-tech abundance brought forth through the centralization of a planned economy; and the more chaotic actionism of anarchy, which focused on tearing down the old system first and imagining the future society later. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune, in which these two schools of theory and praxis were married behind the defensive barricades that Communards used to defend the city. In the period since the fall of each of these utopian experiments, we seem to have only salvaged the serality of mass production, but equality and justice remain elusive.


Romain Kronenberg, “Boaz”

Galerie Sator, Paris

Romain Kronenberg, installation view of “Boaz,” 2021, at Galerie Sator in Art Brussels WEEK, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Sator.

At the turn of the 17th century, Shakespeare imagined in Hamlet a protagonist who staged a play within a play. Roughly 420 years later, the kind of self-aware, fourth wall–breaking tropes that we might refer to as “meta” have been used and abused to exhaustion. Yet, as Romain Kronenberg’s Boaz, on view at Paris’s Galeire Sator, demonstrates, “meta” can still be a viable premise for an artistic project. This is no doubt in part due to a reduced scale and the tender sincerity of the Boaz project.

Romain Kronenberg, installation view of “Boaz,” 2021, at Galerie Sator in Art Brussels WEEK, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Sator.

It all started when the artist purchased a used tape recorder while on vacation off the coast of Naples. The secondhand machine contained a cassette recording by an anonymous child whose fragmented narration told the story of a young orphan named Boaz. Intrigued, Kronenberg set about filling in the gaps in the narrative, elaborating on the Italian child’s oral history, embellishing it into a novel, creating “fake” family photographs and then several short films, including a “making of” film. Displayed with the original tape recorder, these various artifacts, real and invented, interrogate traditional notions of authorship, creativity, and originality.


Gérard Garouste

Templon, Paris

Gérard Garouste, Alt-Neu-Shul sur le Pont-Neuf, 2020. © Gérard Garouste. Courtesy of Templon, Paris, and Brussels.

If Peter Saul and El Greco were one painter, their work might look a lot like Gérard Garouste’s, currently on view at one of Templon’s Parisian spaces (the gallery’s location in Brussels, meanwhile, is hosting an exhibition by Japanese installation artist Chiharu Shiota). With a painterly touch consisting of quick bursts of pale color, Garouste creates elongated, spectral figures. A work like Alt-neu shul sur le Pont Neuf (2020), in which a couple with bodies like wisps of smoke face off from across the Seine, typifies this synthesis. On the one hand, there are the corporeal distortions characstic of Saul’s figures; on the other, a stormy skyline that looks as if it has been borrowed from El Greco’s View of Toledo (1596–1600).

Gérard Garouste, Kafka et l'écureuil, 2019. © Gérard Garouste. Courtesy of Templon, Paris, and Brussels.

It is subject matter, however, that distinguishes Grouste’s psychedelic mannerism from his influencers. His proclivity for 20th-century Jewish intellectuals resurfaces in the appearance of figures like Monsieur Chouchani, the enigmatic mentor of Emmanuel Levinas and Elie Wiesel. Gershom Scholem, the philosopher and historian widely regarded as the founder of the modern study of Kabbalah, also makes an appearance, as does his close friend Walter Benjamin, who is featured in a pencil drawing. Most of the sketches share compositions with more large-scale paintings, offering an indication as to Garouste’s working methods. Like Kafka—another reappearing protagonist—Garouste fuses elements of realism and the fantastic.

Explore Art Brussels Week 2021 on Artsy.

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