Long before becoming Head of Collection at SMAK, Iris Paschalidis’ first introductions to art were her father’s paintings and Greek Orthodox icons. More recently though, she has kept herself busy curating the exhibition on Belgian artist Jef Geys.
She opens up on bolstering trust while working with and learning from Geys, about beaming a critical eye on contemporary art and about the artist’s life as a lens for his oeuvre, where objects and their multiple meanings are archived as ‘diary pieces’ seeping into his work.


Can you tell us something more about the exhibition and how it came to be?

The starting point of this exhibition was rather unusual. As the Head of Collection at S.M.A.K., the Museum of Contemporary Art in Ghent, I contacted Jef Geys about one of his artworks in our collection. We wanted to include ‘Yellow, Red, Blue etc. …’  in an exhibition on photography last year. To ensure we did the installation correctly, I went over the instructions with Jef. He was very happy with our precise way of working and invited me for coffee in Balen. During this visit, I had the chance to catch a glimpse of Jef’s way of working and living, which are permanently woven into each other. I was very impressed and proposed the museum staff to do a solo exhibition about Jef Geys. In a letter to Jef I asked him if he would be interested in having a show in Ghent.

About the intentions/directions of the show …

It was Jef Geys himself who clearly pointed out the directions of the show. A couple of weeks after the initial letter, he already had a plan – in his mind and on paper – about how the show should be.

Tentoonstelling Jef Geys, S.M.A.K., 2015, foto Dirk Pauwels_08

How does the exhibition’s name help to evoke its content?

The title, ‘Jef Geys,’ evokes nothing more and nothing less than a show on the oeuvre of Jef Geys, which means: a lot. In this exhibition in S.M.A.K. Geys gathers several important moments that took place during his career and highlights several important artworks. He refers to the past, to a show that was planned with Jan Hoet but never happened, and to the present with the coffee paper-drawings and to how he is anchored in the museum’s collections in Belgium and Flanders.

How would you describe the majority of the works on show? In a more general sense, how would you describe the artist’s work, his approach and aesthetic?

There are a lot of archival documents shown in the exhibition. This is substantial material in his oeuvre. Every document has its particular meaning and value. These documents function like a sort of diary in his oeuvre. In the end there will be an enormous archive that will keep track of all realised and unrealised projects and plans, bringing the mind, oeuvre and career of the artist together.
We also have eighty drawings on coffee-paper. These are more recent works, which the artist is showing for the first time. Although there are some ‘autonomous’ artworks shown in this exhibition, the object on its own is not Geys’ main goal. He specifically selected these artworks to be exemplary for his oeuvre and for this particular exhibition. The aesthetic in the classical meaning of the word is not a concern for Jef Geys. The importance of his art lays on the ‘inside’ of the artworks, the objects and its meanings.

Tentoonstelling Jef Geys, S.M.A.K., 2015, foto Dirk Pauwels_07

In terms of approach, how did you go about producing the show? How involved was the artist? How closely did you work with him/her? Can you talk to us about the selection process? How easy or difficult was it to get hold of all the pieces?

My role as curator was mainly to execute what the artist determined in his initial plan. The artist was totally involved, from the first until the last minute, although he was not able to be there physically. We communicated with sound and images, through phone and e-mail, and so on. The selection process of the artworks was a private matter of the artist. He chose the works as well as all the archives and documents that are shown. The installation and the execution were entrusted to the curator, in cooperation with Jef Geys’ assistant, Inge Godelaine.

As a curator, how important is your relationship with the exhibited artist?

The relationship with the artist is of course very important. Without the trust and confidence from both sides, it would have been impossible to make this exhibition. It was a great honour for me to work with Jef. His intelligence, humour and lucidity are refreshing and incomparable.

Tentoonstelling Jef Geys, S.M.A.K., 2015, foto Dirk Pauwels_02

What do you feel is the exhibition’s main statement? And how do you feel it fits in with the artist’s oeuvre in a more general sense?

It is a sophisticated mix of a view on his/the career, his/the oeuvre and his/the life as an artist. It is also thematizing the museum as an institute by showing numbers of his artworks spread out over the collections of important Flemish museums. It is referring to an aborted project in the past, that became meaningful because of its ‘never happened-ness.’ This exhibition is, analogous to his oeuvre, also a comment and a reflection on contemporary art and a criticism to the scene to which it is delivered.

What do you hope viewers will get from visiting the show? 

I hope the visitor will take his time to have a close look into the work of Jef Geys. Geys is giving the viewer several anchor points, images, information, facts and ‘tools’ to read his works and oeuvre, but also to read the meaning of contemporary art and the viewer’s own story. For Jef Geys there is not only one truth, certainly not in the clarification of the artworks. I also hope the viewer will leave the show with an insight into the working attitude, the highlights and the banalities of an/the artist’s life and the possible ways of working; and how Geys makes all these sort of things the subject of his art.

Tentoonstelling Jef Geys, S.M.A.K., 2015, foto Dirk Pauwels_06

On a more personal level …

Working on the exhibition definitely enriched my understanding of Geys’ work by doing research on several works and having conversations with people who are familiar with Geys’ oeuvre or with the artist in person. Meeting Jef Geys in Balen, writing and receiving letters and drawings, making phone calls and so on, taught me the most. It is a very thin line– you can almost say it is non-existent – between the artist’s life and his art practice.

Would you say any influences / references played a major role in shaping the exhibition?

Only the influence of the artist.

As a curator, how do you select the artists whom you’d like to exhibit? Would you say your shows all have somewhat of a common denominator to them?

As the Head of Collection in S.M.A.K., thus not as a curator as such, I was rather selected by the artist to be the curator of his show. But indeed, should I be a fulltime curator, I would seek a certain criticism on contemporary art, and a sharp and playful criticism in general, for the oeuvres I would show.

Tentoonstelling Jef Geys, S.M.A.K., 2015, foto Dirk Pauwels_04
Jef Geys
SMAK, Gent
Until the 6th of September 2015
Photo credits: Dirk Pauwels, Tentoonstelling Jef Geys, S.M.A.K., 2015.