NL to EN translation:


Out and about with ten Flemish artists who want to make it in New York:

'You won't get anywhere with Flemish modesty here'

The Flemish delegation on a trip to the Big Apple.


On the 38th floor of The New York Times tower, ten artists based in Flanders try to win the favor of the American art world. With enormous success. “The artists who traveled with us made each other stronger.”


(photo caption): From left to right: Denitsa Todorova, Hilde Overbergh, William Ludwig Lutgens, Anton Kusters, Lieven Segers, organizer Lies Serdons, Joke Hansen, Tramaine de Senna, Kristof Vrancken, Marius Ritiu and Michiel Ceulers.Image Kristof Vrancken


Written by: Danny Ilegems; Photos: Kristof Vrancken; Art workplace: VONK


Half past six in the morning. On the street patio of the Marlton hotel on W 8th Street, a stone's throw from Washington Square Park, a group of people are stirring large cups of coffee. Apart from the fact that they don't look too fresh, it's hardly noticeable that they are artists. In Greenwich Village, Manhattan's Zurenborg, everyone's a little bohemian.


They flew in from Brussels the day before, but because of the time difference most of them only slept a few hours. The hotel's breakfast room is still closed. Fortunately, caffeine can already be tapped from a thermos at the reception, because this group is expected uptown at nine o'clock. There, ten artists based in Flanders will have a conversation with as many eminent figures from the New York art scene.


Michiel Ceulers (35) is wearing corduroy trousers with paint spatter and a sweatshirt with an image of the first cover of Hustler, the legendary American porn magazine. He is probably the most famous of the artists' circle internationally. He is represented by a Los Angeles gallery that has just opened a branch in New York. He has resided in Los Angeles and New York for extended periods. He once even had a green card: a permit to live and work permanently in the US. Today he operates from Brussels.


“Supposing the conversations here lead to something, would you move to the US?” asks another artist.

“I'm afraid that has become impossible due to my illness”, the painter replies.

"Disease?"

Ceulers says that he has been HIV positive for about five years.

“If I didn't have health insurance, the HIV drug I had to take for life would cost me $800 a month,” he says. “In Belgium, that is. I don't know how much it is here, but I suspect multiples. I just can't afford a life in the US anymore."


Ceulers has created a map on Google Maps with the locations he wants to visit. There are dozens of them in this neighborhood alone. Greenwich Village was the birthplace of post-war American art. Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Philip Guston and other legends of abstract expressionism had their studio here. Down this street was the Cedar Tavern, the cafe where they drank themselves to death. Later on, the beat poets, the folkies and the pop art artists also settled here. Bob Dylan slept with Joan Baez in room 305 of the Washington Square Hotel. Andy Warhol discovered The Velvet Underground at Café Bizarre on W 3rd Street. Young Jean-Michel Basquiat sold postcards and T-shirts in Washington Square Park.


‘IF YOU ARE INTROVERTED AND PREFER TO STAY IN YOUR ATELIER, IT WILL NOT WORK HERE. YOU MUST COME OUT. YOU MUST DO, DO, DO.’ - KATELINE DE BACKER, FORMER DIRECTOR ARMORY SHOW


And with a little luck, it will soon be mentioned in the annals of art history that ten artists from Flanders started their conquest of New York here on Tuesday 26 April 2022. Some left on foot, forty minutes north on 5th Avenue. Others took the blue line to Port Authority in the subway.


TIMES SQUARE

The diplomatic representation of Flanders in the US consists of a collection of offices filled with shy people and cute flags. Flemish and American flags, and these days also a large Ukrainian one. But the location is prestigious and the view is nothing short of breathtaking. 'Flanders House' is located on the 38th floor (of 43) of The New York Times tower on 8th Avenue, near Times Square. From behind the huge corner window you can see all of Midtown and Lower Manhattan and look left into Brooklyn and right into New Jersey. In clear weather, the contours of the Statue of Liberty become visible in the distance, beyond the mouth of the Hudson. Annual rent: half a million dollars.


When I arrive, the artists are already speed dating with a slew of New York gallery owners, art advisors, curators and journalists. Lies Serdons and Katelijne De Backer, the instigators of this 'networking event', look on approvingly.


Serdons (40) is the artistic and financial director of the Limburg Arts Workshop Vonk. De Backer (59) has lived in New York for 25 years and was for a long time director of the Armory Show, one of the most important international art scholarships.


