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Belgium-based visual artist Albert Willem re-discovered his passion for drawing after an artistic hiatus. Self-taught in his practice, childhood visits to nearby galleries and museums planted the seeds for an inspired style, seamlessly weaving the comedy and tragedy of everyday life into his vibrant, figurative works.
Above all, Willem strives to make people smile when they see his paintings. In his paired-down, colorful works, the artist often depicts irony in commonplace situations, such as family celebrations, sports events, and life’s milestones. In The Boxing Match (2021), everyone fights except for the boxers. In Man Put the Garbage Bag Out (2020), a husband and father returns from trash duty to an all out celebration. He enjoys simplicity, and though he avoids intentionally heavy or profound themes, they are nevertheless present in his sixth sense for the beauty and faults of human nature. Thus we relate to his spot-on depiction of the drama, and humorous nuances, of everyday life.
A recent work, “The Conga Line” (2021), is part of a larger whole: several paintings depict a single line of dancing figures. Continuing to add more paintings, and dancers, each work makes the conga line longer and can be split for purchase. Thus the dance, and the art, can be shared amongst the buyers. Whitewall had the opportunity to ask the artist about his pivotal early influences, mid-life revelations, and rejoicing in the spectacle of daily life.
WHITEWALL: What attracted you to art and drawing early on?
ALBERT WILLEM: I regularly attended museums around Belgium with my family when I was much younger. I didn't realize it at the time, but it had a profound impact and influence on me to this day. I now regularly attend museums with my own children.
One specific experience was an exhibition in the museum of modern art in Brussels, where, as a child, I was especially touched by contemporary works of art that seemed rather strange to me at the time, but which I was more drawn to than works of the old masters. Museums in Belgium have a lot on offer to view. Abstract Expressionism also made a big impression because of the colors and various dimensions.
As a child I drew very often. It was mostly pictures of people and figures in action, often a football match scene—which as a child I was a big fan of. I was able to combat my quietness as a child by drawing regularly. You could almost say it was a sort of release during my childhood.
WW: What steered you away from creating your own art for nearly two decades?
AW: It was not a deliberate choice. I had many other activities that took up a lot of my time, most notably studies and raising a young family. Although I always remained interested in visiting museums, and studying various different artistic practices, I never gave myself the time to pursue it until a few years back.
WW: Can you share the inspiration behind finding your way back to drawing and painting?
AW: There is probably a whole psychological explanation for this, such as the typical midlife crisis every man encounters to some degree in their lives. I felt the urgent need to go after what I was truly passionate about. Time in life is limited and I felt I needed to fulfill this wish in some capacity. I also have to give credit to my wife who pushed me back to follow my true passion.
WW: You have said you admire artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s representation of human stories and scenic imagery, as well as Kent Iwemyr’s style of humor and simplicity, among others. How were you able to develop your own unique style?
AW: My style has formed itself through trial and error and just by producing, like most artists. I like to draw imagery from various forms, but have a strong affinity to keeping it simple. I appropriate images I find from various sources of figures and apply it to the canvas in a spontaneous manner. I also like to re-examine recurring figures in my paintings such as police cars and advertising billboards, to gain that sense of recognizability.
WW: What are your mediums of choice? What inspires you in your experimentation with color, texture, and canvas?
AW: My preference of medium has evolved with time. When I was younger, I had less access and a greater willingness to try various forms (mix media, drawings, collage). As I’ve matured as an artist, I’ve found I’m most comfortable with painting acrylic on canvas. I feel this medium best illustrates the theme around my work. With the abundance of various colors acrylic affords me, I like to push the boundaries of typical Flanders painters, who generally like to paint very dark and serious imagery and colors.
WW: You complete your work within 48 hours at most, why this defined time span?
AW: I find the best works I produce are ones that I’m able to convey as quickly as possible onto a canvas. I find the longer I spend on one work, the less authentic it feels to me, similar to a child with a shorter attention span who only spends so long painting or drawing an image. I also use certain aspects of one painting to incorporate onto the next, and put a different spin on the next one.
WW: Can you describe your experience with using Instagram and social media to share your artwork, to build relationships with your audience, and to stay inspired?
AW: Social media was important to me when I started drawing and painting again, to get feedback on what I made. As an unknown painter, it is about the only way to have an audience and to get reactions. I also used it for inspiration; I used to look at other people to see how they made certain images and interesting compositions. Now I've consciously taken more distance, because I want to avoid getting too much other stimuli and changing my own style too quickly and too much. I have found my own style and want to express myself in this way for a while.
WW: Where do you get your wonderful sense of humor and irony, which translates so well into your works?
AW: Comedy has always been a big part of my family life. From childhood to this day, I’ve always been infatuated with stand up comedy, comedic television and film. I have a huge affinity to the works of “Blackadder.” I guess you could say that I might have been a comic in a different life. I also find comedy is the best form of remedy no matter how one is feeling at any point. To have a painting make you laugh, or feel positive in any way, is the best form of reaction I could want to achieve. There is so much serious art being produced that goes above the superficiality and becomes too hard to understand. This gives me the platform to experiment on how to push the boundaries of imagery and humor combined.
WW: You say that you never strive for perfection in your practice—is this a life mantra that has also served you well?
AW: I have great admiration for people who strive for perfection in various facets of their life and artistic practice. I have to say though, this is almost a physiological state of mind that can sometimes go overboard. For example, I admire someone who spends lots of time striving to paint the perfect portrait, but also spends the same amount of energy maintaining their home. It’s imperative to have a balance. Hence, I try to keep it authentic to my practice by not overthinking; in some ways it is the same as Jean Dubuffet with the Art Brut practice, which is something that resonates with me.
WW: Can you share with us your process, what does a typical day in the studio look like?
AW: I always get up in the morning just fifteen minutes later than my wife, so that I don't get in her way. While I drink my coffee, I think about what I will paint, and often make a quick sketch of the background. Then I walk or cycle to my studio which is about 500 meters from my house. I often work until about 6 o'clock in the evening. After dinner, I sometimes go back to finish something. I usually work on two things at the same time. This way, I can easily continue working if something has to dry on the other work. I always hang one work on the wall and the other one on the floor. Painting on the wall makes my shoulder hurt, painting on the floor makes my back hurt. By alternating, I limit the damage!
WW: Where did the inspiration come for your recent large-scale project, the “never-ending conga line,” in which collectors might each own portions and share the art?
AW: The conga always cheers me up because it is the only dance I dare to do at a party. It is also a very cheerful image. I had already done a couple of paintings in which I depicted a small conga. I thought it would be fun to make a work that never ends, where that conga line always continues, no matter what…kind of like a never-ending series. I think it's a very important project for me because there's a lot in the work—it's just joyful when you first see it. But it's also a symbol of the world going on, no matter what. Disaster after disaster takes place, but life goes on, and you better do it cheerfully.
WW: What are you working on at the moment?
AW: A snowy landscape is waiting in my studio. All I have to do now is paint all the figures on it and, of course, a small conga line! That’s the beauty of my practice, you never know what will pop into my head, and when!