“I try to reconstruct interiors that are dreamy and surreal.” Anton Cotteleer on the role of art, Antwerp and the domestic skin of his sculptures

“Accidentally”. Something speaks to us, a sound, a touch, hardness or softness, it catches us and asks us to be formed. This is the poetic premise, taken from lines by Anni Albers, that encapsulates the artistic thought processes behind Soft? Tactile DialoguesAs a collaboration with fashion institution MoMu, the exhibition is being shown at the Maurice Verbaet Center until the museum is ready to unveil its newly renovated space in 2020. Featuring tapestries, paintings, sculptures, clothing and tea towels, the first rooms sees installations of hanging, frayed rope and ethereal kite fabric that catches the light. At the forefront of the show is the artists’ interaction with material, and the blurred distinctions between fine art, textiles, fashion and crafts. It will walk you through 1970s explorations of femininity and domesticity, to fragile and kitsch wall hangings by contemporary artists. For the occasion, we’ve selected four participating artists whose work you cannot miss.

Anton Cotteleer (1974) studied sculpture at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, and his practise has since envolved to otherwordly figure-furniture pieces that are on display as part of Soft? Tactile DialoguesNow based in Heide-Kalmthout, he is working on a series titled The Uncomfortable Environment. This sentiment might be one reflected in a viewer of his work, since his process is about “making strange”: household objects become bulbous, sci-fi-esque and sexual. The softness of the sculpture’s exterior works against its alien, skin-crawling feel. The title of the exhibition here then becomes different – soft, but eerily so. Read about the mind and method behind his creations. 

At its core, what is your work about? How would you describe it?

I dwell on the absurdity of our domestic life. Oppressive relationships between human, animals (pets) and object are key in my work. In addition, the abject within domestic situations fascinates me: dusty carpets, wallpaper, dirty stuffed animals and shiny sensual statues. These “domestic skins”, as I like to call them, find their way to the surface of my sculptures. It adds a temporary character, allowing more contact with reality. You’ll rarely find bronze or marble in my work.

In addition to my daily life, I inevitably play with references to the history of sculpture. I work with many materials that stem from my childhood. I was more attracted to shapes and colours, and those were the things that stuck with me. Sometimes I recuperate objects from family members or I look for similar objects and recreate them.

Can you talk to us about your approach in general?

I think and look a lot. I try to reconstruct interiors and vibes from my past which have something dreamy and surreal. This way of working and thinking allows me to distance myself from reality and get into a creative mode. My studio is my comfort zone where I can be myself and think radically without any compromise.

There is no one-sided work formula; my work derives from either an object or a picture. I usually make a scale model before I design the real size. This is a practical decision. When the shape is created, I start to work with colours, as a painter.

What characterises your work?

The surface of the sculptures, or its “skin” characterises my work. It’s often layered with colourful nylon powders, and is tactile and homely. I often use silicone, which I find more sexual. The fragmented figuration is also recognisable. It creates more shape and exudes something more anonymous.

My work often expresses something uncomfortable because it both repels and attracts. Humour and ugliness often go hand in hand. All these elements have the same status: the figuration, the objects and the shape.

What project are you currently working on?

I am currently working on The Uncomfortable Environment. I “shock” myself by visiting strangers that I suspect of having an interesting interior. I talk to them and photograph their interior. Back in the studio, I work with the footage I captured and start sculpting. Afterwards, I confront these people by placing my work in their interior and photographing them. It creates a sense of unreality: the whole situation becomes absurd and surreal. It’s an artistic experience in itself, separated from the art world. I hope I can convey the same feeling to the audience when they see the work in an exhibition.

Who would you say was instrumental in shaping your artistic practice?

There isn’t one specific person. In the beginning, my mother gave my sister and I all the space, mentally and physically, to be creative. She was the one who brought me in contact with the work of Picasso, Monet and other big names. Back home, we had the book series Meesters der schilderkunst (“Masters of the art of painting”) and it was something I looked at regularly .

During my studies at the Antwerp Academy, I was very impressed by the work of Paul McCarthy, Mike Kelley, Hans Belmer and Cindy Sherman. An equally important aspect were the friends I made after my studies. We encouraged each other to look at each other’s work in a critical manner and to not work safely.

What are the challenges you face as an artist working in Belgium today?

Breaking through abroad.

How do you see yourself fit into the country’s contemporary art scene?

I’ve lived and worked for 12 years in Antwerp. The city has a lively art scene, allowing interesting encounters and discussions. It has contributed to my sharp vision on a number of aspects in art. I hung out and collaborated with a few Antwerp artists of my age after my studies, who now all have a relevant career. I think that being together for an intense amount of time has laid a foundation. I currently live just outside the city which is also very interesting. I can put a number of things in perspective. Some artists and art scenes suddenly seem irrelevant.

Talk to us about the people around you, your local scene. To what extent does it inspire and influence you?

The energy and entrepreneurial spirit of some young artists is interesting. They don’t do things in a traditional way; they choose to organise their own projects rather than wait to be included.

After my studies and still to this day, I hang out with Vaast Colson, Lieven Segers, Bart Van Dijck, Nadia Naveau and Caroline Coolen. We share the same passion, we all have our own identity. Their motivation does not depend on the number of exhibitions for which they are selected or on sales – it’s passion that keeps them creating more work.

What does success look like to you?

I interpret success as a situation where you can be yourself, where you have the opportunity to be fully engaged with your work. Success is a platform that allows you to communicate with others through your work. Success within art is only meaningful if it’s a result of critical thinking. If you follow an interesting and exciting course, you will not be disappointed in the end. I’m not interested in success being the end goal. However, the art world is tough and recognition helps perseverance.

To you, what role should contemporary art occupy in the community?

Contemporary art can be a reflection of society, and can ask questions about society. Contemporary art is important to show aspects of life or to showcase what society does or does not wants us to see. A society without art is undemocratic. Contemporary art encourages people to be creative. Creativity makes you think and develop. Contemporary art can capture the incomprehensible and the unpronounceable. These can be general or individual feelings.

Which Belgian artists do you follow, look at for inspiration? 

Other contemporary artists do not inspire me, but they can encourage my way of thinking and motivate me to take radical decisions during my work process. For example Jos De Gruyter & Harald Thys, Ria Paquée, Bart Van Dijck, Leo Coopers and Otobong Nkanga among others. Artworks from the past also serve as inspiration. The lavish velvet from the Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck inspired me to create my work Don’t play with the poodle

And what do your parents, your family, think of what you do?

My sister Erika is a painter and an illustrator. It’s interesting to discuss our work with each other – we often deal with the same topics. Both of my parents have supported us from the get-go and have encouraged our artistry. My parents find it odd and uncomfortable that I use furniture from my family in my work. I also had to convince them to let me use a few photos from our family album and to publish them in my recent book. My girlfriend Evelien Gysen, photographer and graphic artist, understands my work very well – she knows when it’s right or not.

As part of Soft? Tactile Dialogues city takeover, Cotteleer is on display at Maurice Verbaet Center until Sunday 24th February 2019.