Brussels is the domain of pissed off collectors. So why did the last gallery weekend feel so safe?
Amid intermittent thunderstorms, Brussels kicked off its autumn season with a festive 15e edition of the Brussels Gallery Weekend. Forty-seven galleries and 12 institutions hosted an enhanced line-up, which included a new prize for an emerging artist, an enhanced VIP circuit and a dinner for over 400 guests at the former printing works of the National Bank of Belgium, the Imprimerie .
The celebration spread across the city, with galleries hosting and dining their artists and patrons late into the night. Revelry lasted until dawn at the Clearing Gallery on Thursday, with a handful of Mendes Wood’s team members leading the way. And Sorry We’re Closed guests were caught in a downpour as they traversed slippery cobbled streets that turned into rivers, arriving soaked in a sumptuous Art Nouveau bistro, much to the chagrin of a man dressed in now see-through white.
Xavier Hufkens pulled out all the stops Thursday at the Wiertz Museum, with live music serenading guests surrounded by the monumental and romantic paintings of Antoine Wiertz (1806-1865). A rain-delayed dinner was served under a canopy set ablaze by thunder and lightning.
“It’s a moving party,” comments collector Frédéric de Goldschmidt, founder of cloud seven, after dinner Hufkens. With global news promising a dark winter ahead in an energy-strapped and inflation-hit Europe, it seemed many were eager to celebrate in person, although some complained that the art on display was not not always as scintillating as conversation.
“As a young man, whenever I fell in love – and you often fall in love when you’re young – I would take the person to the Wiertz Museum,” Hufkens told Artnet News. “It was empty and so romantic. Many artists came for the vernissage, which is always a good sign. In addition to Joe Bradley, whose exhibition opened in the gallery’s expanded flagship space, Josh Smith, Tobias Pils, Sophie von Hellermann and Ritsue Mishima were spotted at the dinner.
The event, which took place from September 8 to 11, came at a particularly busy time for the artistic calendar: two weeks after Frieze Seoul and at the same time as Armory Week in New York and viennacontemporary in Austria. It served as something of a test in the post-lockdown world where events have returned to full steam, but audiences may be more local than before.
Visitors to Brussels came mainly from neighboring countries, but the city was full of international artists ready to open their shows. The mega-concessionaires of London or New York are particularly absent from the cityscape, but this is also part of the smaller-scale appeal of Brussels.
“If your name is above the door, I personally think it’s important that you’re there when your artist is there,” said Hufkens, who has retained her three spaces along the same central street in her hometown. Their scale, on the order of the mega-galleries of other art capitals, is an exception in the city. “Having one location gives me that ability to focus and the ability to take care of my artists.”
In Hufkens’ Rivoli space, viewers discovered works spanning the life of prolific Antiguan artist Frank Walter (1926–2009), a weekend highlight that lingers for days. The works were priced between €30,000 and €100,000.
The quality of international artists represented by Brussels galleries is a source of pride for the city. However, several festival-goers regretted a lack of risk-taking in the weekend’s offer.
“Lots of galleries [here] working with some really amazing artists who might show multimedia, film installations, performances – but then they show a framed piece of paper on the wall that’s a memento of [that]”, said Christian Mooney, founder of the Arcade gallery in London, which expanded to Brussels in 2019. “My experience in Brussels is that the exhibitions are really conservative.” Mooney will have to leave his Brussels space because the building has been sold, but will continue to exhibit in town through collaborations with other galleries.
Arcade presents the Danish artist Maria Zahle (born in 1979), who paints a wall with his signature natural stain. Other paper and collage works were dipped in pigments made from madder root and chimney soot. “It was a really exciting development for me – discovering that color can be a material, and not just a visual component that you get from the supply chain,” said the artist.
Another work by Zahlé, a large roll of partly unrolled cotton paper, was included in the collective exhibition “Sculpture Factory” at the Imprimerie, alongside other large works by artists represented by the participating galleries. In the main hall of the same building, “Generation Brussels” presented works by Belgian artists under 40 not represented by a gallery. For the first time, the Centre/Komett Prize was awarded to an artist from this exhibition. Collective Spa for spirits has been recognized for his installation and performance of otherworldly water and ceramic sculptures called Selfside Picnic Lounge.
Mooney’s assessment of the weekend’s relatively conservative gallery shows was shared by collector Alain Servais, who left town for Vienna, where he said he encountered more varied “different points of view”.
Third-generation Belgian collector Frederick Gordts, whose grandfather was close to Leo Castelli, felt the same way. “Visually, there’s nothing really new,” he said. “There are so many young artists now, and the prices are very high for people in their late twenties.” He opened his house by appointment to visitors, offering a glimpse of works by Michelangelo Pistoletto, Olafur Eliasson and the much sought-after young artist Michael Armitage, to name a few.
Loyal local dealer Greta Meert, who presented a rare Brussels exhibition by photographer Jeff Wall, illustrated that decades of experience does not necessarily mean curator. “I’m still old-school,” she told Artnet News, “in that every person, every staff, is in contact with the artist, including me.”
In her five-story Art Nouveau gallery, which she has run for 30 years, Meert observed that in the past galleries tended to have more cohesive programs. “Now there is a tendency to have an eclectic choice. So you can have figurative, abstract and conceptual,” she said. When artists are combined in “entirely different directions”, it can create “a lack of authenticity and a lack of respect”.
While the Wall Show, which spanned his entire career and had works priced between €250,000 and €500,000, was a crowd favourite, itCompetition for the attention of world-renowned Brussels collectors is also an issue today, Meert said.
“We all try to have them at the vernissage, not for our own satisfaction, but because the artist expects respected collectors to come, so [all the local galleries] we have to divide [them]”, she admitted with a smile. Meert estimates that out of 200 to 500 local collectors, only 30 or 40 are serious about it. Yet she echoed others in pointing out the advantageous location of Brussels at the intersection of a number of art-rich countries.
Although Artnet News was unable to see each of the 47 openings, some additional highlights include the bulging and bodily scratched and bitten ceramic pots with visible teeth marks by Los Angeles-based artist Jennifer Rochlin, a must-see at Sorry We’re Closed. The Koenraad Dedobbeleer exhibition at the Clearing gallery is also a must; it features suspended lamp sculptures and light installations in discarded or found Murano glass for prices ranging from €12,000 to €45,000.
A novelty in the Brussels mix, the MarraNosco gallery presented a duo exhibition by Peruvian artist Alberto Casari (born in 1955) and Argentinian artist Martina Quesada (born in 1987). The title of the show, “3901”, refers to the number of kilometers between Lima and Buenos Aires.
Co-founders Cyril Moumen (of the Nosco gallery in London) and Ana Marra (of the eponymous gallery in Rome) said they packed their cars with art about a year ago and drove to Brussels to open a gallery because it was “the only country in Europe where culture remained open” during the lockdown. “There was an opportunity,” Moumen said, “to go against the grain.”
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