The contemporary art scene in every city is different. The cluster of galleries in each neighborhood reflects the mentality of its residences and the crowds it naturally attracts. The art scene in Bushwick, NY is noticeably different than the art scene in Lower East Side Manhattan, even though the neighborhoods are separated by a short 15 minute ride on the subway.
Brussels is no exception.
Three curators and artists spend a day gallery hopping in Brussesl. Kesha (cofounder of our gallery, Baang + Burne) and Tamera Rifkin (excellent photographerartist and expat in living in Brussels) and I combed through three neighborhoods for an insight into the contemporary art scene in Belgium.
From the fancy neighborhood of Sablon and Louise/ Ixelles to downtown near St Catherine’s, we managed to visit eleven art galleries in total. Certain themes emerged from each neighborhood and painted a rather surprisingly coherent picture. The gallery of note in both curation and significance is Xavier Hufken’s Anthony Gromley exhibit. This is a blue chip gallery with a gorgeous exhibit of an incredible artist. It is everything you expect it to be. The space is lovely and the show is expertly curated. I was surprised to see the three to four galleries in the same neighborhood showing work that was incredibly similar in style and feel; metal sculptures, geometric, cold/sterile, intellectual, large in scale and monochromatic. NYC’s art scene might be distinctive when it comes to neighborhoods but there can be a great deal of variations gallery to gallery. We each stand on what our curatorial. You wouldn’t go from one blue chip gallery to another feeling like you just saw a multitude of execution within the same narrow parameter. Gromely at Hufken was by far the best for geometric metal sculptures.
Near Louis / Ixelles, the works are more conceptual and the stand out was LKFF gallery and Fred Penelle & Yannick Jacquet’s installation, Mecaniques Discursives. The gallery director was the friendliest of all eleven galleries. The four white wall tradition and silent indifference from the gallery staff seems be deeply ingrained here in Brussels much like it is in NYC.
As we move towards downtown near St Catherine’s the gallery spaces got more interesting — architecturally speaking but not in regards of the art. Galerie Catherine Bastide’s Jacques Andre has IKEA furniture on display, collection of repetitive purchase of the same books (sourced from EBay and else where), some still in its original shrink wrap, acting as some kind of commentary on the act of consumption. I can’t help but note in the artist statement that Andre has been on the dole for 20 years. I hold the European social benefits in high regard but if 20 years of government sponsored unemployment or artist residency (which is what this is amounting to) only produces an unimaginative derivative of Duchamp….well….I’m speechless.
There were a couple of things that were particularly interesting.
All of the galleries we visited are rather discreet from the outside. Very few of them have large display windows on the ground floor (even if they do occupy a ground floor space) and very few had banners or any obvious identification on the outside. The gallery hours are particularly short, 2pm-6pm, in some incidence. The sense of discretion is a reflection on the collector mentality in Belgium. Belgium collectors are serious collectors, and much of the sales are done through private appointments and galleries are more like private showrooms. The public display and the sense of celebrity that is part of the US art world seem to be muted here in Brussels.
Belgium has a rather tricky and absurd political system and with it there is a long history of fanciful, surreal art. From Hieronymus Bosch to Bruegel the Elder to Magriette but there was little of that sensibility in any of the art we saw. Perhaps we didn’t hit up the right galleries. Or maybe the love for geometric orderly metalbased works is a responds to the absurdity that challenges the daily lives of Belgians.
We end the day in a cafe near St Catherine’s with a Belgium beer and I ask Kesha and Tamara, “If you had sum up contemporary art in one sentence, what would it be?”
Tamara replied, “always read the artist statement.”
Keaha and I looked at one another and simultaneously said, “anything goes!”