We meet artist Jelle Spruyt in his atelier moments before launching his exhibition ‘Operation Reinaert Foxtrot’. It’s like entering a playground bathing in primary colors: red, yellow, blue and a touch of green. We’ve entered his own microcosm: one where he plays with opposites and limited freedom.
What story are you telling in your expo ‘Operation Reinaert Foxtrot’?
It’s an ode to everyday people and a glimpse into communism and dictatorships. I looked for poetry within these structures and found it in unexpected corners.
What lead you to work around this theme?
A few particular events that occurred: I was having a phone call with a Chinese curator. The line got interrupted the whole time and he had to call me back. I was wondering what caused this communication problem. It was very strange. It felt like having a copy-paste conversation. Turned out he was afraid that he would be traced for making phone calls with a Western country, so he hang up every time. For us it’s an absurd idea, for them it’s normal, it’s how they adapted to find some sort of freedom. That got me thinking. I also got to know some people from Burma and their stories also had a big impact on me. And then I travel to Asia a lot and recently to Russia.
What inspired you?
I started with doing some research on propaganda material and 60’s literature all revolving around communism. It was interesting to discover the contrasts: from the dictator’s interiors filled with Baroque and Classicist elements to the normal, everyday livelihood of people living under a communistic regime.
How did you manage to find all this beauty in such a restricted framework?
There is beauty, lots of it. In the folklore, parades and even at home. In these structured societies exists a need for beauty and poetry. That’s what I tried to capture.
You also gave yourself some restrictions to work with. You only work with four colors: red, yellow, blue and green. How important was this? Did it push your creativity?
It was essential. By doing this I had to re-invent myself at times. How can I create the right atmosphere within these limitations? How can you be creative with what you have? It was part of my research. It does push you to explore some new ways.
Did you discover something about yourself as an artist by doing so?
I started to work more with patterns and play with optical effects. And what I learned more about, is the difficulty of color at times: red isn’t always red, there’s a whole lot of different shades of red. In your head you know exactly what you need, but it seemed mission impossible at times.
Could you say that you become more creative when you need to work with limited resources?
I definitely think so. You have to find new ways. In our society we are often spoiled and fail to create something from a different perspective, something that really matters. A befriended Iraqi theater maker told me he made his best work under Saddam Hussein. I know it might sound a bit weird. But I think great art can come from trying times.
Everyday people are of big importance in your work. How do they inspire you?
People are my biggest inspiration. In communism they are often honored. In ‘Operation Reinaert Foxtrot’ I have a monument for the housekeeper and the lumberjack. I love to observe people: from the way they stir their coffee, how they barricade streets to how they rest their broom against the wall next to an empty bucket. There is poetry and beauty in all these things.
Does your work carry a political message?
Not really. I just want to share a certain atmosphere, a feeling and aesthetics. I want people to look at my work as if it were a painting. The message will be different for everyone.
What other artists inspire you?
So many. Kadinsky for one. I love how his abstract work can be so figurative. There is this work of him, a winter landscape. He manages to create winter without the use of white paint. I can look at that painting for hours.
Then there’s also Rembrandt’s drawings, with a few pencil strokes he draws a piece of fabric that looks so real, without using shades or any other techniques.
I’m also very inspired by the whole Fluxus movement, in particular Beuys.
Where did you develop your love for art and aesthetics?
I think it started in primary ballet school. The sound of classic music opened a new horizon for me. My parents never pushed me into anything artistic. However, they did want me and my brothers to experience one thing: going to the Opera. It was a family outing. We were all so impressed by its grander. I used to do a somersault in the corridors and I still do whenever I go there. It’s a tradition. (laughs)
Did you proceed studying art?
Not at first. In secondary school I studied at the Hotel School: a professional cooking and restaurant education. Food was another way to express myself. The last year we had to make ‘Asperges à la Flamande’, a very traditional dish. I gave it my own twist, turned my plate into a little art work. The jury was very impressed, my teachers not so much. After that I went to the Antwerp Fashion Academy. That’s where I picked up my love for fabrics. I later wanted to move past fabric in fashion and went to study at the Academy.
After visiting Jelle’s atelier, he invites us to his home right behind the corner. Here we enter a total different atmosphere: more structured and very clean.
This changes from your atelier. It feels like a clean sheet.
That’s exactly what it is! I already receive so much input from outside. I want my home to be a peaceful environment.
Do you need this peace of mind to get inspired?
I do, this is where I make all my drawings that will later lead to new work. I mostly draw at night with as only source of light the street lights. I love to work this way. That’s why I only draw in black and white, without using any colors. I have a suitcase filled with my sketches. I always tell my roommate that, in case of a fire, the only thing he needs to save is that suitcase. That and himself of course.
Less is definitely more in your interior.
I used to live in a much bigger place, 300m2. So when I moved here I had to get rid of a lot of stuff. I like to just have the bare necessities and some pieces that really stand out. Some collectables I take with me when I travel. I’m also very found of my table equipment, especially the Bosch Congo series of Expo ’58. The vase on my table is of that same series. But as you see I don’t need much to be happy. It’s not about quantity, but quality and aesthetics are very important.
Do you change your decor often?
Absolutely not, my furniture remained untouched ever since I’ve moved here. It’s exactly where it ought to be. I’d love to have a record player, but I just can’t seem to find one that will blend in. I don’t like all that technological stuff.
Funny fact: on the table we find a bowl filled with chocolates and Jelle’s new pets: two tadpoles.
Are you keeping them? Even when they become frogs?
No (laughs) I brought them home after a stroll last Sunday. Every weekend I go for a nature walk with some friends. If they become bigger I will set them free again.
More info: www.jellespruyt.com
Interview done by Sophie Stefens
Pictures by Lenz Vermeulen