Flemish sculptor trades “high culture” for swamp monsters


A new exhibition at the Middelheim Museum in Antwerp showcases Peter Rogiers’ amorphous sculptures, which he says allow him to remain free of the constraints of the contemporary art world

Keeping a distance

Peter Rogiers has always avoided being labelled highbrow. “What do you want? I am a hard rocker from Limburg,” he smiles, illustrating just how down-to-earth he can be as he sculpts the strangest of creatures out of synthetic resin and cast aluminium.

A little earlier, the Antwerp-born sculptor had confessed to listening to Motörhead and Mark Lanegan when creating his oversized, hybrid images in the studio behind his house.

After graduating from Sint-Lukas Arts School in Brussels, Rogiers decided not to move back to Antwerp and spend his evenings in bars with other artists. Instead, he opted for the quiet village of Oud-Heverlee in Flemish Brabant. “I wanted to keep some distance,” he says.

Distance is a running theme in the 49-year-old’s life and work. Sitting at his kitchen table, I can see no sign of or reference to his work. “I don’t want to be surrounded by my own art,” he says. “When I finish a piece, it goes to a storage space.”

This keeps his feet on the ground, he adds, just like the discussions with his students at the Kask art school in Ghent, where he teaches sculpture one day a week. “When you’re alone in your workplace, you can become a cliché of yourself,” he says. “I try to focus on the essence.”

And when that’s not possible, he speeds his motorbike around race circuits, his other passion.

An outdoor museum

Another kind of distance can be observed in Cluster, Rogiers’ new exhibition at the Middelheim Open Air Sculpture Museum in Antwerp. “My biggest challenge was not to end up with garden sculptures,” he says. “That’s why I made large pedestals. They create a bigger mental space, decreasing the overbearing weight of the surrounding nature.”

The idea is to give visitors a feeling that they’re in a museum, instead of a park. On the other hand, Rogiers didn’t want his sculptures to be displayed in any logical order. Instead, they form unconventional clusters, while evoking a shared meaning.

The absurd compositions, with statues of different scale, colour and material, build a tension and set up a strange, subjective dialogue with the other works in the museum’s collection.

I grew up with comic books and wanted to pursue a career in that. But then I went to the art academy, and my life took another turn

- Artist Peter Rogiers

Rogiers made a daring choice to place two of his pieces next to a bronze statue by Alberto Giacometti. Their scale varies, with one statuette no bigger than a hand. “I was curious to see if my work would survive next to an icon, without being pretentious,” he laughs. “I think it does.”

The artist sees his work as figurative, but then again, the palm trees and the birds, or the small figurines he made for the new exhibition, could never be the objects they represent. They’re full of abstractions and contradictions.

“I grew up with comic books, and at first I wanted to pursue a career in that,” Rogiers says. “But then I went to the art academy, discovered contemporary art, and my life took another turn. But the desire to mix different forms remained.”

Picasso and palm trees

Take his sculptures of Swamp Things, the amorphous monsters from American comic books. “They are a sort of alter ego,” he says. “Since they change form easily, I can manipulate them in any direction.”

The artist generally starts with a raw idea; Rogiers calls it “an excuse to get something started”. But the work really takes shape in the process of making, as illustrated by the Swamp Thing with the head of Picasso.

“I was working on a small sculpture, when the owner of my garage dropped by,” Rogiers says. “He brought a ceramic material that normally gets used as a catalyst for a muffler. If you cut into it, you notice a square pattern. When I finally assembled everything, it reminded me of 1930s Picasso.”

The big palm tree in front of the museum is on loan from the city of Dendermonde in East Flanders. Even though Rogiers chose the image to avoid symbolism, local right-wing politicians didn’t like it, as they said it represented something foreign and exotic.

This came as a surprise to Rogiers, since he prefers to work with neutral forms. “If I had made a urinal, the reference to Marcel Duchamp would be obvious,” he says. “But a palm tree gets turned into such a stereotype.”

Away with the physical

Still, his palm trees are not decor. “It’s not enough to make a palm tree, or a bird. I work on it until a dose of subjectivity appears, and it becomes a strange entity. There is no political message; my only goal is the physical experience.”

This interpretation is often driven by an urge to contrast. “My palm trees are made of metal, and the aluminium feels very artificial,” he explains. “The material often determines the psychology of the form. For instance, a very expressionist image out of synthetic resin can refer to a toy.” 

For me, drawing is the ideal distraction from the very physical and time-consuming job of sculpting

- Peter Rogiers

In Rogiers’ hands, material, but also colour and scale, becomes a tool to add layers and sharpen contrasts, and he hopes to achieve an antidote for a lot of contemporary art, which he finds too one-sided and illustrative.

Cluster, largely made up of new work, also includes a selection of etchings. “I’ve never shown them before because my sculptures needed neutrality. But the Braem Pavilion turned out to be the perfect location.”

But the drawings don’t refer back to the sculptures in any particular way. Rogiers says he doesn’t want to explain what he does, instead showing another angle of the vibe he’s in.

“For me, drawing is the ideal distraction from the very physical and time consuming job of sculpting,” he says. “You get into a sort of rhythm when you start. I like to compare it to motorcycle racing, which is also rather technical and brings me into a flow, giving free reign to my inspiration.”

Until 18 September, Middelheim Museum, Middelheimlaan 61, Antwerp

Photo: Dirk Leemans

More exhibitions this month

Nick Andrews: Within Me
The London-born painter is somewhat of an outsider in the Antwerp arts scene, with his collaborations with rock band Dez Mona and author Jeroen Olyslaegers. His often large-scale paintings stand out because of their powerful primal colours (with a lot of blue) and imaginative topics, from jazzy nightlife scenes to more mysterious and surreal portraits and landscapes. A book accompanying the solo show. Until 14 August, De Warande, Turnhout 

In the medieval fishermen’s village Walraversijde, a mix of local and international contemporary artists, scientists and philosophers look into the Anthropocene, the geological era spanning human existence (and our devastating impact) on the planet. Luc Deleu’s dike tackles the rise of sea levels; Maarten Vanden Eynde’s satellite dish contains electronic waste; American artist Brandon Ballengée commemorates deceased birds from a local asylum. Until 2 October, Anno 1465, Raversyde, Ostend

Alex Vanhee
Since its move to a more central location, Brussels record label [Chez Pias] has housed a music shop, an intimate venue and a restaurant. Now it is also hosting a small portrait exhibition by Alex Vanhee, rock photographer for De Morgen. Familiar faces, such as Nick Cave, Moby, An Pierlé and Arno, alternate with band pictures of dEUS, Editors and others, often connected to the label’s roster. 17 June to 19 August, [Chez Pias], Sint-Laurensstraat 36, Brussels