Anton Cotteleer is one of Belgium’s best kept secrets. Already in the beginning of his artistic career at the end of the nineties, the artist chooses to undergo an exhaustive research of the sculptural medium. This quest results in a layered and coherent oeuvre. Yet, he doesn’t restrict himself to static and invariable imagery but is constantly looking for other possibilities and new sources of inspiration.
In his sculptures he transforms human and animal forms and everyday elements from the traditional ”Flemish” living room into strange surrealist objects. The artist frequently uses (pre IKEA) objects and designs from the domestic atmosphere but reverts nonetheless back to examples from and references to the history of sculpture. Just like many contemporary painters are inspired by photos and existing images, Anton takes over this habit and doesn’t base his sculptures directly on the human figure but on a picture of it, which he then filters and reshapes.
A central topic in the artist’s work is the skin of the sculpture. Through the use of a bizarre colour or pattern, the addition of odd material such as hair or resin, and especially through the application of a layer of felt, ground to powder, he lays explicit accents. The velvety texture that is achieved through the application of this technique is appealing and repulsive at the same time. In combination with their stylistic beauty and an attempt at technical perfection, Anton Cotteleer’s sculptures and installations reveal a kind of restrained tension and create an oppressive and perplexing effect. Through fragmented figuration and a remarkable mixture of realism and composition, Cotteleer makes a clear mark and what’s more, he creates a recognisably personal and uniquely expressive universe. Mouldiness, sexual connotations, alienation and dislocation are just a few key concepts in trying to figure out the complex sculptural oeuvre of Anton Cotteleer.
Through a personal and sometimes an intuitive way of choosing and combining certain figurative elements, he forces the viewer to actively reflect on every work of art. Through the use of aforementioned elements and different techniques, the complexity of the sculpture is already present in the way in which he realises his work. In that sense his sculptures simultaneously reveal many things about their formation as well as about the profession and medium of sculpture.
As artist and docent, Anton Cotteleer influences the younger generation of sculptors and keeps his finger on the pulse. It is therefore high time for his work to receive the attention and the platform it deserves. In June 2014, the City of Mechelen awarded him the Prize for Sculpture – Grote Prijs Ernest Albert. With the exhibition Behind The Curtain in De Garage in Mechelen, and with the monographic publication of the same name, the importance of his oeuvre is further underlined. The reason behind this publication and the exhibition is not only to offer a synthesis of the highlights of the artist’s works but equally to look to the future.
Director Cultuurcentrum Mechelen
Translation: Kirsi Suutarinen
The Great Escape
About Anton Cotteleer’s work
Written by Els Fiers, translated by Kirsi Suutarinen
1. Death bed
A while back I was sitting in Bozar listening to John Cleese. He was giving a performance entitled ’The last time to see me before I die’. After the break he told a bunch of jokes, one after the other. One of them went something like this: ’A man is seriously ill. He’s lying on his death bed, surrounded by family and friends. Because he feels his end coming near, he asks to see a priest. Although he has never been religious, he now speaks out his will to be converted to Christianity. The priest arrives, talks with the man for a while and converts him. Then he leaves. A friend asks the dying man why he wanted to speak to a priest in the end. ‘No idea,’ says the man, ‘but if someone has to leave, I prefer it’s him.’
I let that sink in for a while.
Talking about death beds… Why on earth do they seem so important to us?
‘My advice for young people is,’ added the seventy-seven-year-old Cleese, ‘that nothing matters except a few things, which matter a tiny bit.’ I like Cleese’s absurd sense of humour. At the end of the sixties he was one of the founding members of the glorious Monty Python’s Flying Circus. When I see the work of Anton Cotteleer, it always reminds me a little bit of Monty Python. I have no idea why. Maybe it’s the way the tragedy is always undermined. With turns that jeopardize everything, with alterations and mental backslaps. Knights seem effeminate, a gathered mass shouts the word ‘individual’. It never goes like you think, the reality is always different. I will not try to analyse it. Some things are best left as they are. Just as the joke – that wasn’t explained either.
