At first sight, the work of Brussels-based contemporary artist Eric Croes exists in a world of ungodly creatures and distorted meanings. Upon closer inspection though, a more emotive narrative comes to light, one that draws heavily on personal baggage – from family fortune to relationship rituals – and the endless possibilities of ceramics to carve out a uniquely personal artistic expression. We caught up with the artist in his Etterbeek studio in between two residencies to talk myths, artistic renewal and the clumsiness of ceramics.
Visuals by Clément Charbonnier (c).
There’s a clumsy element to ceramics which I like, it bends out of shape, drips – you can’t really cheat.
To begin with, I’d like to ask you if you identify as a sculptor or a ceramist?
I’d say more as a sculptor, because when you say ceramist people imagine you make brown pots, but also because I also work with bronze and wood, so sculptor seems to me to be a more realistic description of my practice. Saying that though, a lot of it does gravitate around ceramics.
Indeed. Even though you do work with different materials, you do get a sense that ceramics has, over the past two to three years, taken a more prominent role in your artistic practice. You’ve found your language.
Yes. When I started the evening classes at the art academy in Etterbeek, I didn’t really have any expectations. Then you get into it and it sucks you in the moment you realise how endless the possibilities are. There’s also an element of surprise and excitement to it, as you never really known what’s going to come out of the oven. Up until now, I had never really found a way to give form to my vision, I had tried a few things but it never really worked. But with ceramics I finally was able to mould, to sculpt shapes from top to bottom. There’s a clumsy element to ceramics which I like, it bends out of shape, drips – you can’t really cheat. To me, it’s become a bit like writing. But if I didn’t build stuff with ceramics, I’d probably be doing a stool or something else. I can’t really stay still for too long.
How many years have you been doing ceramics for now?
The first time I showed my ceramic work was in 2015, so it’d be two years.
I’d like to talk about the references in your work. I have to admit, I’ve followed it for a while now and I still find it hard to discern the references you draw upon.
Wel, the references have always been there. You have a lot of collages of ideas, things that are often diametrically opposed to one another. The main work is the series called Les Cadavres Exquis, which are done based on drawings I do with my boyfriend Simon, who is an illustrator. Basically they consist in me drawing something, that Simon can’t see, then I fold the sheet leaving just a tiny piece of my drawing for him to see. He then has to expand upon my drawing without really knowing what mine is, which we then repeat a few times. And so I reinterpret those drawings in my style. The first time I did it was for the exhibition in 2015 and you could say that it was a love declaration. Then the idea grew on me and I continued. All that to say that what you see in that work, in those drawings, comes from two people, two different people, but who know each other very well. They’re also based on the many objects we have at home, things we have around us, our references: cigarettes, alcohol, empty bottles, overflowing glasses, Brancusi’s cup, 7” records, cactuses, the vases of Ettore Soras.
There’s a form that has transcended my work, I can put some of my personal stuff in it without it needing to be necessarily understood.
So the work is a mirror reflection of your life as a couple to a certain extent? Would people that know you well find it easier to decipher some of the pieces?
Yes, I think certain people will recognise the world from where this all comes. That being said, it is only but one aspect of the work, the internal workings if you will, but the most important element, for me at least, is the translation of those premises into an object, something magical, fetishist and esoteric even. A text had been written about the work which described it as having a “quasi-masonic aesthetic” and I found that quite funny. But there’s a lot of re-interpretation I do too, for instance what is a boot in a drawing becomes a cowboy boot on a sculpture, and a whale becomes a piranha. The fact that I work with earth, too, has an impact on the work, as it dictates the stroke but also the technical feasibility of a piece. What was initially at the bottom of a drawing might not, in practice, work for a ceramics sculpture. So you see sometimes the scale changes, or the hierarchy changes, or the simple essence of meaning changes and the drawing is completely re-interpreted.
When did you first start doing the drawings with Simon?
We started out of sheer coincidence. I was doing a residency on the island of Comasina in Italy and had taken loads of paper to draw. Then one night we started doing these massive Cadavres Exquis and it kind of became our favourite game. But it wasn’t pre-meditated at all.
Do you still do these drawings with him?
It’s been a while since we did one, mostly because we literaly did tonnes. Plus the series of Cadavres Exquis which you see in the studio will be the last time I’ll do them because I’ve been doing them for two years now and it’s time to move on. Plus I’d like to do a book with all the drawings, but that’s for next year.
And so you first did Les Cadavres Exquis, and the evolution of that work culminated in L’abécédaire, the series you showed at Sorry we’re closed in March?
The evolution really came from a new way of working that emanated from Les Cadavres Exquis and which consisted in constraining myself to a simple rule: to revist a classic. L’abécédaire, or ABC-book, is one of those classics and so I assigned a letter to each page, then made drawings that started with that letter. And here again, all the drawings reference something about me. At the letter J, for instance, there’s a piece of ham (Jambon in French), because I love dried meats. There are also lots of reference to mythology. Or to bestiality too, they often come back. Flowers, because I’m a huge gardening fan. And so once I’ve completed my alphabet, I choose a letter, look at all its drawings, do my collage and start sculpting. So for the letter N, for instance, I might start with Neptune as the more dominant piece, then add lots of little extras, all from the same letter, up until I reach what I consider to be a good balance. Sometimes it takes me three days, because I’m not satisfied, so I’ll cut certain pieces off, add new ones and play around with the composition. So yeah, the evolution has been imposing a rule and sticking to it.
I’ve noticed that snowmen tend to be weaved into your work quite often too.