Vonk was founded in 2010 by four artists who were looking for a studio space in Hasselt. The city gave them a long lease of a building from electricity supplier Infrax. Meanwhile, Vonk manages four buildings in Hasselt and Genk, with a total of twenty studios for visual artists and performance artists. Serdons joined in 2014 as a janitor, in 2016 she got a part-time job as an administrative assistant. She inherited a bookkeeping on beer tickets. Gradually she professionalized Vonk and herself.


“I now work seven days a week,” she says. “I do everything from toilet cleaning and financial management to artistic management. At a certain point we started with individual trajectory guidance for the artists. We help them on their way by means of a checklist with a number of crucial questions: what is your unique artistic voice? How do you build a portfolio? How do you get into a gallery when you need one? And also: how do you put yourself on the map internationally? The latter is becoming increasingly important. That is why we are here.”


(photo caption): Lieven Segers, the joker of the artist delegation. 'Art is my lifestyle!' Photo: Kristof Vrancken


(photo caption): Visiting a gallery in the New York district of Tribeca, the new art mecca. Photo: Kristof Vrancken


This five-day New York trip is only Vonk's second networking event, after Copenhagen last year. What is striking is that the list of participants is not overflowing with established names. But neither is it a school trip with young promises.


“That's right”, says Serdons, “most artists are in their thirties and forties. Mid career. They have already achieved something in Belgium, they have a story, and they are ready for the next step. We have selected quality, ambition and growth potential. Incidentally, we did not make the selection ourselves, but left it to a panel of experts from the arts sector.”


“Don't come to New York to network if you're not ready. Because you can also make a bad first impression, right? And then your chance is gone, you can't get that straightened out afterwards. The time has come for these ten people, I am convinced of that. They have international ambitions, but they do not have unrealistic expectations. I think that's good, because that means they can withstand disappointments. (laughs) It can only be easy.”


Katelijne De Backer: “When I was running the Armory Show here, one Belgian artist after another Belgian gallery came to me and asked: 'Say, can't you help us find a gallery in New York?' That's not how it works.” These galleries want to discover their artists themselves. (laughs) Or at least feel like they did it themselves. It makes little sense to walk down their doors in Chelsea or TriBeCa with your portfolio in a hip tote bag. Getting into their field of vision is a long-term task. As an artist you have to build a network yourself, come to exhibition openings, show up everywhere, get to know people: gallery owners, curators, journalists, other artists. First look at others, and then hope that at some point they will also look at you.


“When Lies came up with the idea for this networking event, I immediately thought: this is it, this is the way to do it. We actually put together a dating show: a series of meetings with influential people from the New York scene. No superficial tête-à-têtes, eh: a speed date here lasts 45 minutes, very long by New York standards, and the meetings in museums and galleries that are on the program even longer. By doing it under the umbrella of Vonk, and partly also at a location like this, the initiative gets an official, neutral sauce.


“And then we have to hope that it will soon match between certain people, and that the names and projects of these artists will start singing around in the art circles of New York.”

Serdons: “Never underestimate the power of what someone whispers in someone else's ear. You do something extra for the artist you click with. That's what it's all about.”


De Backer: “One thing is certain: Flemish modesty won't get you anywhere here. To the artist who says: 'Yes, but I'm quite introverted, I prefer to stay in my studio', I say: 'Forget it then.' You have to come out. You must do, do, do; if it doesn't sound, it collides. The wilder you plan, the better.”


The wildest plans come from two modest Limburgers from the group: Anton Kusters and Kristof Vrancken.


Kusters (48) has visited more than a thousand Nazi concentration camps in five and a half years. The labor camps and the extermination camps, the well-known and the unknown, the places where physical remains can still be seen and the places where all traces have been erased. He drove one hundred and eighty thousand kilometers, to a total of 1,078 sites. And he has pictures in all those locations created. Not of the physical remains or the empty landscapes, but of the sky above. His The Blue Skies Project is a collection of images of clear, cloudless skies. As in: not a speck in the air. They are Polaroids, so images that fade over time. As in: memories that fade, history that is forgotten.


‘YOU SHOULD NOT NETWORK IN NEW YORK IF YOU ARE NOT READY. IT'S A BAD IMPRESSION AND YOUR CHANCE IS LOST.’ - LIES SERDONS, ART WORKPLACE VONK


The ultimate goal that Kusters is pursuing with this project is almost megalomaniac: an exhibition that will last more than twelve years, just as long as Nazi concentration camps have been running, in Germany and elsewhere in Europe (between 1933 and 1945, ed.). He is negotiating with important museums. And the idea immediately appeals to New York as well. “They advise me here to only deal with those Blue Skies”, he will confide in me after the speed dates. “I don't know if I want to, I don't know if I can handle it: dedicating my entire artistic life to one project, dedicating my entire life to death.”


