As soon as she saw the magazine, the Antwerp-based artist knew she could work with it. But she had to wait for the right moment. “It’s being lying there for 10 or 12 years,” she tells me. “Sometimes you have an idea immediately, but I liked these so much that I couldn’t use them right away.”
When she was offered a large solo exhibition in Chicago, a city synonymous with gangsters, she felt the moment had come. “The images have an intimate connection with the underworld, and it was tantalising for me to do that. Maybe it was a bit confrontational as well.”
Using a computer, she blew up the magazine pages, drenched them in colour, brought in other visual elements and printed the resulting digital collages on large sheets of plastic. This final step is intentionally dismissive. “They are just prints on PVC, which is very cheap. It’s like tabloid art.”
The result is a series of 16 images called Mastering the Horizon. Together with other new work produced for the Chicago exhibition, they are currently on show at MuZee in Ostend.
This new context is not entirely inappropriate. “There’s also an underworld in Ostend,” explains Van Kerckhoven, “and a connection with evil, with satanism and with Ensor,” she says, referring to James Ensor’s famous paintings of carnival masks and other grotesques.
The Chicago exhibition was more than just a chance to use a long-cherished clipping. Van Kerckhoven, 61, was given complete freedom to develop new work for the show over a period of several years. Such chances are few and far between. “As an older artist, you don’t often have the opportunity to be completely free and to do things that are not at all commercial,” she explains. “And I love to experiment.”
Since the early 1980s, Van Kerckhoven has been a prolific producer of drawings, collages and paintings, as well as an early adopter of digital image techniques. She has also made video and performance art and is a founding member of industrial noise group Club Moral. Her appropriation of images from vintage and contemporary soft pornography gives her work a strong feminist flavour. Still, “I don’t see these women from a feminist point of view,” she writes in the MuZee catalogue. “Not as victims. They have a more defiant power over men. What they look like and how they behave; that’s what inspires me.”
Van Kerckhoven, like many other contemporary Flemish artists, also explores the intersection of science and art. The series Nonzero/Pastime builds on a text about anti-matter in which scientific terms have been systematically replaced with art terms. Citations from this text on the “anti-Sade” are combined with digitally treated images from 1950s glamour magazines and, again, printed out on large sheets of PVC.
In Divine Proportions (Determinism, Occult), a series of smaller collages and drawings, the heads of models cut from a fashion magazine are replaced with the moons of Saturn and Jupiter and augmented with scientific diagrams. A more literary Saturn features in the series In a Saturnian World, which uses lines from Paul Verlaine’s poems in which the planet is seen as malevolent, yet a source of wisdom.
Evil also comes into the series Sisyphus, Happy, which draws on a book about the demonic aspects of contemporary fiction. Again there are recurrent images of spheres, suggesting both the planets and the rock that Sisyphus was condemned to roll eternally uphill. These are combined with pictures torn roughly from fashion magazines and partially painted.
Two of the most striking pieces in the exhibition are monolithic enlargements from the Sisyphus, Happy series, which bring you face to face with detail in the images and the texture of the collage. This ability to look closely at images is something Van Kerckhoven values in digital techniques. “You can get a microscopic, an obscene view of something that is not normally meant to be seen by the eye.”
The Ostend exhibition contains a dizzying number of ideas, but the connections that emerge are intriguing. This is exactly what Van Kerckhoven had in mind. “Over the three years I developed these different images as characters in a story and not as works in a show,” she explains. “That’s very important; but of course these things don’t happen on a very conscious level. I didn’t know what would happen with these ingredients, but this is the result.”