Antwerp artist finds truth and beauty in telling simple stories


Ben Sledsens is a big deal on the Flemish art scene right now. By combining the style of old masters with contemporary elements, he creates a utopia of green landscapes, brave knights and Balenciaga shoes in narrative works that buck contemporary trends

Rousseau in sneakers

A girl wanders through the forest in trendy white trainers, enjoying the scent of a flower; a jaguar lies peacefully in the jungle by moonlight; two knights do battle in a colourful and comical forest. The paintings on view during Ben Sledsens’ second solo exhibition contain all the elements that have made him the star he is today: nature, humour and a slice of naivety.

And he is indeed a star. In 2016, renowned Antwerp gallery Tim Van Laere, which manages the works of Rinus Van de Velde, Kati Heck and Franz West, hosted Sledsens’ first solo show after observing the young artist during his last year of college. All the paintings were sold before the show even opened. With this second solo exhibition, accompanied by the publication of his first monograph, Sledsens is all over the media.

Yet the 27-year-old remains the same: a somewhat shy and dreamy guy. “I just like walking around in parks,” he says when asked about his interest in nature. His landscapes are bright, playful and almost romantic. “I’m really OK with that,” he says. “We live in turbulent times. A lot of artists question today’s chaos and create art that sets beauty aside. I don’t.”

Instead, he like to tell stories. “I know, being so narrative is really ‘not done’ in painting today. But I don’t want to project a heavy political message or portray the struggle of mankind. I just want to tell small tales the viewer can connect with.”

A break from real life

In this gloomy, post-eclectic internet era, the notion of simple beauty seems to be frowned upon. Kitsch and irony reign and shatter the foundations of classic aesthetics in almost all creative disciplines. Sledsens offers the opposite: a pictorial utopia. As a viewer, you want to step into the careless world of his paintings. This is the key to his success: he offers relief rather than discussion.

The Antwerp painter creates his utopia with a grand craftsmanship that he learnt from the old masters Matisse and Rousseau. The playful yet mysterious style of Rousseau in particular really comes forward in Sledsens’ landscapes. “I do get compared to Rousseau a lot, but he is very important to me. As an artist you look for masters whom you can relate to. That’s the way I encountered the work of Rousseau: because I wanted to paint nature.”

A lot of artists question today’s chaos and create art that sets beauty aside. I don’t

- Ben Sledsens

Instead of trying to avoid the heritage of painting, Sledsens embraces it. The result? While the new hyperconscious generation of artists mourns how “everything has already been done” in their search for the next new thing, Sledsens builds on an existing style. “I look at it this way: so much has already been done in the history of painting that our generation has the privilege to be able to work with an enormous gamut of ideas and do their own thing with it. The old masters opened a path for us.”

And so Sledsens pours the knowledge of the old masters into his own narratives, where archetypical characters live side by side with contemporary youngsters wearing Converse All Stars and Ralph Lauren socks.

“My girlfriend works in fashion; I guess it influences me. I don’t paint in a rational way but go with my gut feeling. That’s why these fashion items end up in my paintings. For the same reason most of my women look like my girlfriend. Sometimes that annoys me,” he says with a laugh.

Until 20 October, Tim Van Laere Gallery, Verlatstraat 23-25, Antwerp

Photo: The Battle, 2018 © Ben Sledsens