‘FLEMISH ARTISTS ARE SERIOUS ABOUT THEIR WORK BUT THEY ALSO HAVE A GREAT SENSE OF HUMOR.’ - TRAMAINE de SENNA, AMERICAN ARTIST


Kristof Vrancken (40) is a cross between an artist, a scientific researcher and a climate activist. He is reinventing photography. He develops his photos of polluted, desolate landscapes with pigments and recipes made from plant extracts. In the Camargue he experimented with paper made from algae. In Hasselt he made a 'drinkable' emulsion based on old liqueur recipes, which basically made his photos 'edible'. In New York, Vrancken is not so much looking for a gallery for his photos, but for an international platform for his ideas.


FAT BLACK PUSSYCAT

After the speed dates, the group settles down at Tony's Di Napoli, an Italian family restaurant near Times Square, which honors a culinary tradition of the American mafia: spaghetti with meatballs. In the hallway to the toilets hangs a framed photo of Dean Martin with Frank Sinatra, the singing mobster, with a quote from Sinatra below: "I feel sorry for people who don't drink. The way they feel when they get up in the morning, they feel all day long.”


That drinking happens, with the last jet-lagged forces, in a dark lair near Washington Square Park. It is right opposite the legendary jazz club Blue Note and it bears the unpolitically correct name Fat Black Pussycat.


(photo caption): View of Manhattan from the 'Flanders House' in The New York Times tower. Photo: Kristof Vrancken


Lieven Segers (47) has meanwhile emerged as the joker of the company. In addition to being an artist, he is also a teacher, curator and advocate for the arts. A philosopher disguised as a comedian, recognizable from afar by the pink cap on top of his ponytail. He describes himself as an artist who “transforms experiences and moments from everyday life into words and images”.

Segers didn't bring anything to New York: no portfolio, no catalogs, no references, nougat bulbs. With his interlocutors, he scrolls through the images on his laptop, à la tête du client. When asked, he tells about his latest creation: a series of trips that he undertakes to major works from art history, in the company of an art collector. For example, last week he was in Spain, looking for traces of the Don Quixote of Cervantes. The journey is the work of art. The experience is what the buyer buys.


“Networking: I've always hated that word,” he grins, gulping from a goblet of horrible beer. “But as I got older I realized that I don't really do anything else. Life is networking, right? And in my case the art also comes from that: from encounters, interactions, discussions and conflicts with others. Scenes from everyday life, what I hear and see, I transform into art. Art is my lifestyle!” (laughs)

And then we had the running gag of the week: 'It's all lifestyle.'


MEATPACKING DISTRICT

The Whitney Biennial is underway at the Whitney Museum, a biannual state of the art of American contemporary art. The Flemish delegation agrees that it is an unmemorable edition. But on the top floor, a number of masterpieces by pioneers of American modern art were brought together for the occasion. Including the mighty Door to the River (1960) by Willem de Kooning.


“This painting has been very important to me,” says Hilde Overbergh (58). “When I came to study in the US forty years ago, De Kooning and Robert Rauschenberg were my great sources of inspiration. The colors of De Kooning, the use of materials by Rauschenberg, the power and the vastness of their gestures.'

Overbergh lived in the US for eight years – five years in San Francisco, three years in Los Angeles. When she returned to Belgium with her American husband, to Leuven, she was in touch with the lost art world in the Low Countries. She had three children and put painting on the back burner. In 2007 she decided to pursue an additional master's degree at the PXL-MAD School of Arts in Hasselt. There she met Koen van den Broek, the Flemish painter of American urban landscapes. Today Hilde Overbergh is prominent on the map in her own country and she longs again for the vastness of America. “I used to be a biker,” she says, “I wore one bike after another. And still I am a restless soul in need of a distant horizon. Sometimes I think: maybe we could move one more time...”


It may now also happen for Joke Hansen (42), the other abstract painter in the group. And it is also happening. Her playful paintings on shaped canvas, jigsawn from MDF and clearly indebted to Philip Guston, stir something. The S.M.A.K. recently bought six of her works. Now she has to get across national borders. That is difficult for everyone.


When I ask her where she would like to end up, she answers without hesitation: 'Gladstone Gallery (active in New York, LA, Seoul and Brussels, ed.). There are a lot of artists there that I admire immensely, or with whom I feel a connection, including the Belgians Kasper Bosmans and Walter Swennen. The people I've dated here say it's the damn duty of my Belgian gallery to help me get in there. haha.”

