Art Brussels is coming back to life after two years missed due to Covid, from April 28 to May 1. It’s not a fair frequented by the usual international blue-chip galleries, but it attracts high-quality galleries – 157 of them this year – with a good mix of well-established and newly formed ones. There are several special projects that would divert attention from that focus: the best is a handsome ‘tasting’ show made up of works by current participants of the Venice Biennale; the most famous is the creation of the Jeppe Hein bar, to which Maison Ruinart gave carte blanche. It is written comfortably enough by installing inconspicuous abstract paintings with a champagne bubble motif. There are a multitude of British galleries and artists – I came across Nika Neelova, Peter Perry and Bouke de Vries, all of whom were present with excellent work. But most of the galleries are from the continent. Belgium itself has many galleries and an active collector base. All in all, it wasn’t hard to find things you would like, most of it went well through a healthy share of solo performances.
Joëlle Dubois: ‘Within Arm’s Reach’, 2022 at Keteleer Gallery, Antwerp – Booth A34
Ghent-born young painter Joëlle Dubois was a fast saleswoman with witty research into the effects of social media, which she summed up as the thing ‘it’s never really there, but always HERE’. This acrylic tabletop painting on wood includes a tablecloth that nicely sets up a palette, a cheeky look in a convincing glass mirror, and a phone conversation that makes a dark joke out of despair and failure to communicate.
Franck Scurti: ‘Lux-vision # 2’, 2021-22 in Michel Rein, Paris / Brussels – B08
This small window, made of Murano glass with attractive bubbles, came from a French artist who noticed ‘similarities between black lines over electronic chips on bank cards and the length of lead used in stained glass’. In churches, he notes, they ‘transform physical light into the divine’, while in galleries or fairs ‘religious value associated with stained glass (and with a work of art) gives way to its exhibition value’). Out with a credit card?
Bea Bonafini: ‘Crush Crushed’, 2022 in Eduardo Secci, Florence / Milan – C83
Italian Bea Bonafini based in London often worked with carpet. Now she has found a way to achieve a comparable aesthetic by painting with gouache and watercolor on engraved cork. The title of her solo presentation, ‘Where the Primitive Becomes Two’, quotes a description of Georges Bataille’s asexual reproduction: ‘We cannot say that the first entity spawned the second … The two new entities are, to the same extent, the product of the first …’ animal and human forms seem to merge into one another in a group of works for which the gallery says the viewer is confronted with ‘transient silhouettes reminiscent of the primordial while gently positioning the observer in a surreal atmosphere’.
Leon Vranken: ‘Roll 3’ 2021 at Sofie Van de Velde Gallery, Antwerp – B07
The stand-alone stand of Belgian artist Leo Vranken is full of surprising ways to reuse everyday objects to take up space between painting and sculpture. This do-it-yourself spiral hob is actually made of garden hose. He told me that there was quite a search for one that could be manipulated as he wished, and then it was only available in lengths of 500 meters, so he made a series. At first I thought the hose, which was even more unusual, shrank at one end, but he explained that he achieved this simply by changing the pressure he applied, making him an impressively assisted readymade.
Chris Soal: ‘Changing Soil Under My Feet (Oscillating Orientation)’, 2022 at WHATIFTHEWORLD, Cape Town – D20
The white South African artist, who lives between Johannesburg and Cape Town, visually echoed Vranken with very different materials: discarded beer bottle caps wound on an electric fence cord, used to control farm animals. This is typical of Soal in combining the industrial with the discarded in order to foster notions of value and point to environmental concerns, in this case with built-in respect for El Anatsui’s well-known use of bottle caps.
Nazanin Pouyandeh: ‘L’Étang de Diane’, 2021 in Galerie Sator, Paris – B01
My choices may give the impression that there was little totally figurative painting, but as at all fairs, there was plenty. The 1.6-meter-wide self-portrait of Iranian Nazanin Pouyandeh from Paris actually represents several paintings in one, along with her preparatory drawings. It is presented with the results of a recent stay in Corsica, where the lagoon of L’Étang de Diane provides a backdrop to metaphysical engagements with a sense of classical-encounter-modern.
Tony Matelli: ‘Arrangement (14)’ 2021 in Maruana Mercier, Brussels – A26
The most famous threads from the practice of the American sculptor Tony Matelli see him bringing hyperrealistic weeds to surprising places in celebration of unwelcomeness; or combine the timelessness of a classic statue with the temporality of fruit … but all in bronze. The fair had both, but this cheerful bronze is somewhere in between. I like the ‘growth’ of a loose leaf upwards and, after all, real tulips have such a short lifespan in a vase …
Hermann Nitsch: ‘Untitled’, 2022 at RX, Paris / New York – C13
RX shows the last four paintings made by the late Viennese (1938-2022): action pictures for sure, but somehow from the monochromatic suggestions of the blood ritual for which he is best known. These two-meter-high canvases are painted by hand smearing a thick paste in a softly luminous and floral palette, which exudes more Coin than murder. Nitsch spoke of finding a ‘sense of joy’ in his later works and that the resurrection was for him a ‘principle’.
Wanda Koop: ‘Barcode Face – Blue’, 2021 in Blouin | Division, Toronto – A78
The Canadian painter has various paradoxically poetic ways of incorporating the human and the technological into attractive but poisoned images of the landscape. This is from an ongoing series in which the bar code motif suggests the commodification of nature as well as the abstract face that controls the earth. There was an award for the best solo stand, which Koop would have received if I had judged …
Anna Kutera: ‘Poppy Seed House 22’, 1998-99 Abroad, London – D13
Another face emerges from one of the more unusual materials in sight: this is from a series of semi-abstract depictions of the architectural components of Anna Kutera, created with poppy applied oil paint. The Polish artist, best known for her feminist works, plays with the traditional Central European use of poppy seeds in medicine and baking for family and religious holidays, giving them strong connotations of homeliness, comfort, nutrition and well-being.
Marie Cloquet with ‘Earth, Wind, & Fire’ in Jason Haam, Brussels / Seoul – C09
I met Belgian artist Marie Cloquet a month ago in Cork Street, where she covered all sides of the room with an impressive installation of site-specific black-and-white photographs, subtly painted to blur their categorization: they were volcanic, and the impressive result was a somewhat claustrophobic transposition of geology in gallery. Obviously Cloquet is productive: she was here with another designed installation that combines land art, photography and painting to a cliff-like effect in one continuous thirteen-part presentation.
Ryo Kinoshita: ‘We are not interested in any restrictions’, 2022 in Galerie Fons Welters, Amsterdam – D04 (above and below)
The works of the Dusseldorf-based Japanese artist from a distance look like decorative abstract paintings, but their intricate rhythms are shown playfully figuratively and multimedia up close, and their surfaces come to life by incorporating various fabrics and objects. Kinoshita says ‘he keeps adding or subtracting oil and material, and then I end up with a bigger picture – which is usually playful but also tactile.