Peek behind the curtain at Flemish artist’s new show


Brussels- based artist Thomas Lerooy has traded in his bronze alloys for oil paint, but the results are no less uncanny

A leap in the dark

After exhibitions in Berlin and Paris (the famous Petit Palais), Thomas Lerooy has recently finally landed museum shows in Flanders and Brussels. After Dhondt-Dhaenens and Gaasbeek Castle, he now presents Behind the Curtain at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels.

It’s a small but revelatory exhibition. Lerooy is known for his sculptures and drawings with a high degree of phantasmagoria – think Manneken Pis as a portent of death or an open skull revealing heads inside. Though there are also bronze bird sculptures with a silver patina.

But the real treat of Behind the Curtain is hanging on the walls: a series of mysterious oil paintings. They are surprisingly, as Lerooy is known for drawing and sculpture. “Over the last years few years, I have been colouring my drawings more and more, up to the point that, at first glance, it became difficult to see the difference from a painting.”

That’s when he had to admit to himself that he wanted to paint. Lerooy, who turns 38 at the end of May, had never worked with oil paint. It felt like taking a leap in the dark.

Think like a painter

“As a draughtsman or sculptor, I know all the escape routes. Not as a painter.” Technically, a new world opened. “I learned it along the way. If I had a question, the internet always gave me the answer.”

Still, it was easier said than done. Lerooy, as an experienced illustrator, had no trouble coming up with images. “I could translate them onto a canvas, and that would be a painting, sure. But that’s not what I wanted.”

To act like a painter, he had to think like a painter. “Before I could really start, I had to flip that switch,” he says. “I feel like as a painter, I come up with distinctly different images.”

Art shouldn’t be unequivocal. Those different layers of meaning are very important

- Thomas Lerooy

Each of the nine paintings in the show force you to think about what you’re actually seeing. Take the canvas that lends its name to the exhibition. It looks like a closed curtain, but legs are visible under it. So maybe it’s a skirt.

But these works are no riddles, you don’t have to “solve” them to enjoy them. At least, not if you like your art uncanny or eerie. “Art shouldn’t be unequivocal,” Lerooy stresses. “Those different layers of meaning are very important. I couldn’t do without them.”

Something remarkable has happened, too. “Painting has a calming effect on me. Apparently that feeling emanates from the paintings. My work is often perceived as aggressive – I don’t really know why – but now people tell me it certainly isn’t.”

‘Friendly thief’

Lerooy (pictured above) is well versed in the history of painting and, to a certain degree, he’s playing with that past. “I call myself a friendly thief,” he chuckles. Not that he’s just embracing existing ideas. “There needs to be an evolution, you have to see the progression. It’s the quest for a door that has never before been opened. It’s a characteristic feature of all of my work.”

He certainly won’t stop drawing (“I miss the fragility of it,” he admits) or sculpting, but “I’m sure I’ll keep painting. I have barely tasted it, so there’s a lot more to discover. Though I have no idea how my painting will evolve.”

We’re having this conversation in his studio in Brussels. Lerooy was born in West Flanders, later studying and living in Ghent. And he spent some time in Berlin. But he eventually settled in the Belgian capital.

I don’t like to go out knowing that I will always bump into people I know. In Brussels, it’s easier to live incognito

- Thomas Lerooy

“I always thought that if you’re passionate about it, it doesn’t matter where you create your art. But in Berlin I discovered that this isn’t true. I felt slightly uprooted. Ghent was too small, it’s a village. In Brussels, it’s easier to live incognito. I don’t like to go out knowing that I will always bump into people I know, like was the case in Ghent.”

Although I’ve been following Lerooy’s work for some years, it was only in preparation of this interview that I discovered something quaint. The titles of quite a few of his older works are song or album titles: “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” (Neil Young & Crazy Horse), “Nothing But Flowers” and “Speaking in Tongues” (Talking Heads), “Me, Myself & I” (De La Soul).

“You’re the first one to notice this,” he smiles. “Some works start with a title, with others it’s a chore to name them. Then I often look at the music I like because songs are recognisable and extend those same emotions.”

Thomas Lerooy: Behind the Curtain: Until 18 August, Fine Arts Museum, Regentschapsstraat 3, Brussels

Photos: “Behind the Curtain” (top, click for full image), “An Apple a Day” (centre), both courtesy Thomas Lerooy; the artist himself (above), ©Patricia Mathieu