New York’s Flemish Master
Marc Van Cauwenbergh has found success in a tough market of critics and buyers. It seems apt that Marc Van Cauwenbergh’s apartment in downtown Manhattan overlooks Flanders Square. No matter that this small corner of City Hall Plaza is named after forgotten broadcaster Steve Flanders, it is now home to perhaps the most famous Flemish New Yorker today.
Van Cauwenbergh has lived in New York for two decades, and in that time his abstract paintings of figurative forms dancing over multiple intricate layers have earned him a cult reputation amongst the city’s art cognoscenti. Although his recent exhibition in Ghent was a rare return to his home region, he enjoys regular shows across America, including one currently running at the Pratt Manhattan Gallery.
At this moment, however, he is simply enjoying New York’s balmy summer. Sporting a white T-shirt and denim shorts, he beams as he welcomes me into his apartment. “There is something about the spectacle of New York that I really like,” he says, gesturing out of the window to the view of the crowds thronging through the park below.
Van Cauwenbergh’s studio, part of his apartment, is littered with his works in progress, their forms and colours at once alien and familiar. Splashes, smears, drips and veils of paint half evoke figures and actions, yet remain deliberately evasive.
“They are inspired by my experience of life in general,” he says. “I’m affected by my surroundings. The mood in a work will evolve, like how life evolves and changes. They explore the darker spaces within relationships, how troubled or joyful you can be, and that might be reflected in chaotic structures.”
The dancing painter
The 58-year-old’s journey to Manhattan from his hometown of Ninove, East Flanders, has taken many turns. He focused on art at school, while also taking dance classes, before earning a degree from Ghent’s Saint-Luc fine arts school, where he excelled in woodcuts. (A remnant from that era is a small woodcut on his desk featuring an explicit sexual act.)
But work was scarce after graduation, so Van Cauwenbergh auditioned for the opera-ballet in Ghent, where he danced for two years on a programme covering opera and operetta, jazz, modern styles and tap. As for his painting: “I just kept working,” he says. “It was tricky because there was not much spare time.”
As he built his portfolio, he also reached out beyond Flanders, eventually moving to New York in 1987, where he completed a Master of Fine Arts at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He briefly returned to Europe – three years in Brussels – before making New York his permanent home in 1994.
It was then that the abstract took hold. Van Cauwenbergh began exploring cascading colours and jostling forms. “I was probing more inside the psyche in Ghent and Brussels. Here, it is busier and more aggressive, with the influences of New York’s chaos and energy,” he says.
Layering in wait
Each element, though, still represents an organic being – “a sculptural presence of a form,” he says. “There was always a silhouette sitting or standing on a neutral background.”
Indeed, the movement of the forms, their delicate balance and rhythm seems sometimes to recall his own dance heritage. As for colours, Van Cauwenbergh uses the weave, texture and absorbency of the canvas linen – adding washes of oil paint directly onto the canvas – creating more subdued, less vibrant tones that mix intriguingly with his signature green-yellows and Venetian reds.
The layering of translucent paints can be time consuming, and Van Cauwenbergh often has many canvases on the go at the same time. “I let things rest as I freeze the motion, but it’s not always practical,” he says. “It does not have to be completely dry, but I need to balance the movement. I want to let it sink in enough so that the paint sticks to the previous layers, and then I can work on it again.”
It is a relentless process, notes the artist, surveying the unfinished canvases spread around his studio, but one that he relishes as he continues to explore the interaction of form and colour.
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