Bits and Species, Phil Van Duynen
Galerie Nardone, Brussels, until June 11.


Just as London is renowned for its plethora of independent theatres tucked away beneath railway arches or in the backrooms of pubs, Brussels fosters a wealth of small-scale art galleries that champion experimental art.

Antonio Nardone opened his gallery in 2008 in Saint Gilles, a district that borders Ixelles, home to EU institutions and many of its eurocrats.

But Nardone’s business is a world away from EU regulation.

Instead his focus is on building relations with mostly Belgian artists for exhibitions that often transfer to the galleries of his collaborators in Rome and Turin.

The latest to be showcased is Phil Van Duynen with a second tranche of his Bits and Species series that delves into the complex, traumatic and violent experience that is the human condition.

A graduate of the prestigious La Cambre art school, a short walk from Nardone’s gallery, Van Duynen is regarded as one of Belgium’s foremost image-makers.

The dozen of his works Nardone displays are elaborate composites, built up from paintings and photographs that eventually result in portraits at once convincingly human, alien and heartless.

Each is accompanied by a booklet that reveals the secret layers of image and dark meaning buried behind the finished product, which only at first sight resembles a single personality.

His tribute to Mona Lisa is an eerie, hairless child, as inscrutable as the da Vinci original, with a flower thrusting its way from out of her breast.

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Her pale expression is on close inspection made up not just of the Mona Lisa, but of a myriad other characters like pores of the skin.

The technique faintly recalls the 16th-century Arcimboldo’s portraits made entirely of vegetables, but is subtler, high-tech and highly political.

Take for instance what appears to be a black man in a spotlessly white sports shirt and a white baseball cap bearing the slogan “Make America Clean Again”.  It is fiercely ironic as the accompanying booklet reveals that what lurks beneath the surface is a twisted face of Donald Trump, guns, bullets and a map in which the states of a supposedly united America are separated by barbed wire.  The jagged outlines of the borders are just visible like scars on the man’s cheek.

On an opposite wall, a black African woman stares out from beneath what appears to be a colourful headdress.  Take a closer look and a potentially peaceful image is deeply unsettling: her braids are hundreds of men crouched in prayer and many fly off like lemmings from a cliff.FALLah-s

Under scrutiny, Van Duynen’s portraits team with people; from a distance, they present lonely, enduring individuals.

A partial exception is one in which two personalities – male and female – are clearly visible as the body and face of a man lie behind the deathly white mask of a woman with black sockets for eyes.backup-s

It is reminiscent of the Pierrot of Italian Commedia dell’Arte, though more sinister.

The Italians will be able to judge as next year, Nardone says the Van Duynen exhibition will head to the Riccardo Constantini gallery in Turin.

Meanwhile, Nardone says he is preparing for a display put on entirely by the artists, which will be a surprise even for him.

They will exhibit works made not from bronze, traditionally the ultimate medium for sculptors, but from aluminium in a typically Belgian and refreshing departure from the artistic establishment.

Barbara Lewis © 2016.