By Charlotte Friling
A one-month residency at Le Vecteur, a non-commercial art space located in Charleroi (this dreaded place fantasized by many as Belgium’s ‘Gotham City’ of the south) and sheltered from the capital’s annual art fair tumult: although at first not exactly the most tantalizing prospect for an ambitious young artist in Belgium today, it all but discouraged Julien Meert. The Brussels-based painter takes up the challenge and upon his first sights of the city, which he recalls as grim and scarred, immediately excludes the idea of imposing yet another sleek white-cube painting show. In order to counter or dialogue with the city’s complex history and fragile social situation, Meert quickly grasps that his practice will momentarily have to transcend its solitary and commercial pursuits.
In an effort to connect with his surroundings, he develops ideas for a workshop with local communities, which very quickly becomes the very heart and subject of his residency. With the help of Le Vecteur and its many contacts with neighborhood initiatives, Meert starts collaborating with a variety of groups, from women to teenagers from a community center, and a group of adult members of a socio-cultural non-profit-making organization, to cite only a few. Right from the start, one of the project’s main preoccupations seems to be integration, both that of the artist into the city and that of these sub-groups into this unusual artistic project: the collective painting of monumental ‘portraits’ on an impressive fourteen meters long wall.
Noticing that his participants are often ill-at-ease or overwhelmed by the sheer scale of their ‘canvas’, as well as unsure of their painterly skills, Meert introduces them to the surrealist exercise of the ‘cadavre exquis’ or exquisite corpse, in which fragments of drawings are collectively assembled to uncanny effect. The results -which the artist subsequently published as a thoughtful booklet- are then selected by the participants, before being painted to the wall and developed into a powerful group of both tortured and playfully eclectic characters. Their hybridity perfectly symbolizes the participants as well as their city, both proud and self-deprecating, yet always authentic.
If to Meert this collaborative project and its restricted time frame often felt in conflict with his personal studio routine, he nonetheless admits the experience tremendously enriched his own work and approach of painting as a tool for communication. His guidance, he says, “had to be democratic without being simplistic, impelling without being directive”. The result is amusing without being child-like, critical without being cliché. It mirrors Meert’s genuine interest in supporting art that takes forms other than the commonly accepted, in places peripheral to the usual art map. He leaves memories of carefree creation and community pride behind him, while carrying inspiring spontaneity from Charleroi and its people back to his quiet studio, where a whole new challenge awaits him.