Hedwig Brouckaert: Un-Informing

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Hedwig Brouckaert in her Studio in the Beginage in Ghent Belgium, August 2021

New York city based artist Hedwig Brouckaert is currently working on a body of work for two solo shows, one at the Emory & Henry College in Virginia, where she is invited as visiting artist in January 2022, and one for Galerie El in September in Belgium. She has been developing Peel (America), a collage series of magazine images of skin on marble tiles, which she started during the lockdown. She says the tiled walls in public spaces have become like skin surfaces that were feared during the pandemic, as touch has become complicated. She is fascinated by the contrast between the depth and time visible in a marble tile, created by age-old geographical processes, and the temporality of magazine paper. “Even though magazines – and mass media images in general – arrive as pristine, glowing objects in the mail or on the newsstand they are meant to disappear quickly and to become trash, to be replaced by the most recent up-to-date information,” she says.

Tell me more about this new body of work.

I am thinking about the imposed boundaries of race, identity and gender that are so deeply engraved in our society and underneath our skins. I cut out models’ skin’ from white-centered glossy magazines such as Vogue, and layer it over and over with acrylic paint to create a bas-relief on the marble tile. I then sand, cut, and carve with sharp tools until the skins reveal deeper layers beneath, uncovering strange patterns and melting boundaries. I experience cutting and splicing the dense paper and paint mass as an act of dissecting and uncovering, while reflecting on the fact that we are all in this together, that our cultural health is interdependent

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Hedwig Brouckaert, Peel (America 2020) X, 2020, paper, acrylic paint and adhesive on black and white marble, 12 x 12 x 1/2 inches.

Tell me a bit about yourself and what brought you to art.

I was born in Chile where my parents worked for a non profit organization but after Pinochet’s coup in September 1973 they had to return to Belgium, where I grew up. My parents were pioneers in the Waldorf school in Ghent so I was one of the guinea pigs. My love for the art classes, highly valued in the Steiner curriculum, made my destiny early on clear. Inspired by a very dedicated high school teacher, I went on to study sculpture at the art academy in Brussels, and after ten years working in sculpture, I focused more on drawing and drawing-related media.

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Hedwig Brouckaert, New Yorker, 2008, carbon paper on paper, 51 x 96 inches.

It seems to me that collage and mark making are consistently co-existing elements throughout all your work. I am looking at your early Magazine Figures, a series of drawings utilizing carbon paper as well as transfer techniques. They read to me as abstracted figures, individuals or crowds, created in swirling energetic marks. It is energy in the mark making that resonates with me—the action and figure fragments become one. What is the genesis of these drawings, why did you choose to use carbon paper and transfer, and how do you see the relationship between them over 3 years (2006-2009)?

As a teenager, unhappy with the hyper-consumer and throw-away society we live in, I fantasized about painting all billboards black. For the past decade I have indeed been working with mass media imagery, advertising images of magazines and mail order catalogues, as an artistic search to work with this endless tide of images that make up our environment. For my initial drawings I transferred the images of figures on large sheets of paper using carbon and colored transfer papers. Through my extensive layering process, the figures lost their individual characteristics and became part of an abstracted mass, a zigzagging chaos of lines. I was interested in the tension between the highly representational and readable starting point – advertisements, which have to get a message across as effectively as possible – and the abstracted, illegible result of my layering process. As I developed this series of work, the initial figures became less legible, and I would use certain fragments as the images of hair for example. This work coincided with spending more time in NYC and being impressed by the energy, density and complexity of life in the city.

In many of your works you combine drawing with digital printing. For instance, Bilateria, which is an ongoing series, and Orbweavers (2019). What would you like to share about your process of making these and what are the ideas behind them?

In my Bilateria series, I start with the cover of a Vogue magazine for example, and I interweave manual and digital processes, layering photography, basic digital manipulation, printing and drawing. The colors and the message of that initial image are the starting point, but they are totally transformed over time through the extensive layering process. As the pieces become more and more layered, parts become enlarged, less focused, and recede to the background, creating depth and a complexity of texture which is what really interests me. The composition is often an oscillating process between compacting into form, and dissolving and widening into fields, I compare it with the experience of consciousness during meditation for example.

I always find comfort in how a complex image is created out of trivial elements that I borrow from daily life, in transforming something known into something unknown, deforming information into something un-informing, unexplainable.

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Hedwig Brouckaert, Bilateria – C, VS, 2015, drawing and collage on archival inkjet print on paper, 3.6 x 8.7ft.

