In Michiel Ceulers’s work (1986, Waregem, Belgium), painting and beauty go hand in hand. And by beauty his intention is not appearance, but struggle, honesty and authenticity – no matter how raunchy or perverse it may be. He makes his panels from scrap wood, uses old pieces of textile as a canvas, frames his paintings with cardboard and polystyrene foam and makes sculptures with plastic and chicken wire. An interview with an artist who likes paintings with their own character so that he can barely recognise himself in them, who is as familiar with the world of the Great Masters as that of cartoons, digital games and drag queens. Ceulers comments, “I know that I can't really add anything new to painting. But I can be real and make paintings that are unvarnished, sometimes embarrassing, but always authentic.”
I I want to make paintings that toy with conventions and genres, that are humorous and corrupt existing rules. As an artist, I want to be as authentic as a drag queen, which is why I paint the real truth that lies beneath the surface.
You were a celebrated and successful artist with shows in LA, London and Madrid and then suddenly, you were gone. But now, ten years later, you’re back in the spotlight with a very successful solo museum show at De Garage in Mechelen, solo exhibitions in galleries and presentations at fairs. What's it like to be back and receiving so much attention right away?
Don't we all love a good comeback story? It's funny how quickly things slip away from us, because I've never really been away. I’ve always continued to create and exhibit. But it’s true that I wasn’t always in the limelight. I think it's healthy to withdraw from time to time, to work behind the scenes. Most interesting artists have highs and lows. It's not always easy, that's for sure, but I think that's a good thing, too.
My art was never truly focused on Belgium, so I understand that people here somewhat overlooked my work. I lived and worked abroad for some time and also showed my work there. My solo exhibition at the Garage in Mechelen in 2021 has reintroduced the Belgian public to my work. It's quite funny to see that I'm now doing an ‘Antwerp tour’. Recently, I had shows at Valérie Traan and Everyday and my work was shown at Art Antwerp and it’s the city where my career as a professional artist began…
By the way, the attention I'm now receiving is nothing new to me. Throughout my career, I've been fortunate to connect with other artists and show work in artist-run spaces. So, I never went off the radar. But it's true that my past life was one big carousel, so the attention I'm getting for my work now feels good, but not new. I do think I appreciate it more now that I'm older, because I know how quickly success can slip through your fingers.
Have you always wanted to be an artist or did you have other plans?
My father wanted to devote his life to art, but he belonged to the generation that believed there was no future in it. When my parents separated, I could tell from my father's frustration that he was living a life he hadn't really chosen. My mother, on the other hand, believed that not only her children, but also herself, should be able to do whatever they wanted. That's why at around the age of 12, I decided to follow my heart and pursue my ambition to become an artist, regardless of the risk of failure. Then at least I wouldn't regret it later on. So, when I decided to become an artist at the end of the 6th grade, I had to wait another two years to finally start at the art academy at the age of 15, since enrolment before that age is not legally allowed in Belgium.
In an interview for De Morgen, journalist and author Daniel Illegems calls you “as authentic as a drag queen”. Do you agree with that statement and if so, why?
Danny Illegems paraphrased me at the end of a conversation during a visit to my exhibition at the Garage in late 2021. He wondered about the concept of queerness in my work. I thought he was confusing queerness with gayness. We talked about concepts like filth and facade or fakeness, the ‘camp’ in drag. I mentioned drag performers like Divine from the John Waters movies and Lady Bunny. The way drag queens talk about ‘painting’ when they're doing their makeup fascinates me, as does the idea that their makeup should look perfect from afar, but up close you can see that it is anything but. By the way, when those queens mimic, they’re not necessarily doing something new, but because of the authenticity and bravado of their performances, they often surpass the original.
And that's how I want to paint.
Because the major twists and turns in painting have already been explored by the generations before me. I know I can't add something completely new. But I can be real. I can make paintings that are unvarnished, embarrassing even, but always authentic. I want to make paintings that toy with conventions or genres, that are humorous and corrupt existing rules. As an artist, I want to be as authentic as a drag queen, showing the real truth and not that of appearances.
Your work is radical and has a liberating quality to it because you don't seem to care about the aesthetics or rules that apply to classical painting. In that same article, Illegems talks about ‘dirty abstraction’ because your canvases are often full of stains and smudges and are treated with waste material and other street dirt. In the past, you may have only made abstract work, but we are now also seeing figurative paintings, but with the same bravado and energy. Where does this rebellious imagery come from?
In a way, I'm afraid of a pure white canvas. And I think I'm not the only painter who experiences the blank canvas as an ordeal. But once I get started, I can't stop until I've almost painted the canvas to pieces. When I started making my own frames and distorting the surfaces of my canvases, the work started to become something completely different, something outside of myself. This made it easier to actually consider the work as 'finished'.
