Elias Ghekiere and the punchline of art

Published on: 08.12.2022
Interview: Nicolas Marichal
Images: Selma Gurbuz reading time: 7 minutes

The studio of Hasselt-based artist Elias Ghekiere does not live up to the cliché of the artiste peintre. There are no splashes of paint on the wall, the floor is not littered with squeezed tubes of oil paint and there are no big cans of brushes. What you do find: chests of drawers, a nicely stocked-up bookcase and a maquette of Z33, where he will soon exhibit. Meet an artist in meticulous search, for new materials, for depth under the surface, for love in art.

Looking at your bookcase, I notice a remarkably diverse collection.

Yes, it goes wide and deep. I have books on Islamic art, on the Mediterranean, a lot on China and Japan. And also classical western painting like Rubens.


The Rubens in particular stands out for a young artist. What do you get from him?

There is a lushness in his painting that appeals to me. I used to want to do something that exuded the same vitality, with pure figuration. Then again, Rubens and I obviously have different technical training. I don’t have his flexibility, nor his anatomical knowledge. You very quickly drift into mannerism if you try to imitate that. One solution for me was to take my inspiration from a different medium like sculpture. Then it became more straightforward. For example, I converted a whole series of 17th-century reliefs from the Rijksmuseum into paint.

I would guess those are artworks that almost everyone walks past. But you copied them minutely. 

Some of the reliefs are also not much bigger than a postcard. But it’s the pure matter that interests me, the reflections in metal, for instance. A classical mythological composition suddenly dissolves into spots of light. Then it becomes interesting to me: how can you tackle abstractions in a figurative way?

I love translating work to a different medium or format. How you always kind of miss the point in the process, but still create new atmospheres.

Elias Ghekiere

And it is superbly painted. Am I mistaken or were you still proving something?

(laughs) A curator once told me the same thing. She asked me if I selected my images to showcase my virtuosity. But I just really like working this way. Look, there is a difference between wanting to prove yourself and enjoying meticulous work. I love to master a skill. Do you know the term sprezzatura? It means doing something difficult with a certain nonchalance. Craft plays a big role for me, both as a subject and in my practice. I make series, variations of the same thing, but each time in a different medium or format, from 2D to 3D or vice versa. I find that translation interesting. How you will always kind of miss the shot, but still create new atmospheres.

The images you draw from would be kitsch to many people. We also need a trained eye to tell the difference between a classical Greek sculpture and one from the parking lot of a garden centre. 

Fascinating, no? This has always triggered me. I used to browse the flea market for hobby books like How to learn to sew neatly. (laughs). I bought that for its kitsch value, but some of the pictures touched me. I began to wonder: is there beauty in this, poetry? We artists work from a very historical framework. The people who do product photography for such a crafts manual don’t necessarily have the same references, yet even with them you recognise motifs that recur: the still life, the portrait, a certain contrapposto. For example, I saw a photo of a girl in a Tiroler suit with laqué shoes, and that turned out to be the same composition as in a painting by Manet, who in turn drew from a much older painting by Velázquez.

Art, and everything we contribute to the art world, is a further reaction to a long-running joke. If you don’t know the prior parts, you don’t get the punchline.

Elias Ghekiere

Your admiration for métier goes beyond humour or kitsch?

Definitely. I also find that compelling during the build-up for the exhibition at Z33. For the large canvas, too, I started from a decorative drawing. But how can I show the audience that it’s not all surface, that I went into depth? The same with ceramics. When I started doing that, it was with a kind of arrogance. The plan was to go for a quick fix, because I needed it for my work. But now ceramics have become a real fascination. I’m fully absorbed, including this fetish around glazes and complicated techniques. Sometimes we don’t see the beauty from the outside because we don’t know the underlying processes.

Would art critics be a better critics if they themselves once tried their hand at ceramics or painting? 

Funny and difficult question. I think there is certainly something ennobling about making art, the inertia of it, for example. But should that count in the evaluation? The sociologist Richard Sennett wrote about this in The Craftsman. For him, craftsmanship is not just about artisan workers, but equally about Linux programmers: how do they achieve the perfection of their trade? That is more about attitude than a particular medium. The same goes for a cook or a scientist. Within science there is so much poetry.