Yes I’ve always liked the somewhat stupid air of the snowman. It’s a simple shape: you do a ball, two holes, put a stick and it suddenly becomes a head. Plus I also like the fact that a snowman, after a while, disappears – there’s something both happy and sad about it. It also reminds me of Stavelot’s Blancs Moussi, and I’ve always had something of a fascination for folkloric figures.
It’s funny, I really hadn’t detected how personal your work actually was.
It always has been. The only difference now is that esoteric feeling inherent in it – it becomes an object. I always wanted to talk about things that were closed to me but it’s very difficult to express those feelings and now there’s a form that has transcended my work, I can put some of my personal stuff in it without it needing to be necessarily understood.
There’s something intriguing about myths and legends because they come from seomewhere.
Most of your sculptures tell stories, what I now understand to be very personal ones. Where does this inclination to storytelling come from?
I grew up in it. When I was small, my father would always read stories to us. Whenever we’d go on holiday, he’d buy tales and fables from the region we’d be visiting and would read them to us. My grandmother read a lot too, we always were surrounded by encyclopedias and I remember they’d always be drawings of greek gods in them, which back then already fascinated me. For example, at the moment I’m reading a book on the Golem of Prague, another one on monsters and another still on sirens – I’m always feeding my imagination. There’s something intriguing about myths and legends because they come from seomewhere. As far as my approach goes, my need to always be tinkering and building stuff, I get it from my mother. My patchwork, for instance, is a tribute to her because she’d always be doing some.
How do you make the destiction between art and design in your work?
It’s a difficult question. For me, it remains sculpture. You could say it’s a signature of mine to flirt with popular art forms just as much as I do with design, although artists have always done it. You had artists making furniture, making jewelry, making lamps, and I see no problem in it. But I like working at the interesections of contemporary art and craftsmanship. Personally, I need to be in the studio doing things, so it’s a discipline that suits me perfectly. And that’s also why it’s interesting for me to work with my gallerist Sébastien (Janssen), because he understands that universe. When we first started working together, he asked me if I didn’t mind making decorative arts, and I told him that I didn’t. The first pieces we made together were bronze candlesticks. And the series of lamps you see in the studio is another project I’m doing with him.
Your relationship with Sébastien seems to be very constructive…
It is, yes. Something works, we get along. He’s motivated, is fundamentally enthousiast and always sees the good side of things. If he doesn’t like something, we’ll talk about it, he’ll make suggestions – there’s a real dialogue going. For L’abécédaire, for instance, he suggested making some horizontal pieces – that kind of thing. He’ll come to the studio, see what’s going on, discuss projects and I find that very important if you want your gallerist to really be able to get behind your work. I also think he likes having a Belgian artist in his gallery, because most of them are American or German so he doesn’t get to see them that much. Plus I find that his gallery has always had interesting projects, I’ve always followed their work, even before joing them, and their program always appealed to me. Most importantly though, working with him has really allowed me to stay in the studio and concentrate on making pieces.
Let’s talk about your studio for a bit.
Well, for starters, there’s always music playing. Then there’s the small collection of things I’ve lugged around from one studio to the next. There’s a portrait of my father, a watercolour I did when I was a kid, a mirror I did that is part of an old work of mine, a work by my boyfriend Simon, I portrait of my grand-mother that my dad’s aunt did, two small engravings of a bronze candlestick that comes from Japon, Golems from Prague. Plus I always have my whiteboard, which is really important. It organizes everything – the ideas, the lists of materials, questions for Sebastien, lists of titles I’d like to use for exhibitions, to-do lists for upcoming exhibitions, some of my recipies, drawings even. Then I have my grandmother’s clock.
You’ve done quite a few residencies. In what way have they helped?
You’re pretty free in a residency, everything is sorted for you – where you’re going to sleep, what you’re going to eat – so you really don’t have very much to do other than work, which is good. I usually go for two to three week stretches so I can really immerse myself in it and not think about having to check my emails.
Do you start a residency with a specific project in mind?
Yes. For “Aux Vents des Forets” in Lorraine for instance, the project had to be a piece that could go in the forest, that would remain at the residency as a public work, so I decided to do birdhouses, a project I had in mind for a while now. It allowed me to do pieces that weren’t too big, but to do quite a few of them. More importantly though, it allowed me to come back to Brussels in a good mood.
Renewing oneself takes time.
How do you choose the residencies you do?
It depends, you kind of choose them in the same way you would your gallery. Do they have a good reputation? Will they work the press? In this case, Sébastien was very keen for me to do it because it had a strong list of previous artists and I had heard good things about it, people would tell me the place was amazing and that I really had to do it. There’s no budget per se, but they have all the material and equipment you need, they finds craftsmen for you to work with – that kind of thing. Other residencies I’ll choose because of the possibilities they might allow, such as working with a massive kiln for instance, as I did in Versailles where I was last year. Then in August I went to Pierre Culot’s studio and worked there for a bit. I had met Pierre’s son Joseph and we hit it off, I like what he’s doing with his father’s estate. Plus that studio has history, and I couldn’t refuse the invitation to work with the same earth and the same enamels.
You were saying that it was the last time you’d be showing Les cadavres Exquis. What are the next steps for you?
Yes what you see in the studio today are pieces for the FIAC in Paris. I also hope to have a show in Paris in 2018. I’d like to do things in the States. And in terms of my work I’d like to try my hand at doing bigger pieces. Here, with the equipment I have in my studio and the size of my kiln, I kind of have done the rounds so I’m going to get a new kiln and hopefully different things will be coming out of it. I’d like to do more monolithic pieces, kind of like blocs. And vases too, I’d love to make vases. Things will evolve gradually, with each new work and each new exhibition. And, just as Sébastien says, renewing oneself takes time.ericcroes.be