I want the work to surprise me. For example, accidental elements like stains, splashes, drops, mistakes and accidents function almost on the same level as the wooden planks and other rubbish I find on the street on my way to my studio or home. I love the discarded, the rejected, because the sublime, the unnameable, frightens me. I prefer to make something that challenges my own sense of taste. I don't mind chaos; I can put my hands in the dirtiest mess, but I don't like easy beauty. To be honest, it bores me. I mean, is there anything sexier than a beautiful person with a scar, freckles or floppy ears, or a bad boy??
For a long time, my work didn't sell, so why should I stick to the rules and conventions others tried to impose on me? I mean, if the work isn't going anywhere, then at least let me enjoy it. So, I used that time to experiment and constantly challenge myself.
You make your own cardboard frames, which makes the framed artwork look more like an object than a painting. Why do you do that?
I usually make my paintings lying on the floor, so it's easier to figure out if I want to put certain canvases together or if I want to add other shapes or materials. This way, I can break away from gravity and try out different compositions. Because of this work process, my paintings sometimes feel a bit sculptural, making them almost 'imposters'. I think the need to frame the work as an object stems from that idea. In fact, I almost make wall reliefs that I camouflage as paintings. In that sense, they have become almost like the paintings I hated most as a child: landscape paintings in gold frames. I make the frames for my paintings myself and that makes them more self-confident: they look like paintings, but then again, they don't. On the one hand, they belong to the art painting and on the other, they don’t. But maybe that's what makes them campy.
Your art is not about narrative, despite the fact that there are many recurring and symbolic motifs and elements like a canary, mirror shards and grid patterns that might indicate this. How would you define your art?
I think you can divide Belgian art into two categories: narrative, conceptual art, with Luc Tuymans as the most important exponent, and on the other hand, the quieter, more poetic art represented by painters like Raoul de Keyser and Walter Swennen. Although the distinction between the two is not always so black and white, I think my work belongs more to the latter. I've never felt the need to explain my work in so many words. I think if I knew what it was all about I'd get bored. My work has evolved from an accessible, public-friendly oeuvre to a restrained and unruly oeuvre. Materials like glitter and mirrors have become more prominent in my work. The reflection makes the work kinetic and I like the idea that the work 'stares' back at the viewer, so to speak. It's almost like imitating an Ad Reinhardt comic strip in which the painting seems to question the viewer.
What is the greatest compliment you could ever receive as an artist?
I think I’ve already received it. When Walter Swennen visited my first gallery show, he was going through a difficult phase in life. He told me that he had hoped the work that featured on invitation card was mine, and went on to talk about the sad situation he was in. Right before he left, he looked at me and said, "At least your painting made me smile for a moment." And I later learned that he had inquired about the availability of that work. I also take it as a compliment when friends of mine who teach at the academy tell me that students talk about my paintings and refer to my work. The biggest compliment you can get comes from older, established artists and future artists who appreciate and respect your work.
What inspires you?
I sometimes wonder about that myself. It's strange how things go sometimes. For example, I was thinking of ending the series of paintings with canaries when an invitation with an image of a painted, dead canary on its back fell on my doormat. Game over, I thought at the time. I had already made two rough, round canvases and I didn't know what I wanted to do with them. After I painted those dead canaries, it occurred to me to paint them on the final image of the 'Looney Tunes' with That's all folks! But on the other hand, this sentence also appeared in the phone game 'Toon Blast'. Perhaps that also played a role subconsciously.
I noticed the same thing with a good friend of mine. She showed me a painting in her studio and when we arrived at her home afterwards, I saw that the background of that painting was literally the same as the motif of the coat hanging on the hook. When I pointed this out to her, she suddenly became aware of this. It often goes like that: sometimes you don't notice the most ordinary, everyday things until someone else points them out to you.
Other things are deliberate. For example, I am proud that I know a lot about art history. I think it is important that as an artist, you try to find out as much as possible, because a lack of knowledge or interest in things other than painting is dangerous. That knowledge also comes in handy when I teach or give guided tours at museums here in Brussels. I overhear all kinds of interesting conversations around me. And then, of course, there is the city itself. My partner writes film reviews, so we often go to the movies and maybe those final scenes also influence me…
If money were no object, what kind of project would you want to work on?
For some time now, I have been fascinated by 'concrete canvas', a kind of concrete on a roll that looks like a plaster cast. There are tents made of this material that you can blow up and harden in one day. I would want to use this material to make large, inflatable sculptures. I am also interested in animation. As a child, I was fascinated by its effectiveness. Sometimes, you see the animator literally put his hand inside a puppet and yet you don't want to see it because you want to believe in the animation. I really like the idea of suspension of disbelief. The last Muppet movie came out on my birthday and it was about a boy who discovered he hadn't been an outcast all his life, but a Muppet. He just had never met anyone of his own kind. On some level, I could really identify with this story.
Where will you be ten years from now?
I have no idea, except that I want to continue to surprise and inspire myself with my work. Other than that, I don't really need to know what's to come. I don't know, perhaps I'll suddenly stop making art and just play chess…