The paintings of Gent-based artist Adelheid De Witte thread a fine line between fact and fiction. Taking as starting point magazine clippings she cuts out and collects, the thirty-something artist creates imaginary and surrealist interiors that play with elements of space, geometry and collages. With a solo show of never-before-seen-works opening in her atelier this weekend, we caught up with the talent-on-the-rise, had a snoop around her studio and talked everything from collecting images to other Belgian artists she loves.
What would you say is the starting point of your work?
Imagination in the first place. The mental state when it is possible to represent a hypothetical object, situation or environment. To express what is not necessarily there, but might be under differing conditions. Imagination not only plays an important role in my way of understanding things, it also allows me to perceive things in a different way, offering alternative perspectives. As a visual artist, I am playing around with fictional situations, spaces, objects and characters.
Is there something very specific you’re hoping it expresses and communicates?
The work questions habitual patterns of response and tends to challenge what is considered as ‘normal’. It is my opinion that common reactions often lie beyond the range of our immediate rational control. The painted subjects are not always that obvious. I don’t expect the compositions to be understood, on the contrary. However, by inviting the viewer to move into a space of confusion and speculation, I hope to make it clear that our perception is a very particular way of seeing and processing things and therefore often leads to misconceptions. Titles as ‘one step closer to reality’ or ‘the entrance of the Mountain Resort seemed very promising’ are referring to this idea.
Can you talk to us about your approach in general? What characterizes your work? How do you actually work on a piece, from start to finish?
My visual language contains several contradictions. Past and present, fantasy and reality, activity and inactivity, interior and exterior, seriousness and playfulness appear next to each other. The represented scenes could be of any time and any space, which is reinforced by the absence of human beings. ‘Virtual climbing, level 2’ for instance shows a large mountain mural and a playground equipment. Vague court line markings and traces on the floor suggest previous activity. The wholly enclosed space creates the impression of both wideness and restriction.
These paradoxical elements are put together through a rather extended process. In advance of painting, I would call myself a collector of images. My studio is filled with hundreds of magazines. I take the time to check out the many photographs and sort them by theme: architecture, interiors, nature, and objects. I combine them into non-permanent collages that form the starting point to paint. In the end, the final piece always differs from the original idea. During the whole process of adding and removing paint, I like to be surprised, to surrender to the often absurd and ironic associations I am coming up with.
How would you say the works you’ll be showing at the exhibition fit in with your wider body of work? Were any works created specifically for the show?
‘Guest Rooms’ unites several works created during the last couple of months. The series will be shown in public for the first time. I like to create multiple paintings around the same subject matter. The more I was (and am) exploring this particular theme of guest rooms and hotels, the greater the variety of perspectives on the idea. ‘Promotional Room (Mountain View only if Window Shutters are Open)’ for example embodies the deceiving information a hotel catalogue provides, whereas ‘Guarded 24/7’ inquires the often irrational longing for safety people tend to have when being abroad. Working on the same subject also allows me to explore different compositions and formats and to select the more impactful ones.
If I am not mistaken, the exhibition will be taking place in your studio. Can you talk to us about the space?
The studio is situated on the first floor of a former boys school. It’s a luminous, old classroom with large windows looking out over the central court. The building is impressive because of the grand staircase and the long inner hallways. Although several established artists are working here on a daily basis, there is an overall quietness at all times, which is intriguing.
Can you talk to us about the various different people involved in the show? Who did what to make it happen?
Moniek Bucquoye (Design expert), Siegrid Demyttenaere (Founder DAMN Magazine), Jan Hoet jr. (Curator & former owner of Hoet-Bekaert gallery) and Chris De Backer (Creative entrepreneur) sat down together on an evening and masterminded my show. All of a sudden I had deadline and an audience.
Because they all have their particular expertise and fields of interest, this works very stimulating and refreshing to me.
Can you talk to us about how you see your own work? How would you describe it?
As a life-long exploration of how far I can and will be able to stretch the concepts and compositions of my interest. The work reflects my own visual perceptions and associations and therefore feels very natural. On the other hand, the paintings often surprise me in a way, so they seem both recognizable and undecipherable.
Nature, and plants more specifically, figure consistently in your work. How do you explain this?