Anyway, on one cold Spring day Anton and I had a long conversation. It took place in stages, in different places in the house, the garden and the studio. Kalmthout, where the Cotteleers live, is rich in forests. The trees are protected, you are not allowed to cut them down without a reason. From the kitchen you can see a tree which is next to the studio, only ten centimetres in between, almost ready to fall down. From six o’clock onwards the Cotteleers sit in the shade. Until then they enjoy the beautiful days in sync with the sun. We talk about the Japanese maple, a red maple with thin leaves, and about the withering of old spruces. Then we talk about art again, and about the documentation of nearly twenty years of work. We sit around the kitchen table, drink coffee and look at photos on a laptop. We no longer talk about trees, although I do find that the rustling, shady garden has found its way unnoticed into Cotteleer’s work.
We stop at Untitled (bucket) from 1998, a squirrel curled on the bottom of a red bucket. The squirrel is also red. Painted, it seems. The effect is somewhat confusing; perhaps the squirrel just seems red because of the colour of the bucket. Why is such a shy wild animal actually lying there? By the way, it’s not the only squirrel in Cotteleer’s work. The rodent appears regularly as a stuffed version. ‘Before everyone had a squirrel at home,’ notes Anton. ‘A stuffed one, that was popular in living rooms. Taxidermy was popular, just as strange colonial objects. People sometimes had an elephant’s foot as an umbrella stand.’ I think of Maurizio Cattelan’s Bidibidobidiboo. In the small installation a dead squirrel is sitting in the kitchen, a gun lying beside its foot on the floor. Suicide. In Anton’s case the squirrel seems rather to be wrapped in mystery. You don’t know how he got into the bucket or whether we should regard the animal as a dead or a living one. The fact that it has taken on the colour of the bucket refers to some kind of adaptation process. The tragedy that manifests in Cattelan’s works is non-existent in Cotteleer’s case. The squirrel doesn’t show anything dramatic about it, rather, the situation develops into an antidrama. Nothing is going on, there’s even a kind of imperturbability to it. It’s not that the sight is peaceful though. Nor is it comforting, cute or pathetic. Emotionally the work is everywhere in between. From an artistic point of view the red squirrel is a symbiosis of elements related to sculptural, installation and even pictorial art. It is a situation which evades multiple things. I think it’s a wish to escape from the weight of facts. You want to believe that in reality something is different, that the form is free, the associations unexpected. The elasticity always recurs in Cotteleer’s work. Freedom of form and transformation characterize the time span of nearly two decades during which Cotteleer made his installations and sculptures. Take Swan’s daughter, 2015, the torso of a woman on a green table top. Her arm doesn’t lead into a hand but into a head of a swan. I say no more. Or maybe. Under the glaucous, or let’s say ’hospital green’ table top lies a fleshy pink blanket, made of plush you would associate with cuddly toys or cheap hotels. The colours and the swan hand make me think of a surgical operation. In the house of surgeon X the body of Y with a swan’s hand has been found. It can be the result of my imagination, always seeking suspense. But it is a fact that in Cotteleer’s work forms are connected in a way which doesn’t happen in everyday life. Maybe it is more of a dream than a fact.
3. Peach-like bottom
We move on to don’t play with the poodle, 2008, a sculpture which at the time of our interview was shown at Art Brussels. A big terracotta-coloured dog lies weak on the table, its leg on a side table. It has a big oval bottom that looks like a peach. The stub projection could be a penis, a cut off tail or a teat. ’I wanted to create a kind of waterfall,’ Anton says, ’a waterfall of an exhausted, poodle-like creature. The atmosphere is linked to the Flemish Primitives, with allusions to the velvety, the colours, the Van Eyck-like materials. The work also has a sort of grannyness to it, my memories are deeply intertwined in it.’ Don’t play with the poodle in all its slack, soft sleepiness is a wonderful inversion of upward forces and monumentality. Everything in it has fallen down, gravity has won. A small spout on the foot seems to refer to a balloon, and perhaps – I’m just guessing – to the Balloon Dog by Jeff Koons. Maybe this is the empty version, the run down balloon dog looking for its definitive form. And what kind of a tail is actually standing out of there? Is it really a tail? The projection could be a reproductive organ, a strange, bud-like poodle penis lying there as innocently as if it were a tail. I often perceive sexually related forms in Anton’s work. He doesn’t see them like that himself, or at least not so often as I (I chivalrously admit). ’If I see that a work is going too far on the erotic side, I change something about it.’ The way Cotteleer gives form to his erotic shadow play is nearly worth an essay in itself. Or a chapter devoted to spread legs with compression stockings, or, one of my all-time favourites, the bottom with kissing lips (Brassass, 2006). Moreover, am I the only one who thinks that Cotteleer’s female figures always have beautiful breasts? Surely not? The erotic shadow play seems to be an emotional process which is an integral part of sculpting. Everything always goes organically and spontaneously, the sculpture as a goal is ahead. They put a smile on my face, those peach bottoms, open mouths, the lying female torsos, the blobs and the bulges. I regard them as very convincing, they give a tender strength to the work. And they are testimonies of a very extraordinary imagination. A tired out dog with a big bottom, that alone already.