What do you mean, poetry?

Understanding the elements and how nature goes its way, that’s poetic, no? For example, I admire someone who wants to spend 30 years specialising in how elephants are depicted in manuscripts of a specific region in India. Within art, too, I want to focus. Brian Eno speaks nicely about this. Art, and everything we contribute to the art world, is a further reaction to a long-running joke. If you don’t know the prior parts, you don’t get the punchline.


Is there a punchline to your work?

Well, at least I have peeled off the layers of irony in my own practice. I know I sound corny now, but it’s about a certain love and obsession. I was trained in an art world full of machismo, but in the meantime I came across many artists who are loving and critical at the same time. That devotion also drives me. I once spent nine months copying a lacework. If the public sees only a glorification of kitsch in this, part of the work is lost. I think it’s my right as an artist to ask people to look through that. For me, it is also about the motivation of the people who created the lacework.

Had I been born in the 15th century to paint all day in a chapel, it might have well suited me.

Elias Ghekiere

Does that laborious painting happen in a kind of trance?

You do get into a meditative state, you get the rhythm in your fingers. In the days of the lace painting, I followed a drill of getting up, listening to podcasts, working for hours and smoking too many cigarettes. It’s almost unfeasible to make that kind of art economically profitable—just start by counting the hours I put in! Had I been born in the 15th century to work all day in a chapel, it might have well suited me.

Speaking about the 15th century: Van Eyck put details on the Adoration of the Lamb that are actually invisible. No one could ever stand close enough to the altarpiece to see everything he had painted. But he did so for the glory of God. So what is your motivation, if not economic and not religious?

I think that’s the definition of a craftsman. Doing the work well because you can. For your own satisfaction, although you can also see it spiritually. Susan Sontag once said she wrote for the dead. I can relate to that. We do it not for now, but in dialogue with all those who came before us and all those who will come after us.

How did you select work for Z33?

That wasn’t easy for me, and neither was it for my curator Tim Roerig, because there are so many different threads in my work. We could actually make a group exhibition of myself. (laughs) To start with, I made a model of the space in Z33, and I put miniature versions of my work in there to see how they would function there. That was definitely important for the big canvas. The starting point for that was a drawing I had made on the back of a piece of textile. Through the cloth, I saw two patterns that contradicted each other. For the Z33 piece, the canvas will be translucent as well.

I thought you were starting from wallpaper, so I was mistaken there?

Indeed. The original came from an evening of freehand drawing without a concept. Then I took a fragment from my drawing, projected the motif, then selected another piece to enlarge it on a huge canvas… a whole chain of actions. By the way,  I worked on the first layer for a weekend with friends and it was interesting to see how people who don’t paint professionally didn’t necessarily do worse than the others. I continued working on that base layer for days, only to put several layers of white gesso over it. So, much of the intricate labour has also become invisible again.

I worked on the first layer with friends for a weekend and it was interesting to see how people who don’t paint professionally didn’t necessarily do worse than the others.

Elias Ghekiere

You obviously draw a lot of pleasure from your work. 

Yes, but there is more to it. It’s not just pleasure, which you could interpret as a kind of therapy for the artist. For me, there is also a very rational side to this. Think of Oscar Wilde and his paradoxes. I am neither one nor the other and both at the same time. Keeping doubt actively alive, I think that is something very vital. Yes, I would prefer the word vitality to pleasure then.

This is your first solo exhibition. Are you nervous about it?

I am, mainly because this is the first time I am going to show ceramics. And also because for a first major exhibit, you feel the urge to make a synthesis. You can go in so many directions, but at the same time you have to show something coherent to an audience.

What do you want people to retain when they leave?

I’m looking for a balance between order and variety. If we look at art and there is too much chaos, we are confused. If there is too much order, we find it boring. I want to land somewhere in between. Well, if people would be a bit confused, I could live with that. But I do want to arouse their attention.

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