Several elements are recurring. Abandoned rooms or minimal architecture. Windows and hallways. Recreational equipment, chairs, sun loungers, animals, planes, houses and – indeed – nature. ‘Guest Rooms’ includes backgrounds of mountains, forests and palm trees. In the previous series I produced several pieces involving plants and trees growing in non-expected places. I am not preoccupied with reproducing landscapes. My preference rather inclines towards the ambiguous relationship we have towards nature: production and reproduction, authenticity and fakeness.
What is your preferred medium for exhibiting your work? Book? Solo show? Group exhibition?
In the past I was mainly participating in group exhibitions. I have found these enriching, especially when created around common themes, like ‘Alpine Club Boechout’. This collective exhibition showed work of artists such as Bram Kinsbergen, John Van Oers, Koen Broucke, Charlotte Lybeer and Stefan Peters, united by the idea of suggestion, infinity, mountains and landscapes. For a long time I didn’t feel ready to come out with my work in a solo show, until now.
Who would you say was instrumental in shaping your work?
No one in particular.
How do you see yourself fit into the country’s contemporary art scene?
My work contains several elements some people like to call typically Belgian, referring to the style of painting, the use of colors or the often surreal compositions.
What would you say to the person who sees in your work a very Belgian DNA, somewhat of a very Belgian surrealism?
I was based in an art studio in Barcelona several years ago. On a regular basis people would ask me questions about this well known Belgian Surrealism: ‘What is it with you Belgians, are you all mad?’ Surrealism as an artistic movement came into existence after World War I, at a point where a lot of failures converged and former hope and ideals were contested. I grew up in Passendale, in a house overviewing the meadows that once formed the battlefields during the Third Battle of Ypres. Thousands of men died in this ‘valley of suffering’. In my childhood we used to play on Tyne Cot Cemetery and the surroundings, having much fun pretending we were soldiers fighting each other. Later on, when growing a bit older and truly realizing what had happened there, all of this made an immense impression. I have never rationally decided to add a surrealistic touch to my artwork, but the longing to bring the real and the imaginary together could refer to my former hometown.
Which Belgian artists do you follow, look at for inspiration? Either from the past or the present.
My influences are first and foremost the things I observe. But I’ve always loved artists who succeed in influencing our sense of time and space. David Claerbout for example, who challenges the nature of temporality by combining still and moving images. Upcoming photographer Griet Van de Velde also succeeds in capturing moments and spaces in time that seem indefinite. Pieces by Dylan Lynch (Still House Group) and Roeland Tweelinckx are striking in the way they manipulate our perception of everyday objects, furniture and constructing materials. Furthermore I respect painter Stefan Peters. He displays nature in a very refined manner and disorganizes our sense of depth and dimension.
On a more personal note, how does your everyday inform your work? And what do your parents, your family, think of what you do?
My mother, who is a musician, introduced me to playing music on a very early age. Most of the time, music and instruments surrounded me. Instead of listening to the concerts or learning how to compose myself, I was drawing everything I saw. As long as I can remember I have been observing what was happening around me, the architectural lines and forms, the way people act and the systems of society. One could describe me as a rather critical person, not taking things for granted. My longing for contrasts and opposing situations is also remarkable. I travel to Costa Rica, which is all about nature, and – on purpose – immediately fly to New York afterwards. I love to spend the day with my daughter playing games and dive into the nightlife within the same 24 hours. I adore seasons, preferably a cold winter and a warm summer, dividing the year into two different parts. All of this somehow has an impact my artwork.
What were your first introductions to visual arts?
The Art Academy of Ypres. I was 10 years old and very much looking forward to the first class. Despite the enthusiasm of the adorable teacher I remember being truly disappointed by the fact we were doing handicrafts instead of making artworks.
What did you study, and what are your current occupations?
I have a master’s degree in Philosophy & Ethics and an extra degree in Contemporary Art and Psychology. Besides painting (5 days a week on an average basis) I am a lector at Artevelde Hogeschool in Visual Arts & Therapy.
What are you up to in the months to come?
From May 1 to July 5, some of my work will be featured at PASS. This concept, brought up by Chris Martin and Jan Hoet Junior, points out a route passing unique venues of art in the middle of the green hills of Mullem, Huise, Wannegem and Lede. The landscape will be ‘taken’ by artists as Dirk Braeckman, Thierry De Cordier, Matthieu Ronsse, Michaël Borremeans, David Claerbout and Alex Perweiler, just to name a few.adelheiddewitte.com