Masks, skulls, butterflies and teen TV. The tapestries, flags, and other textile artworks of Klaas Rommelaere are assemblages of hundreds of images packed together. These images come from everywhere: daily life, the internet and the movies – Rommelaere has membership of his local cinema and you’ll find him in front of the wide screen the entire day if he’s not working.

Rommelaere’s oeuvre reminds us of traditional ethnic tapestries that are more likely to be found in the cabinet-filled corridors of a museum. He earns this description largely because of the myriad of colours and the medium: textile. Rommelaere graduated as a fashion student in the Belgian city of Ghent and did internships at Henrik Vibskov and Raf Simons. Yet the fashion business didn’t seem right for him.

Courtesy of Gallery Zink
Instead of working with fashion folk, Rommelaere now collaborates with an entirely different species: grannies. ‘My grandmother could sew quite well; we would work together on my school projects in her living room,’ Rommelaere explains. ‘After my internships I concocted a project consisting of 60 pieces. I could never do it by myself so I started looking for help at a service centre for elderly people in Merksem, Antwerp.’

For Rommelaere, the against the grain decision to look for help at a service centre seemed a logical move. ‘They have the skills and they have the time,’ he replies drily. ‘Also, they’ve maintained a sense of purity and aren’t as influenced by the media as interns are. Interns tend to be hip and trendy. I need to steer them to make the work look more scruffy.’ A generational hiccup seems to be at work: a young intern will learn to implement Rommelaere’s style while their elderly compatriots don’t reflect on style. They just do.

Image by Ringo Gomez-Jorge
Purity is the foundation of Rommelaere’s work. He eschews irony. And so, the beer cans that feature in works at Soft? Tactile Dialogues, the current exhibition at the Maurice Verbaet Center in Antwerp, weren’t meant to mock the higher arts but were simply a reference to memories of some drinking nights with his new boyfriend. His earlier work where he portrays two characters of the late Nineties teen TV show Dawson’s Creek is equally devoid of irony. ‘It’s all meant to be serious. There might be some nostalgia or corniness involved but behind that there’s true emotion. I hate irony.’ Even the implementation of the word ‘boobies’ in one of his works was not an act of humour. ‘There was a empty space that needed to be filled, so I put “boobies” there… My friend Brecht Vandenbroucke (an illustrator) once told me: you can’t make a joke, but you are funny yourself.’

Rommelaere subconsciously reflects the digital meme culture (funny photos and drawings on the internet) of today: Tumblr images, Nineties nostalgia, eclecticism and absurdism. His sketchy style refers to purposely badly drawn pictures often done by internet trolls, found on the darker pages of social media and geeky platforms. Yet the intention is opposite. The artist is sincere.

If You Don’t Know Jurassic park, You Don’t Know Shit. Courtesy of Gallery Zink
Image by Ringo Gomez-Jorge
Every Tuesday Rommelaere joins a group of 15 elderly women in Merksem to show new sketches. ‘During half a day I work with them. I’m there but don’t talk a lot. I’m not a social worker.’ He also steers a group of six in his hometown Roeselare and one woman in Westend, near the sea. ‘These women really define my work. I recognise their hand one by one and I know whom to give what kind of work. Some of the women have developed their own style over the years.’ In a way he gives back value to a demographic group often overlooked.

It might seem odd to think that the elderly would appreciate the chaotic textiles of Rommelaere, let alone find their own signature within that language – but the old are not alien. ‘They might have had trouble understanding it in the beginning but they do now. They especially appreciate the craft and the amount of work behind every piece.’ The extensive labour of embroidering, crocheting and knitting by hand forms an important parameter.

Ore et labore: pray while you work. The monk’s adage. Rommelaere doesn’t mumble to the gods but does work slow and long hours. It’s a reaction to the speed of today’s production. ‘I don’t want to link my work to slow fashion; it holds on to a certain trendy and earthy aesthetic that I don’t want to be part of. But I find the effort important. There’s a lot of (internet) art I just find too easy to make.’ While contemporary art is often about the intention of the artist and not the actual object, Rommelaere believes in the opposite.

‘All my idols are craftsmen who believe in working regularly and working hard,’ he continues. ‘Handwork is a form of therapy. It calms me. Working alone allows me to think. If I have to collaborate with other people intensely then you can find me the next day at the cinema – the entire day.’

Klaas Rommelaere is represented by Zink Gallery,

Soft? Textile Dialogues, Maurice Verbaet Center, Antwerp, until 24 February,

This article originally appeared in DAMNº71. 

DAMNº71: A Woman’s Work / Saskia de Brauw & Vincent van de Wijngaard / Wendy Andreu / Broken Nature / Cyber-urbanism / ecoLogicStudio / Geo-Design / Alexandre Humbert / Navine G. Khan-Dossos / Leonard Koren / Movie interiors / Radical Cut-Up / Miko Revereza / Klaas Rommelaere / SAVVY Contemporary / Shapereader / Thonik / Andrew Waugh

This article appeared in DAM71. Order your personal copy.
Klaas Rommelaere. Portrait by Ringo Gomez-Jorge