Ben Sledsens is only 27 years old and can already count himself among the great names of the Belgian art world. However, with his romantic imagery and colourful compositions, he tries to create his own world: “An alternative universe, a kind of utopia.” And with the support of gallery owner Tim Van Laere, Sledsens is free to discover this world in complete freedom without having to worry too much about the business side of the story.
Turning your hobby or passion into your profession is not often something you can just do. Fortunately, Ben Sledsens’s (°1991) talent came to the surface at quite a young age. During his graduation exhibition at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp his work already caught the eye of Tim Van Laere. With his gallery, Van Laere has already proved his great intuition when it comes to spotting young talent. The careers of Rinus Van de Velde, Kati Heck and Tomasz Kowalski, among others, have also gained momentum thanks to the support of and exhibitions in the Tim Van Laere Gallery. We asked Van Laere how he knows that an artist is worth representing: "For me it is very important that an artist has developed his own world and language and has his own vision. I immediately saw it with Ben. His work had something very unique.” The gallerist does not believe that the work of Sledsens can be compared to that of anyone else. "Ben does draw a lot of inspiration from art history, and that is something you can feel in his work. He therefore measures himself with great masters such as Monet, Bruegel and Matisse," Van Laere continues. This is not a case of megalomania though, because Sledsens always looks very down to earth, especially with his green overalls in his studio. For the painter, art history is an infinite source of inspiration. Nature is also omnipresent in his oeuvre. Especially for Imagicasa, Ben Sledsens put his paint brushes aside for a few moments so we could ask him some questions about his creations, his success and what it’s like to be an artist.
How did it all start for you, did you always want to become an artist?
"From a young age I was already very interested in art, drawing and painting. At school I excelled most in drawing, which is why I wanted to continue as a painter. I then chose to study painting at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp.” To have this much success at a young age, it’s not given to many. How does it make you feel?
"I don't take success for granted. For me, the most important thing is to deliver great work. When I started out, I really went all out and very consciously made the daring decision to become a painter. There was no plan B. Of course, I am very happy that my work is so well received, but I just keep doing my own thing.”
How would you describe your works?
“My paintings are built up in a narrative with an open beginning and end. For me, it is very important that the viewer can compose his own story and recognize himself in the characters. The works seem to take place in an alternative universe, a kind of utopia, where fantasy collides with my daily life with a strong nod to certain elements and themes from art history. For my subjects I always look for things that I love and that inspire me, which makes my work very personal. I also like to play with certain archetypes, which I appropriate for myself and place within my universe and visual language. To give an example: I often make portraits of animals, which always have their own distinct characteristics and which are always easy to situate. In the work Jaguar in the Jungle you can see a jaguar resting on a tree trunk above a lake with in the background a utopian jungle landscape.”
Why is it that nature is so present in your oeuvre?
"I have a great love for nature. Nature is an infinite source of inspiration; it is very changeable and unpredictable, which gives great freedom to possibilities. Because everything is very organic, it is also easy to manipulate.” Which other artists are you looking at?
"During my years at the academy, where I was still searching for my own visual language, but above all still remained very classical, we went on a trip to Munich where I saw a room with some gigantic paintings by Baselitz. That was the first time I saw his work in real life, which was very overwhelming for me. I stood there and only thought 'wow, if this is allowed, if this is possible, then what am I doing?’ After that moment I started working differently and went back to what I used to like as a child. I wanted to find my own way and bring more freedom to my work. Art history remains very important to me, an infinite source of inspiration, just like nature. Where I get my inspiration from exactly is very variable. At this moment I look a lot at what Claude Monet did, but Henri Rousseau, Pieter Bruegel and Henri Matisse are an equally great source of inspiration, as are many others.”
Where do you get your inspiration?
"Inspiration can be found everywhere: from art history, on the street and in your surroundings, on the internet, through old drawings and old paintings by anonymous masters,... I look a lot at different compositions and postures and let them inspire me. It's a bit like a sample of a song. Some images can attract you in a certain way, without an explicit reason. You get the feeling that you just have to paint that image and put it to your own hand. By converting it to your own visual language, the original image often becomes unrecognisable, but the influence is still present. It is very important to know what you like so that you can transform it into your own personal thing and make something unique from it.”
Do you see artistry as a profession or as a way of life?
"I see it as something you get up with and go to sleep with. It is my job, my passion, my hobby and my free time. It is an obsession, a muse and an addiction.”
How do you start a painting, how long does it take before something is finished?
"My creative process is very slow. I work on a painting for about 3 to 4 weeks. For my paintings I use acrylic and oil paint, I love how these two types of paint play with each other. Acrylic is matte and oil paint is more intense and that combination creates a good dialogue. Failure is also a big part of my process. One of the most difficult moments and a constant in my process is the search for inspiration. That can sometimes be a serious challenge and get me in a rut, but it is also an essential part of my painting process.” Do you feel a pressure to create because the demand for your work increases?
"Tim Van Laere Gallery takes up the pressure well for me and protects me from it. Like me, they find it very important that I can continue working at my own pace, regardless of the demand. It is much more important to do good work than to be able to meet that demand.”
What is the best compliment you have ever received about your work?
"I remember one of the first works which was sold to a woman. When I met her, she told me how happy she was with my work. That was a special moment. And also when my gallerist, Tim Van Laere, saw my work for the first time at my graduation show at the academy. It was a great compliment that he liked it and considered showing it in the gallery.”
This interview was originally published in Imagicasa Magazine Spring 2019.
Beelden: ©Courtesy Tim Van Laere Gallery, Antwerp