We talk to Belgian artist Jean-Luc Moerman about his first Middle East exhibit, running in Dubai until March 2.
Jean-Luc Moerman exhibits Epiphytes, in Dubai
Throughout the mid-1990s, the artist Jean-Luc Moerman would set out from his studio and enact a visual virus on the streets of Brussels.
Calling his studio the "point of impact", Moerman created large stickers of his creeping organic pattern and slapped them up on walls around the Belgian capital. The process, he says, became a catalyst for further work: "I'm not from that graffiti culture at all, but these guys would come and change them or do their own work over the top. It brings you ideas, and changes your way of thinking when you go back into the studio."
Understanding Moerman's working process as a "way of thinking" is key to Epiphytes, his exuberant solo show currently at Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde in Al Quoz, Dubai.
This is the first time he's exhibited in the Middle East, after growing acclaim from shows in China, Europe and the US. Epiphytes offers a decent overview and shows how he can connect paintings by a French Orientalist master with advertising shots of Kate Moss vacantly, faux-seductively, biting her fingernail.
At the centre of Moerman's practice is this vine-like, writhing pattern. An epiphyte, the title of the show, is a plant that grows on the surface of another plant, relying on it for physical structure rather than nutrients. His pattern spreads across the flesh of his subjects like a stealthy tide of dark matter, and its hard-black tones are reminiscent of Japanese calligraphy. There's something creeping and consuming as it works its way across bare flesh.
Akin to pasting up stickers of it around the streets of Brussels, this black viral bloom claims the images that Moerman has sourced from art history and advertising to create his work.
However sceptical one might be with seeing the Greats of art history appropriated in this way, Epiphytes has one of the finest exhibition designs we've seen in Dubai for some time and really hammers home his ideas. The artist has hand-painted his pattern across the gallery's interior, and it feels as if he's made the space his own. Seeing the works in this context connects these divergent moments in history and with the highly practical, physical process that fires his work in the studio.
"My way of working is very automatic, it approaches something primitive," he says.
"Two or three hours into making these patterns, the process becomes more and more absorbing, a way of thinking." However clean and exacting this "tattoo" might appear in the final work, the artist says, it's actually a lot less considered.
"I feel nearer to Jackson Pollock or Jean Dubuffet than, say, Joseph Beuys. When you see Pollock's work, everything looks so precise and in its right place, but the process of producing them was not like that at all."
This primitive tattoo is about bringing some reality back to his otherwordly, objectified subjects. Kate Moss's digital perfection is done away with, as the black lines chart the contours of her body like a weave of muscles, reminding us of what lies beneath. She connects with Ingres's reclining nudes in a fantasy harem, or his odalisque, in that all at some point in history were received notions of beauty.
"A top model may now be the accepted reference of beauty, but before it was these Orientalists, and before that something else. The context is changing, but it's always the same story."
That story is one in which commodity and beauty are inextricably linked. Empire and, ultimately, power underpin the commissions that were made of the painters represented here (Rembrandt, Ingres, Debat-Ponsan). The same goes for these icons of advertising.
"When you bring this pattern in, it makes these subjects look more human. Kate Moss, in reality, doesn't look as perfect as that. The pattern brings her back to the reality of life." There's an anarchic sense then about this pattern – it's a way of connecting commodified individuals throughout European visual history, reminding us that they are still flesh and blood beyond the money and power that underpins their existence as an image.
There's also a sense of disappearance in Moerman's work, as though his subjects are connected in their erasure. His black, muscle-like pattern, in a number of images, envelops the person entirely, and it looks as though the skin of time is taking over. They are evaporating, fading into history.
The artist talks about a future "no longer decided by Europe". Emergent economies vie for power and, consequently, commodity. Perhaps in the disappearance of these icons, and their implied European hegemony of beauty, we're reminded of the changing tides of power.
Epiphytes continues at Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde until March 2