Michael Van den Abeele: dinosaurs and life on Mars


Flemish multidisciplinary artist Michael Van den Abeele shows recent paintings and a sound installation at Leuven’s M Museum that takes in war, prehistoric creatures and spacescapes painted on denim

Walk the dinosaur

Aside from a sound installation, Michael Van den Abeele presents only paintings in his exhibition Opacity, Please at M Museum in Leuven. And that’s a bit of a surprise, since the artist, born in Brussels in 1974, is a man of various trades: installations, sculptures, video art, photos and, indeed, also paintings.

But the art of painting was a late calling for Van den Abeele, who studied sculpture at Brussels art school Sint-Lukas. It was only eight years ago that he picked up a paintbrush.

“There’s not one specific reason why I started painting,” Van den Abeele tells me while enjoying a mid-morning coffee. “Afterwards, I realised that the sculptures for my final exams at school were already very painterly.” He laughs: “It took me ages before I realised I was a painter who worked with other materials.”

On the other hand, “for a long time I had a difficult relationship with the art of painting. I liked it, but I didn’t really feel it. Until the day I became intensely fascinated by some paintings at the Metropolitan in New York, one of them by Rembrandt.”

Even then, he didn’t come home and plunge into painting. “It took me some years. But I started working more narratively: drawings, short animated films and, in the end, painting.” 

It starts with the art

At M Museum, Van den Abeele also presents the sound installation “A Small Talent for War”, which tells the story of man who wants to make a clean break with his past. He becomes an arms dealer and moves to Mars, since isn’t it named after the god of war? 

Sadly, the Martians are much more peaceful than expected. The story is loosely based on the biography of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud. “At one point, he stopped writing and went to Ethiopia to sell weapons. It turned out to be a bad career move. Apart from that, the installation isn’t really linked to Rimbaud.”

Van den Abeele tells the story in English and at one point even starts singing. Although he has already released a single, he has no musical ambitions. “If I make music, it’s always in function of visual arts. Even with the single: it started with the cover photo and the design, and it ended with the music.” 

If I make music, it’s always in function of visual arts

- Michael Van den Abeele

“A Small Talent for War” illustrates Van den Abeele’s interest in exoticism and science fiction, two themes that are also present in his paintings. “Colony”, for instance, is a monumental wall painting, consisting of different spacescapes. It’s painted on pairs of jeans – not your usual material for an oil painting.

“I once saw a pietà from I think the 18th century on a blue denim background, and I found it fascinating,” he says. More jeans, of the tie-dyed variety, are used in “I’m a Fan”: three square paintings of fans depicting a jaguar. The paintings are placed on what looks like concrete – though it’s cemented wood – pedestals, which lends the work a sculptural aspect. 

One of the jaguars refers to the painting “Wild Life” by the British artist Malcolm Morley. “He was an important figure for me when I began painting,” explains Van den Abeele. “He started out as a photorealist painter. After a crisis, he questioned all his knowledge about painting. This instinct for discovery really inspired and encouraged me.”

The perfect tailor’s dummy

The most surprising series on view in M Museum is Dinosaur. Paintings of dinosaurs, indeed – an unusual theme in visual arts. “A few years ago, I was wondering why dinosaurs are always portrayed as idiotic and aggressive. I didn’t want to conform to that image. Nor did I want to make the dinosaur ironic.”

Van den Abeele delved into a little visual history. “Our image of dinosaurs was created in the 1850s by a British palaeontologist who made the first concrete sculptures of them. You can still visit them in London’s Crystal Palace. They’re very naive interpretations of the animals, based on a limited amount of bones and skeletons.”

Van den Abeele isn’t interested in the prehistoric animal but in the image we have of it. “Based on the bones, we have an idea of its structure,” he says. “But the outside, the image of the dinosaur, will always be speculative. That fascinates me. An image of a dinosaur always says more about the period in which it was made than about the creature we call dinosaur. It’s the perfect tailor’s dummy.”

But maybe the most impressive works on display are the four paintings of the Untitled series: seemingly abstract works that, depending on how you look at them, might contain some figurative elements. “A few years ago, my paintings were a schizophrenic mix of abstraction and figuration. I wanted to disentangle those two strands and confront them, though not in one painting. That’s how I ended up with both the Dinosaur and the Untitled series.”

The latter, he explains, grew out of sketches in ink that he made “very intuitively, almost in a trance on A4 paper. Out of the hundred or so drawings, I selected a few and painstakingly copied them in acrylic paint on canvas.” In doing so, he inverted the light values: the black ink became white, and the white background is now coloured.

Until 25 October, M Museum, Leopold Vanderkelenstraat 28, Leuven

Photo: Michael Van den Abeele’s Dinosaur #09, 2014

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