Belgian artist Alain Biltereyst made his artistic debut in 1983 with expressive, large format, dark paintings in a style somewhat similar to neo-expressionism. As this visual language was effectively past its heyday and he received less exposure than he had hoped for, Biltereyst decided to go and work as a graphic designer to make a living. Before he knew it, his day job consumed all of his time and energy and left him with little time to paint. But meanwhile, his graphic design career took off. With prestigious commissions for advertising companies like Saatchi & Saatchi, including winning a couple of design awards, he seemed to have resigned himself to the fact that his artistic career was over. “Those commissions gave me peace and quiet. I was happy with the situation. But in 2004, I bumped into a friend and he encouraged me to start painting again.” Little by little, Biltereyst’s enthusiasm came back and he picked up his paintbrush. However, his career in advertising and graphic design – that by then spanned almost 20 years – had clearly left its mark on his new work. He began making abstract paintings in pure colour fields, with a reduced chromatic palette.

“I wanted to make my work as simple as possible”, he says. “Like somebody painting an advertisement on a billboard in basic colours.”

Instead of working on canvas like most painters, he opted for wooden panels of 26cm by 19cm (a bit smaller than a sheet of A4), which he cuts and sands himself. The size is mainly for practical reasons. “These panels almost have something sculptural – I like to polish and re-work them.” It also gives his paintings a tactile texture and an edge. He deliberately lets the paint drip, causing the background to shine through several subsequent layers of paint, and he leaves traces of the masking tape used to cover some areas. Thus the creation process is still visible in the final result. “I could also make a perfect, slick work, like the graphic design I create on my computer. But I also want to show the way I rework earlier mistakes. That’s why I called one of my shows Track Changes. It refers to the Word function in which you reveal your corrections in a text. But it also has the urban connotation of tracks and transport.”

It is exactly that physical aspect of Biltereyst’s wooden panels that distinguishes the original paintings from reproductions. “The small panels can fit on my scanner, so it’s easier to reproduce and archive my work.” This also enables him to rework certain elements on his computer. “When I’m not really happy with a painting, I start reworking it in Photoshop by putting a stripe higher or lower, for example. I keep on changing it until I’ve found the perfect composition.” Since last year, the artist has also been using larger formats, giving the work a new monumentality and his exhibitions more variation. Which is also the reason that lately he has been making temporary murals on the gallery walls as part of his exhibitions.

TRUCK-SPOTTING

Unlike many abstract painters before him, Biltereyst does not want to create a new, autonomous world; rather, his work refers to the concrete reality he samples, disrupts, and crops, which originates in brands, logos, and other abstract fragments he sees in the urban realm – like a manhole cover, a fence, or a pattern on a truck. As a contemporary version of the 19th-century flaneur, he walks or drives through the city and photographs these graphic traces. “I archive them and then later rework some of them, until I find the perfect composition. A curved line on a logo on the side of a truck I see on the motorway, gives me a bigger kick than an abstract painting in a museum! To be honest, I am not so crazy about abstract art. I often find it too overworked and artificial. I’m more interested in a clumsy design by a local gardening shop with the wrong colour combinations and too much distance between the letters. I often find these kind of deviations much more inspiring than high art.”

The directness and iconic nature of Biltereyst’s paintings, reduced to their bare essence, probably also explains why they were so quickly picked up on social media. That led to invitations for exhibitions in Chicago, New York, and Spain, before he finally ‘conquered’ his home country and then other places in Europe, like France, where his work was shown at the Gagosian Gallery in Paris. “This year was really crazy”, he says, still recovering. “I’ve had so many shows that I haven’t had much time to paint! Now I really hope that people will finally let me work for a while!"

Alain Biltereyst’s upcoming exhibitions at Jack Hanley Gallery in New York:

Attics of my Life, 30th Anniversary Show, 08 January – 05 February 2017 Solo exhibition, 20 April – May 2017


This article appeared in DAM60. Order your personal copy.