Our discussion turns to furniture and paraphernalia from days gone by. ‘Vintage’, like commercially minded providers of old junk would say, but Anton is more interested in the mouldy and depressing side of the affair. Old-fashioned, repulsive stuff which is no longer polished; headache vintage, that’s what it is. We rank everything under the term ‘granny’ and click through photos from rolled up carpets, vases, figurines to decorate the dresser, knees that peep from under the stiff skirts, bold handbags, women’s beige raincoats. It becomes a lively talk, filled with memories from the seventies. Have I already mentioned that we’re about the same age with Anton? We are both descendants of the time when people slept under woollen Sole Mio blankets and watched the De Collega’s series on the BRT (former VRT, Flemish Radio and Television Broadcasting Organization). We were so young that we said ‘solo mio’ instead of ‘sole’. I did anyway. Oh lonely me. Oh my sun. We click on a photo, which I estimate to be from the beginning of the seventies. There are four loungers lined with a fabric full of brown and orange flowers. ‘People used to ride somewhere in their car and stop along the way, take out their loungers and bathe in the sun,’ says Anton. Those were different times but the stuffiness of it can be seen in his work. Literally. There is also a Sole Mio blanket in his studio, in one of the typical Cotteleer colours: beige, brown, rusty pink or green, probably with a stain on it. On the next photo there is a dark brown doll in a velvety armchair. Someone has dressed it up and placed it on top of a pile of clothes, between two bunny slippers. An exuberant pattern of flowers creates a complete disharmony. Loneliness, decay and indecisive colourfulness ooze to the first installations. Already from the start, with their itchy woolliness and their inclination to wear and tear, they have crept into the sculptural process. Currently all these things are present in Cotteleer’s sculptural work, as beating hearts. I doubt they will ever go away.
Anton gives a demonstration in his atelier. First he smears a randomly chosen figurine with epoxy glue. Then he fills up a footed jar with powder (made of nylon or felt, I’m told). A machine adds electrostatic loading to the powder through which it is sucked to the glue, as if by itself. Slowly but surely the figurine turns pink. The procedure is called flocking, sometimes you see this somewhat rough material on T-shirts. ‘The idea is that the surface becomes a little dirty in order to achieve a carpet-like look,’ Anton explains. On the ground there are bags with different colours you can mix. The length of the fibres can also be chosen, sometimes the sculptures have longer hairs, and sometimes they remind one of mould or moss. ‘Occasionally it flops and you can see traces of the work. But I have learnt to live with the imperfections,’ he says. ‘You can’t coat everything in one go, you always see the traces of the process. That is actually a quality; it doesn’t need to become too neat or design-like.’
The atelier is filled with stuff, the tables and chairs full of things. Anton comes in with a garden chair, finds a place and we continue talking. ‘Nevertheless, I have hated traces of expressionism ever since I was a student. I really couldn’t connect to expressionism and the romanticism of the sculptors back then, so I reacted with stark and cold work.’ Romanticism? Anyone? We can’t identify Anton Cotteleer with it. The romanticization of artistry, in one way or the other, is not his thing. With powdery fluff you don’t get that heroic, masculine violence that sculpture is sometimes associated with. You do get a spectacular concept of time, though. Should the works come to live, one would be able to see them only very briefly in their Cotteleermoment. In the blink of an eye, after which they would stand up and walk away. Or run away, like the cats. In A large touch, 2016, a sculpture of a female torso on sticks, that kind of moment is shown. A cat tumbles without reason above the head of a woman, action and motionlessness melted together. The fact that the cat is hovering on the air strengthens the impression of brevity and coincidence. A blink of an eye later the cat lands on its feet, suggests the work. Some things don’t exist until an artist imagines or describes them.
