“I’ve never taken the reality of my body for granted.” The urgent, skeleton gestures and intimate tragicomedies of Brussels-based artist Julien Meert

With a recent solo show at Brussels’ Sorry We’re Closed gallery entitled City Crazy, Julien Meert cemented his coming-of-age as an artist whose practice drew heavily on the intrinsic and inner sense of self. His large-scale paintings – the result of fast-paced brush strokes, intense and at times uncomfortable moments of precision as well as long periods of observation – suggest both a fragility and sincerity in his wider practice which perfectly express the precarious balance and mental confusion he often finds himself in. Here, the Brussels born and bred painter discusses memories of painting landscapes in the Dutch countryside with his father and how his works threads the fine line between what the art world deems valid, and what it doesn’t.

Visuals (c) Hugard & Vanoverschelde, courtesy of Sorry We’re Closed

What were your first introductions to art?

I first got introduced to art by way of books. One in particular made a significant impression on my young mind. It was about the works of Magritte, and it was probably the only art book my parents owned. As a kid, I spent long hours looking at the images and analysing the art. Later, as a teenager, I developed my own relationship with the visual through images related to skateboarding, graffiti and music.

You also make music, working under the alter ego Roger 3000. Can you tell me more about the music you were into as a teenager? For example, are there any specific record covers you were inspired by?

When I was a kid, I had a friend whose brother was a fan of metal and hard rock. I spent many Wednesday afternoons at this friend’s house, tiptoeing into the brother’s room while he was away to look at the booklets of his CDs and cassettes. I can still smell them! There was something unknown and forbidden about these objects and imagery; a fascinating power of attraction that had a strong effect on me. I spent hours analysing Guns N’ Roses and Nirvana cover art, among others. Many of these images were airbrushed, and I would wonder for a very long time how it was possible to produce such smooth and perfect images. Then, as a teenager, my musical tastes became more refined and music became central to my life – but I’ve always kept this fascination with musical imagery intact to this day. For me, these images convey in an abstract way the promise of content, which is sometimes more poetic and profound than the content itself.

Can you talk to me about your approach to making art? What’s your artistic process?

Over the past few months, I’ve been working on large paintings without any kind of process per se. That being said, there is a recurring pattern in the way these works are constructed – I almost always start with a coloured background. Against this backdrop, I make the first gesture: something uncontrolled and urgent, a step that is my favourite part of the process. It’s from this “skeleton gesture” that I begin to build the painting, alternating moments of freedom with more precise and constraining manipulations that tend to dictate the general structure and organise the composition. Between each moment of concrete action, there are rather long periods where I simply observe the painting. As I get closer to the goal, I become less and less free, and my room for movement is reduced. Sometimes I’ll “reset”, covering up the entire painting because it has become too complicated. I take many pictures with each step of the progress, and at night, study them while lying in bed before falling asleep to anticipate my next move for the day after.

How would you describe your work to somebody who’s never seen it?

I would start by saying that the idea of self-representation is central to my work – it’s what it’s all about to be honest. In my recent large-format paintings, an accumulation of abstract and heteroclite writings suggest faces, a bit like superimposed layers, similarly to what you might find in Photoshop. To me, these works are self-portraits, because I perceive a rather clear analogy of the precarious balance in these works with the mental confusion in which I find myself most of the time. Next to this rather experimental practice, I’ve also been working for several years on smaller drawings and collages. These smaller works question the notion of the self-portrait on a more intimate scale – they offer the opportunity to represent episodes of my personal life in a more illustrative way. I adopt a psychoanalytical and often tragicomic point of view. Both in these smaller drawings and in the larger works, I try to encourage an ambivalent reading of my work by using bright and optimistic colours to deal with subjects that are paradoxically sad and visceral.

That maybe explains why the human body seems so important in your work?

I’ve never taken the reality of my body for granted. This body of mine constantly questions and frightens me. I perceive it as a kind of spaceship, a self-powered computer that allows me to come into contact with the world. What interests me about the subject of the human body is that it’s both intimate and universal. I recently read an interview by Jemima Montagu with Sophie von Hellermann in the book Cher Peintre… / Lieber Mahler… / Dear Painter (2002), in which she summarises this idea very well: “There are so many personal experiences that are universal too. All you have to do is find the right way to depict them so that they can become shared. When I paint something very personal and someone else feels understood, it’s a success.”

These works are self-portraits, because I perceive a rather clear analogy of the precarious balance in these works with the mental confusion in which I find myself most of the time.

In the text written for your show at Sorry We’re Closed, art critic Anne Pontégnie quotes Picasso, from when he had an epiphany at the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro in Paris: “I forced myself to stay, to study these masks, all these objects that people had created with a sacred, magical purpose, to serve as intermediaries between them and the unknown, hostile forces surrounding them, attempting in that way to overcome their fears by giving them colour and form. And then I understood what painting really meant. It is not an aesthetic process; it is a form of magic that intervenes between us and the hostile universe, a means of seizing power by imposing a form on our terrors as well as on our desires. The day that I understood that I realised that I had found my way.” Is painting a form of magic to you?

Painting is a form of magic capable of transforming inert matter into something that appeals to the viewer’s gaze, intelligence, imagination and sensitivity simultaneously. As a spectator, experiencing a painting is complex. A painting can stay alive within us for a long time. To me, a successful painting transcends its own materiality through an alchemy that is impossible to explain or theorise. Painting is also magical because it’s the vehicle that allows me to explore my own deepest abysses. When I paint, I have to put myself in a different and sometimes even uncomfortable state of being – a kind of mental apnoea – to be able to connect to something very difficult to name. These are rare moments of great intensity, in which I sometimes feel my hand guided, as it were, by an unknown force, almost external to myself.

Do you come from an artistic family? What does your family think of what you do?

My maternal grandfather, who was a great romantic, composed music in his spare time and had a certain artistic sensibility that I think I inherited… On my father’s side, there are a large number of what I like to refer to as Sunday painters, including my other grandfather, who started painting at the age of 75. As a child, we would spend our holidays on the Belgian coast. I used to go paint landscapes in the Dutch countryside with my father, carrying our easels and pallets. My brother Martin is also an artist and, like me, studied painting at La Cambre. We’re very close, and his opinion of my work is more important than any other. I think that as a teenager my parents understood that art was my only chance for development, and they’ve supported and encouraged me ever since. In turn, I try to involve and include them in discussions about my work as much as possible. I value their opinion, even if, paradoxically, art is a tool for emancipation and family should sometimes be kept at a distance and out of one’s mind in order to find the courage to surpass oneself creatively.

Who or what influences you? I see elements of “classic” history of art in your work, as well as art brut and graffiti.

Though it’s true that one could detect these sometimes heterogeneous and anachronistic influences in my paintings, these aren’t conscious decisions. I simply look at so many different things every day that my painting can’t help but be impacted. In a way, my work tends to bridge the traditionally established divide between what the art world validates and what it disqualifies a priori. The artists who influence me today are similar in that they question the medium by pushing it beyond its commonly accepted limits. Recently, I’ve been very interested in Charline von Heyl’s work, which I admire because it’s extremely rigorous as it is free. I’m fascinated and stimulated by the idea that the possibilities in the space of a painting are endless, and that it’s still possible to create something new with painting in 2018.

What are you currently working on, and what’s coming up for you in the near-future?

This month I’m releasing a cassette as Roger 3000 on the Brussels-based label Tanuki Records. At first developed as a performance, it’s a project where a poem entitled On Cold Blood is set to music. The poem was written, recited and sung by my friend Bitsy Knox, who’s a Canadian artist living in Berlin.