Brussels artist captures suspense in the abstract


Virginie Bailly’s ambiguous work is on show in Hasselt in a dual exhibition with the haunting images of Swiss artist Daniel Karrer

Caught in a moment

“What do you think? Should we hang this painting on that wall or on the adjacent one?” Three days before her show Odelay opens at Hasselt’s cultural centre, artist Virginie Bailly is still questioning how everything should be displayed. And so it happens that she suddenly asks for advice when she walks me through the exhibition.

If this gives the impression of an insecure artist, think again. Bailly is someone who knows what she wants. But she has invited another artist, Daniel Karrer of Switzerland, to show alongside her, and since there’s no external curator, an outsider’s voice might offer a fresh perspective. “My husband normally has a very good eye for this,” she says, “but he couldn’t make it today.”

I left before a decision was made, so I’ll have to go back to see the result. But that won’t be a hardship, since Bailly’s vivid paintings can be viewed over and over again. And the haunting, slightly otherworldly paintings by Karrer, whose first exhibition in Belgium this is, are a real discovery.

“When I was asked to show my work in Hasselt, I thought it would be interesting to dialogue with another artist,” Bailly explains. “I had just discovered Karrer’s work and I think we have a similar approach to painting. We both strive to catch a moment of suspense. It’s a feeling that I’ve always appreciated in visual arts.”

She gives the Renaissance painting “The Tempest” by Giorgione as an example: “It has a shimmering tension; it captures the moment just before something important happens, or just after it’s happened. It’s also summoned in the frescos of Pompeii. In a famous one, you see Medea’s children playing knucklebones, while their mother, with her back turned to them, is holding a dagger, pondering the upcoming slaughter of her offspring. It’s fascinating.”

Crucial element

It might be surprising that suspense is such a crucial element for Bailly, since her work appears abstract. But that’s just at first sight. “Observation is the basis for all my work,” she insists. “Whether it’s installations, paintings or drawings. It starts with pictures I find on the internet or take myself, or just with things I see in nature.”

The result is an ambiguous view – Bailly compares it to a compound eye – built with different structures. Sometimes this leads to more abstract elements; at other times they are more figurative. Though you have to make an effort to recognise them.

“By adding different elements, I create suspense, regardless of how figurative the image is. And I stop adding extra elements when I feel that I’ve captured it.”

Bailly, the daughter of a Flemish mother and a Walloon father, was born in 1976 in the Brussels municipality of Ukkel. “I’m a real kiekefretter,” she says with a laugh, using the typical word in Brussels dialect that describes the inhabitants of the city and literally means “chicken eater”.

By adding different elements, I create the suspense, regardless of how figurative the image is

- Virginie Bailly

She knew at a very young age that she wanted to become an artist. “Though at first I had my mind set on becoming a farmer, suddenly one day I changed to visual artist,” she recalls. “My parents, both landscape architects, were surprised by that change. But they shouldn’t have been, because they’re the ones who nourished me with art. From a young age, I was browsing through books on Van Gogh, Soutine or Eugène Leroy with my mother.”

When Bailly was 12, she hoped to attend a secondary art school. “But my parents wanted me to go to a normal secondary school. I was so unhappy there that I only stayed one year and subsequently went to the art school.”

That was Sint-Lukas in Brussels, where she also got her Master’s degree as a painter. It took a while before she could live from her art – “I started selling regularly from let’s say 2007” – though she’s still teaching two days a week at the art academy in Geel. “I like it, and it balances out my life,” she says.

But back to the expo in Hasselt. The title, Odelay, will remind music fans of the masterful album by American musician Beck. “Daniel Karrer came up with it,” admits Bailly. “I know the Beck album, but this is more than a reference to it. The word ‘odelay’ can have different meanings. For instance, it’s used to express enthusiasm.”

Odelay for Odelay? Sure thing.

Virginie Bailly: Odelay, until 3 April, CC Hasselt, Kunstlaan 5, Hasselt

More visual arts this week

Walker Evans: Anonymous

Walker Evans was one of America’s most influential and popular 20th-century photographers. His book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (with writer James Agee) is a milestone, a memorial of sharecroppers during the Great Depression. In publishing his work in books and magazines, and writing and thinking about the art, Evans played a key role in transforming photography into a modern medium. It’s that role that’s highlighted here, presenting original pages from magazines and vintage prints. Whatever he does, in a sense he’s always looking for the greatness in everyday life. Until 3 April, Fondation A Stichting, Van Volxemlaan 304, Brussels

Ryan Gander

A light breeze floating through some empty ground-floor rooms of the Fridericianum: it was one of the most controversial artworks at the last Documenta festival in Kassel. It was thought up by Briton Ryan Gander, a conceptual artist whose works at first glance might seem very disparate. One moment he’s dissecting existing artworks, like a sculpture by Flemish modernist Georges Vantongerloo, and the next he’s inspired by architecture or amplifying a plasticine giraffe by his five-year old daughter into a huge sculpture. In the end, though, they all seem to be different elements of one bigger story. Until 27 March, Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens, Museumlaan 14, Sint-Martens-Latem

Thomas Huber: The Red Frieze

This major new work by Swiss artist Thomas Huber consists of a frieze – a decorative horizontal band on a wall in a room. But above that hang several paintings, often depicting spaces, and in each of them you can see an echo of the frieze. That echo is generally, again, a frieze, though more elaborate than the main frieze itself. The paintings often exude an alienating, magic-realistic tone, as if he’s trying not to emulate an existing world but to give an idealised architectonic interpretation of a mental one that could never exist. 7 February to 20 March, Galerie Transit, Zandpoortvest 10, Mechelen