There are a lot of animals in Anton Cotteleer’s work but the cat is the winner. The first question on my list – we arrive at the list quite a while later – includes the Cat, too. Cotteleers have a house cat called Titus, an adopted tomcat of a respectable age. When I was there, he slept the whole time in a garden chair. ‘I used to have a cat at my parents’ place, too,’ Anton says. ‘As a child I didn’t really like cats or people who had cats, but I gradually started to think it was special that they were brought into so many homes. People want to have discipline and a neat house and yet they bring in a cat who messes everything up.’ And that was a mild way of putting it, in my opinion, thinking of hair balls and May bugs bitten in two. But they are such beautiful creatures that they are forgiven a lot. ‘I also like the link with art history and Egyptian art with the erotic character of a cat. And how they appropriate things with our acceptance.’ In the sculptures and installations of Anton Cotteleer the cat is a razor sharp presence, a figure with a will and a sense of humour of its own, often opposite to the will of a human. Take Tafelblad gebeuren from 2013, half a cat lies there with its two front paws on top of a bottom. A human leg rests on a chrome kitchen chair, the other stretched out on a stick. You ask yourself how that kind of a work has come alive, whether someone climbed on a table with a cat on their back. And whether the work has a clear although hidden erotic connotation. The bottom looks soft and round, and I don’t need to explain the symbolism of a cat to anyone.
New York photographer Andres Serrano told me once that you don’t always have to understand what exactly an artist is doing. The key thing is to ask yourself why he or she became like that. So back to the beginning. The first work I ever saw by Anton was Tommy, 1999, a rug with an abruptly moving tail. While I was talking to someone in the basement of NICC, an art platform in Antwerp (now in Brussels), I saw, from the corner of my eye, a tail, pointing upwards and ending in an elegant arch, swishing from left to right. The movement was so vivid and intense that I have always regarded Tommy as a groundwork. The rug with the tail is a cross between material and animal, a fusion of domestic and untamed forces.
The tail has to be a projection of a deep impression, it can almost not be any other way. You sense an atmosphere of a house as a mysterious place.
Uncontrolled, animal entities dwelling in Sole Mios and rugs, not to spring upon you in your sleep but just like that, just because sometimes things happen that no one can explain. Indoor X-Files, I want to believe, even if not necessarily in aliens but in a world where rug bacteria grow enormous and there is something strange going on with the furniture and the fabric. You look again as a child at grown-ups who like strange, unattractive things. They criticise and admire big shoes and grey handbags in hard leather, like bitter drinks, make jokes you don’t get and sometimes speak French, softer than otherwise. Why don’t they like sweets and playing hide and seek? Why do they think they are right, although their world is so much more boring? Do they know something they hide from children? And that’s how we come back to the cat of the Tafelblad gebeuren, who evolved out of the tail in the rug and assumed another strange colour. She pulled herself out of the fabric and jumped on a soft bottom, where she landed with her sharp claws, to then run quickly through the kitchen into the garden. No one else than Anton Cotteleer would fit together chairs, cats and lower body parts, with powers working in opposite directions and connections you wouldn’t have expected. The whole soaks off something from underbellies and childhoods, and at the same time, the work speaks the language of today. I think it is due to the way in which everything happens calmly and somewhat ironically. Deadpan, calm but with a dark or cruel foundation. Cotteleer’s work may bear witness of a lot but it doesn’t bear witness of a happy outlook on the world. Maybe the humanity dominated with loneliness and inertia can be seen in the figures with hollow eyes (The green tabouret man, 2015, Jessica, 2014, Etagère, 2016) and in the busts fixed on a wall (Een geel hoofd hebben, 2013). In the black, alarming floors you feel the relationship to artists such as Paul McCarthy and late Mike Kelley. But the work of Kelley is rooted in Freudian and fearful layers, a foundation that is situated elsewhere in Anton Cotteleer’s work. Kelley is situated on the black side of the Dark Side, Anton rather on the discoloured side. The forces that are at work here are not threatening like in Kelley’s case. Or grotesque like in McCarthy’s case. Rather, they are capricious, they have grown in due course in between the slats of the shutters, or rolled up in old carpets by accident.
