City Lights
Millennium Iconoclast Museum of Modern Art (Mima),
33, quai du Hainaut,
Molenbeek, Brussels.
Until August 28


From stylised art nouveau temptresses to giant Tintin cartoons, Brussels has an established tradition of putting art on the outside of its buildings as well as inside.

The capital’s newest gallery in a former brewery in Molenbeek – the neighbourhood notorious as a breeding ground of the Paris and Brussels terror attacks – captures that spirit.

Situated on the south bank of the canal that marks the boundary between Molenbeek and the central district of Brussels, the MIMA has brought together five New York-based artists with international reputations as street and pop artists to paint on its walls.

One would have thought the founders of this inspired project could have tapped into Belgium’s own artistic array of “City Lights”, but it seems churlish to quarrel with the decision to import Transatlantic talent when the urban-industrial vibe that results makes so much sense.

At the April 15 opening, delayed from March because of the suicide attacks, the mood was upbeat as Brussels’ chattering classes made their way up from black, white and grey figures in a dingy undercroft to the psychedelic stripes of the loft space.

Beginning with what she described as a slightly sinister basement, the artist known as Swoon acknowledges influences including German expressionists, Indonesian shadow puppetry and travels.

Her artistic ideal, a note tells us as we descend, is to work beyond “legal walls” in pursuit of  a “spontaneous, totally unsanctioned phrase running through our lives,” adding: “This is the place where the truth will be told.”

All that begs the question of whether she can tell the truth in a sanctioned basement where we come across her life-size, sometimes industrial, sometimes gothic portraits lurking in corners or behind pillars.

From their sombre, street-poor reality, we head up to the first floor where life suddenly seems to be about leisure rather than enduring.

FAILE is the cultural partnership between Patrick Miller and Patrick McNeil. Their aesthetic, we are told, is post punkpop pulp images; they criticise mass culture and feed on it; they pan for gold in a massive societal rubbish dump of slogans and brightly coloured trash.

We experience a transient, conclusion-less moment of reflection staring at their giant lottery wheel of popular imagery across to the gallery windows beyond and then move on to MOMO, another pseudonym.

If these instances of his work were on the outside of the building, it would be more a case of interior design escaping on to the exterior walls.

“Conceptually and aesthetically post-digital,” MOMO organises colourful tessellations offset by great, swirling twists of wood and reminds us of the process of creation with a pile of offcuts lying on the floor, you could say reminiscent of a teenage bedroom.

From there, we emerge to the dazzling loft-space where Maya Hayuk bathes us in saffron, turquoise and fuchsia light.

She tells us she is “super-inspired” by the rhythms and patterns music can create in her mind’s eye and her references are multiple from Ukrainian folk art to Tibetan mandalas.

One could add in wax resists as dazzling colours burst from beside blocks of black.

With Maya Hayuk’s work, we reach the end of the temporary City Lights display.

The options now include browsing the permanent collection, again imported rather than home-grown, but still in the vein of democratic street and popular art.

Trespassers will be Forgiven (2012) lifts an otherwise unwelcoming gateway by Danish artist EB Itso.

Steve Powers, a New York Artist, who once wrote graffiti under the name ESPO (Exterior Surface Painting Outreach), gives us Dishes Do or Die (2011) as a comment on domestic slavery.

Dutch artist Parra’s Give Up (2015) is a giant ketchup tomato, sitting down as if in defeat with blue legs and red high-heels, while another Dane HuskMitNavn’s topical, political Policeman with Lighter (2010)  is a law enforcer bending down to light the cigarette of a suspect slumped at his feet.

If none of this is to your taste or if you want to light up your own cigarette, the roof terrace beckons from where you can look across to the rest of the old brewery building, survey the city skyline or gaze down on to the canal.

There industrial barges chug by against walls also tagged with urban art that in the boundary-less, democratic world of MIMA has almost equal value with the works within.

Barbara Lewis © 2016.

Maya Hayuk
Policeman with Lighter (2010)
View from the roof terrace
Maya Hayuk
Policeman with Lighter (2010)