They said the same to William Ludwig Lutgens (31), the youngster of the group. Everyone he encountered was amazed that in his early thirties he had already built up such an enormous oeuvre, full of references to Ensor and Goya. Actually, Lutgens is a contemporary version of Fred Bervoets. But there is a burning desire in him to get out of Greater Antwerp.


(photo caption): Detail from 'The Blue Skies Project' by Anton Kusters. A dizzying collection of Polaroids of clear, cloudless skies...over former Nazi concentration camps. Image: Anton Kusters


Lutgens: “They say here without detours: 'If your Antwerp gallery does not succeed in finding you a foreign, international gallery, then hurry up.' I came here without many expectations, but that has helped me set the mind.”


CHELSEA

A Flemish artist who has long been under the roof in the US is Michaël Borremans (59). David Zwirner, a gallery empire that includes four exhibition spaces in New York and locations in London, Paris and Hong Kong, opens a new exhibition of his: a series of paintings entitled The Acrobat. The gossip goes that Borremans is scratched up at his Antwerp gallery Zeno X. We can't ask him, because the star is not present at his own show. He is said to have contracted a covid infection and is in quarantine in California. With Zeno X, on the other hand, Frank Demaegd confirms that Borremans has left the stable, “unfortunately, after twenty years”.


‘HERE THEY SAY OUTSTANDING: 'IF YOU FIND AN INTERNATIONAL GALLERY IN ANTWERP, THEN SCRATCH UP ASAP.’ - WILLIAM LUDWIG LUTGENS, ARTIST


Slag Gallery is across the street on W 19th Street. It is the gallery of Marius Ritiu (38), the sculptor of Romanian origin who is part of the delegation. Born and raised in Transylvania, he is affectionately referred to as "Dracula" by the other artists. Rather, he washed up in Antwerp by accident: “I arrived there with an artist friend from Cluj. We were supposed to stay for four days, but on the third day we ran into Guillaume Bijl, who gave us a lot of references. Before I knew it I was at art academy, with Nadia Naveau.” Ritiu managed to decorate a number of 'residences' in New York for himself and now tries to spend half his time there.


Also Denitsa Todorova and Tramaine de Senna, the other 'foreigners' from the group, have already built up a nice track record in Belgium. Todorova (38, from Plovdiv, Bulgaria) with her works on large pieces of paper that seem to refer to cosmology as well as to Jackson Pollock; de Senna (41, from San Francisco) with her imposing sculptures made of the most diverse materials.


“It was fantastic to travel with this group”, says de Senna. “The Flemish artists are exceptionally well-informed and dead serious when it comes to their art, but they also have a great sense of humor. You know: hanging out, having fun, getting drunk. Delicious."


FLANDERS HOUSE

Lies Serdons and Katelijne De Backer managed to attract clean New York people for a panel discussion in Flanders House. These include artist, curator, educator and writer Kenny Schachter and rising star Rachel Eulena Williams. But the most dazzling appearance is without doubt Björn Soenens, the VRT envoy in the US who is moderating the debate. He's decked out for the occasion in leopard print trousers, multicolor sneakers and a bleached denim vest over a black turtleneck sweater. He elicits this conclusion from self-proclaimed idiot savant Kenny Schachter: “The art market is a beast, if you're not careful it eats you with skin and hair. So artists, stick to your art and do it yourself. Strom peel forward boldly!”


“Visual art is a hard, lonely activity”, says Lies Serdons on the last day. “Artists constantly expose themselves to the judgment of others. But if they don't know what to do anymore, they have to solve it themselves. That is their sad fate. On a journey like this, they find that they are all in this together. And then you notice that, instead of getting in each other's way when angling for attention and recognition, they grow towards each other. They exchange information, they compare the trail each of them has walked, they introduce each other to the people they know. We have already achieved that: that the artists who traveled with us made each other stronger. For the rest, I know that virtually every artist is already in talks with a gallery, an institute or an intermediary who wants to help him or her move forward. And we're not even on the plane home yet! So I would dare to call it a huge success.”


It's just a shame that this could have been Vonk's last international networking event. For his entire 'internationalization and residency programme', Vonk could count on a Flemish project subsidy of 70,000 euros. But now precisely that program has received a negative preliminary recommendation from the visual arts commission of the Flemish culture department. If the Flemish government follows that advice, Vonk Limburg will no longer be able to leave.


“A number of factual inaccuracies have crept into the argumentation of that advice,” says Lies Serdons diplomatically. “I have provided the committee with an extensive reply. In my boundless naivety, I think it will be alright. And if not, I'll find another solution."


“Lies!” Katelijne De Backer laughs. "You've only been here a week and you already sound like an American!"