And then of course there are the missing feet, the cats divided in two, the missing underbodies. ‘Sometimes I try to look at things in a specific way,’ Anton says, ‘so that I really only look at what I see and don’t want to think further. From where I sit now, I don’t see a fourth foot of a table, so I cut it off. I apply the same principle with photos. I try to read the photos I use for a work only sculpturally. The work stops where the photo stops; what I don’t see, isn’t there either. If a woman doesn’t have lower legs on a photo, she won’t have them on the work either. I don’t fill in the missing parts. However, I’m not consequent because the backsides that you never see, are sculpted.’ The strange amputations are something typical for Anton Cotteleer. They go together with colours in-between and side tables, or sometimes with small sculptures for on top of the dressoir (Luxury prosthesis, 2007). Artists such as Wang Du and Mark Manders, for example, are using a similar principle, be it with another intention and expressiveness. Cutting of or fragmenting can evoke just about everything. It can leave behind an impression of cruelty or pain, or work on your laughing muscles on purpose. It can refer directly to sensational journalism and photos in newspapers, or it can guide you to look to a specific place. With Anton, the amputations are closely connected with the art of sculpting. They make sure that a sculpture doesn’t become too self-evident or too sleek, that it doesn’t turn into a mannequin or a pseudo-classical Apollo who gracefully leans against a column. But something is going on there because the classical sculpture has many torsos without legs. Arms and heads are often missing in the sculptures from antiquity. And all those missing parts are replaced by bars in the current era. Though not evident, the chopping of the sculptures is a reference to art in the times of Polykleitos and Myron. Just like the use of sticks in the works. A strange paradox, like always in Cotteleer’s work, thrives as if it’s nothing. No worries, we refer and don’t refer in one simple smooth move. Next!
8. Just put your head on my shoulder
A glaucous head lies on a kitchen chair, surrounded by a torso. Two arms enclose it loosely. The head which isn’t there, presses a kiss on the mouth of the head which is there. At least you see a kind of circle at the height of the mouth, a superficiality where the chin is also involved. You don’t see the actual kiss, but you know that such a meeting of faces can only be a kiss. A true kiss of love, quite like in From Here to Eternity. A part of the work has been ‘flocked’ green, the other part is orange. The torso without a head floats above the ground for a while. The love scene takes places on a light-blue kitchen chair with chromed legs. They look feathery, the idea of the floating is nicely strengthened by it. Yes, it is a surrealistic description. It’s because parts are missing and because the form of the work is very free. I put your green head on my shoulder, which is the title, is a special work, full of tenderness, love and erased parts. It reminds one a little bit of The Kiss by Rodin, although with a focus on the faces. No deadpan here, no dark side, emotionally this work adds a new layer. That doesn’t mean Anton’s sculptures from the past twenty years don’t have tenderness in them, on the contrary, but this is nevertheless different. The colours are extra intense, the body language intimate, nothing can hinder the embrace anymore. The absurdity that I compared with Monty Python has changed shape. Perhaps this is a new beginning.
Anton Cotteleer’s work developed since the end of the last century from installation to art of sculpture. Entities with multiple objects were gradually reduced to one sculpture. All the components were sucked up, as it were; with less material as much or even more was suggested, less became more. In my opinion, the evolution was coupled with the finding of a remarkable freedom of form. Now everything is possible, gravity is irrelevant. Above and below melted human figures, until recently isolated and lonely, find each other after all. It remains an escape. From gravity and the weight of reality. But also from the doctrines from one’s own work. For so long we are able to flee. With turns that jeopardize everything. To quiet kitchens with moments captured in time and places where everything is different. To a kiss with erased parts. Life is but a dream.
Escape and it will be alright. E.F.