‘There’s a lot of beauty in dead nature’


Antwerp artist Cindy Wright has never harmed an animal, but her solo show at Gaasbeek Castle concentrates on the eternal grace of death

Still life with death

When Cindy Wright graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp in 1996, she hoped the future would be kind to her and her work. It wasn’t.

After being told for four years by her teachers that it was useless to paint the way she did – classically, with a penchant for still lifes, far removed from the wild neo-expressionism that predominates the world of contemporary art – she realised they were right.

Not in the sense that she agreed with them, but in the sense that nobody was paying attention to her work. It took seven years before a gallery was willing to show her work. And today, no one doubts her talent.

“I persevered because that was the way I wanted to paint,” Wright says of those trying times. “Why should I comply with the desires of others?”

As her name gives away, the artist, 45, has Anglo-Saxon roots. “My grandfather was British,” she tells me from her Antwerp studio. “He came to Belgium right after the liberation after the Second World War. He was billeted in the garden of the house where my grandmother lived. That's how they met.”

Perfect venue

To see Wright’s new exhibition, visitors have to enter the imposing Gaasbeek Castle in Lennik, a few kilometres southwest of Brussels. Originally built in 1240, it lies in the slanting landscape of the Pajottenland

At the end of the 19th century, after long being neglected, the castle underwent a transformation at the instigation of marquis Marie Arconati Visconti. After her death in 1921 she bequeathed it to the Belgian state.

Now Gaasbeek is a museum of Arconati Visconti’s personal collection, and it also hosts temporary exhibitions specifically chosen for their impact in the historic decor. Cindy Wright: Dead Poetry consists of 32 paintings and drawings, spread out over more than 20 rooms.

You might feel pity at first for a dead animal, but when you think about it, you realise it’s inevitable

- Cindy Wright

The artist was immediately delighted when she was invited to stage a show there, and not only because it’s her largest solo show to date. She knew the castle from taking part in a group show there five years ago. “It’s an amazing environment,” she says.

But the various rooms with their old furniture and frugal lighting is the antithesis of the typical white cube exhibition space. Was she not worried that the atmosphere would overpower the work?

“You have to be careful,” she says. “The question I asked myself was ‘which artwork can interact visually with a given space?’”

She created some new work but also dove into her past and selected art from the last nine years. It’s not a retrospective, however: Wright selected only still lifes. Though she also paint portraits, “that would have been too complex in that setting,” she says.

Sometimes she even worked with a specific room in mind, like with the large-scale drawing of a skull called “Ecce Homo”.

Follow the trail

“Most of my works spring from ideas that have been germinating for a long time or from preliminary studies I shaped on computer. When a new show is coming up, I go through those images and work out the ideas that will fit in the show.”

The title Dead Poetry was chosen by the artist herself. “There is a lot of death in my still lifes,” she remarks.

You can take that literally. “Taste of Blood” shows a flayed rabbit, “Cat’s Milk” a small dead bird in a saucer of milk (you expect a cat to jump into the frame any minute), and the animal in “Rabbit Hole” won’t be perking its pointy ears anymore.

Throughout the exhibition, which takes the form of a trajectory of stairs and hallways linking up the rooms, she hung a series of charcoal drawings titled “True Colors”. They show a human skull that is gradually completely covered in butterflies.

In French a still life is called a nature morte, literally dead nature, and that’s a perfect description of what Wright is showing in Gaasbeek. “The works are often about what repels us. But there’s a lot of poetry and even great beauty in dead nature. You might feel pity at first for a dead animal, but when you think about it, you realise it’s inevitable.”

In case you’re wondering, Wright – a vegetarian – wouldn’t even think about hurting an animal for her art. “But I do have some dead birds in my freezer,” she concedes. “Sometimes I get a message from one of my students or from a collector telling me that they found a dead animal and do I want it.”

Until 4 November, Gaasbeek Castle, Kasteelstraat 40, Lennik

The catalogue Cindy Wright: All Well is published by MER Paper Kunsthalle in tandem with the exhibition

Photos: top “Fashion Victim”, above “True Colors (nr 2)” (detail)