Galerie Nathalie Obadia is happy to present Sophie Kuijken’s fourth solo show in its Brussels base, following her Parisian exhibition in 2017, and her two previous Brussels exhibitions in 2016 and 2014.
For more than 20 years, Sophie Kuijken has painted in the privacy of her studio without ever showcasing her production, which she ended up destroying after many years of research. It is thanks to Joost Declercq, former director of the Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens (Belgium) that, in 2011, Sophie Kuijken accepted to exhibit her work for the very first time. These years of closeted practice allowed her to develop an original and powerful body of work solely focused on portraiture.
For the first time, this exhibition gathers painting and drawing, her two favorite media. The Belgian artist is mainly known as a painter, but she has been practicing drawing all throughout her career and still considers it a major field of pictorial experiments.
The eight paintings presented in this show are real technical achievements. In the manner of the great Flemish Primitives, Sophie Kuijken’s figures and backgrounds are the results of a patient accumulation of thin layers of acrylic, oil paint and glazing she overlaps until obtaining a perfectly smooth and deep surface. Her paintings absorb the light of the media she uses and reveal their full density.
Her drawings are more ethereal on the other hand. Sophie Kuijken delicately draws the outlines of her figures on plaster surfaces she makes herself using a metallic or copper point, before highlighting some details with touches of pencil. Some of them, like t-R.O.X., display darker backgrounds made out of a mixture of chalk, pigment and charcoal the artist prepares in her studio. This lengthy process is unforgiving: Sophie Kuijken’s gesture has to be precise and final.
Although her technique varies from painting to drawing, her subject matter underlines the link between these two practices. Sophie Kuijken composes her portraits from multiple images she finds on Internet and sometimes stores for many years before using them. Her work process is truly fascinating. Through collecting photographs based on formal properties, she has elaborated a true visual science. Symbolism and historic context put aside, the artist merely observes the recurrence of patterns and accessories, of postures and outfits.
These odd associations give birth to almost mystical protagonists, as is the case in Z.W.K.H., a very elegant human-size portrait of a young woman wearing a light blue dress. From up close, one notices a thin bridle on the woman’s right foot inspired by the sandals of antique statues. In another painting entitled C.M.H., the face of the protagonist is framed by two blue strips bearing white stars, as if for a military helmet. Very visible in the composition, this war symbol seems contradictory with the humble kneeling posture of the subject.
Sophie Kuijken also pays careful attention to hands and faces, which are very bright and meticulously executed. French poet Paul Valery (1871-1945) once said: “The deepest thing in man is the skin”. And it is through this thin membrane that parts us from the world that Sophie Kuijken expresses the complexity and tension that moves her protagonists. A feeling of tension reinforced by her dark and plain backgrounds, which only purpose seems to make the protagonist bodies stand out. Stripping them of all temporal and spatial framework, they also underline their unreal nature.
This is why one can hardly associate Sophie Kuijken’s work with a particular era, and neither can one determine the gender of her protagonists for sure. In fact, the artist seems to take pleasure in this ambiguity and cultivate the doubt in her viewer by playing with twin portraits, like in V.L.K.L..
Like the creature of the novel Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus by British novelist Mary Shelley1, Sophie Kuijken’s portraits are undeniably human yet at the same time strangely otherworldly. Made-up anonymous beings, they question us about our own humanity.
In January 2020, several of Sophie Kuijken’s paintings will also be showcased at the Cathedral of Saint-Bavon in Ghent, which is among the most majestic cathedrals in Europe, and, since 1986, the home of the famous altarpiece of the Van Eyck brothers The Adoration of the Mystical Lamb (1432). Displayed next to the recently restored altarpiece, Sophie Kuijken’s works will open a fascinating dialogue between two eras.