In a knot, a tangle, a blemish in the eternal smoothnes, the work is sprawling on the walls. Here you seem to expand the use of material to include elements like hair and wire besides magazine clippings. What is the idea behind this installation, what can you tell me about the process of making it?

A knot, a tangle, a blemish in the eternal smoothness consists of tarnished magazine clippings of images of hair, mostly shampoo ads, that I connected with lots of dress-maker pins and sewed together into 3D wall pieces using a needle and my own hair. Over the years I had kept this ‘used material’ – the magazine images had been scratched with a needle tool while I used them to create drawings on paper – and for this installation I cut out the images of hair. The mass-produced and -distributed images I used couldn’t be more disparate from my antiquated, slow and often frustrating process of sewing by hand. The glossy magazine images of abundantly waving hair, a symbol of sexual power and eternal youth, contrasted with my own brittle hair that fell out a lot after the birth of my daughter, which I experienced as proof of decay and slow ‘death’ in my personal body. I see the work as a memento mori, a reflection on mortality, a means of considering the vanity of life in the hyper-consumer world of today.

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Hedwig Brouckaert, A knot, a tangle, a blemish in the eternal smoothness, 2014, magazine clippings, human hair, pins and wire, site specific installation at the Kentler International Drawing Space Brooklyn.

Tell me about Illusive Flesh of Light.

Illusive Flesh of Light is a series of works that I started in 2015, after the sudden loss of my father. A photograph of the sun entering my father’s office the day after his passing, is the base layer in all the works of this series. It is layered with inverted images of my collages of shampoo advertisements and my hair – a knot, a tangle, a blemish in the eternal smoothness – interweaved with reproductions and actual drawings based on hair. After my father’s death I found a medical folder with X-rays of his skull and chest in his car. This also resulted in a strong sensibility within me for light, transparency and inversion. The series of work is my reflection on the dissolution of matter and form, on presence and absence, moving between physical and spiritual spaces.

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Hedwig Brouckaert, Illusive Flesh of Light XVIII, 2015, archival inkjet print on paper, 21.6 x 16.7 inches.

Let’s go back to your work on tiles. What would you like to share about your series of tiles: Joy rides on ceramic tiles?

I started working on tiles about four years ago, continuing to source my material from mass media and transforming it through my typical extensive layering process, but this time working on commercial mass-produced ceramic tiles. At the time I was working in a studio in Bushwick, so I daily encountered tiles on my commute in the subway tunnels. The age-old images created by dirt, rusty rainwater, advertising, and graffiti, I found repulsive and quite beautiful at the same time. I saw them as expressions of the passing of time and the extremely layered society of NYC.

Tiles are also part of my family’s history. My sister Elfriede stepped out of life after a long battle with schizophrenia, five months after my father’s passing. She worked with broken tiles all her life to create exquisite mosaic works. My father had collected a mass of tiles for her to work with, and he had dug, by hand, a large basement under the house to store them. Confronted with personal loss and mortality, and after a period of exploring the theme of impermanence through the almost colorless series Illusive Flesh of Light, my love for this complex, messy world became the focus of this series on tiles through exploration of texture and color.

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Hedwig Brouckaert, Portrait (II – green tape), 2019, magazin es, paper, acrylic and adhesive on porcelain tile, 11 ¾ x 11 ¾ x ¼

All photo courtesy of the artist unless otherwise indicated

Hedwig Brouckaert is a Belgian artist based in Queens (NY). Her artistic practice consists of drawing, digital and mixed media, site-specific installations and occasional curatorial projects. She obtained an MFA from the University of California, Davis, after a Masters in Sculpture at Sint Lukas Brussels and a Postgraduate at the Higher Institute for Fine Arts in Belgium. She has received several Artist Grants from the Flemish Government in Belgium, and fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation – Bellagio (IT), Liguria Study Center Bogliasco (IT), Cité Internationale des Arts Paris, Hafnarborg Museum of Iceland, Yaddo (NY), Anderson Ranch (CO), and NYFA IAP. Her work was presented in ‘Re/pro/ducing Complexity’ at the Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens (BE), Städtische Galerie Villa Zanders (DE), VOLTA NY (2014 & 2018), Kentler International Drawing Space (NY), Bangkok Art and Culture Center (TH), ChaShaMa (NY) and Pallazo Vendramin Costa (Venice IT). Her work has been featured in the NYT and the Brooklyn Rail.

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: artspielblog@gmail.com