On the work of William Ludwig Lutgens
written by Céline Mathieu
It is not actually a painting but it still kind of is one. It is a painful historical marker with an open face, weighed down in the middle like a critical remark. Be it in two or three dimensions, William Ludgwig Lutgens’ imagery looks outward, candidly welding value and composure.
It is so visceral, Belgian painterly, and historically charged. It is going towards something while moving away from it: a depiction of the uncomfortable recognition of entangled responsibilities. Titles sound like ‘An ocean of currency/water for the rich’ or ‘Capitalist rats making a stew from golden coins’. We see carousels and people going on in circles, remembering the dizzying reality of how things are composed on a larger scale. Things click on and off: shoulder whispering angels; soil moving workers; decapitation after decapitation—so many loose heads in William’s work.
And smaller, closer to home, the work holds references to being an artist and to bodily awareness on an intestinal level. I imagine the slightly nervous presence in/of the artist and the wobbly line of his hand, the openness of the page, his existential wafts and thoughts on protest culture. His pedestals are built like Jenga, and a chair for a character suddenly became too small for a body that weighed down by societal hooks. Every scrap of wood, cloth or paper used, holds traces of a studio environment. His crossing histories are smiling but confused. A drunk-night-vision Ensor meets Goya meets BBC meets Latin classes meets graffiti.
In the same grabbing gesture, I gather three books from my shelf, mostly going off on their titles, while thinking of Lutgens’ work. ‘How to live together’, ‘The Shaking Woman’, and ‘Work, Work, Work’.
In the book ‘How to live together’, a situation is sequentially sketched as follows: (a) a loud booming voice, (b) unembarrassed discussion of all sorts of subjects, (c) lolls over two seats, (d) takes her shoes off, (e) eats an orange, (f) cuts in on my conversation with my travelling companion. The passage serves to explain what it means to “hold forth”. The sequential reading of this situation, accumulating familiarity and frankness, reminds me of looking at Lutgens’ characters. In my mind's eye I see these characters – and I’m trying to find the most straightforward term for fucking? – I see them fucking, so frantically, that you wonder what character’s dissociated genitals you’re now looking at.
The images of William Ludwig Lutgens are blunt. There is the deceiving simplicity of candour, but really it is all made of lists, signs and notations. Lutgens’ characters swim in flooded Wallonia. The eye reads and adds to the open lined characters in each drawn situation, the way you read a comic. Dots of colour, dirt and anything that reminds you of crusted paint on a cold coffee mug, smear the artist’s studio onto the work. In short, he holds forth, with his coded figures.
William mentions the Global News, capitalism, Freud and Fromm, touching on them, pressing briefly, and brushing them away, avoidant to make claims. The unconscious was often unaware of his own motives. It still strikes me as strange that the case histories depicted would be read like short stories. There are events and we weave them into a narrative that makes some kind of sense. I was thinking of William and read about grief and melancholia. I tried to imagine the nagging biting rat he tries to shake off, while feeding his studio practice with BBC fragments, fueling gallery anxiety and classic old school artist pressure with coffee. Is it grief I wondered, “for a person grieving the outside world turns grey and meaningless. In melancholia however (…) there is a blur of betweenness, or partial possession by a beloved other that is ambivalent, complex, and heavily weighed with emotions he can’t really articulate.” It must be something like that.
In the preface of ‘How to live together’, Kate Briggs writes: “Books of all kinds, traditions, and historical periods are variously pored over or merely dipped into; unlikely volumes are set alongside and made to walk in step with one another, obliging us to rethink what we mean when we speak of contemporaneity.”
Then in the other book I chose for its title, Work Work Work, I find a piece by Hito Steyerl that makes me smile, hinging on thoughts of all (encompassing art) lives and the simple occupation of it. She writes: “Art has not only invaded life but occupies it. This doesn’t mean that it’s omnipresent; it just means that it has established a complex topology of overbearing presence combined with gaping absence— both of which impact our daily lives. (...)
Wondered how you got caught up in the endless production of productivity and the subjection of subjectivity? Do you wake up feeling like a multiple?”
This ties back nicely to the exhibition at De Garage in Mechelen, which I tried to describe below.
William Ludwig Lutgens at De Garage in Mechelen
For his exhibition ‘The bigger the short, the sweeter the bottom’, second-skin suits are stuffed and dressed up as higher middle-class office workers. These “dolls” line in the space in protest or shame: forming a human wall, held in place in a pillory, or peacefully demonstrating on a truck blasting slogans. As though they were protesting, the dolls hold the middle between being an actual body and a tool for representation. Subtle but flagrant like a dusty scent, his work rubs together different histories: painterly Belgicisms, comics, and politics. In one of his drawings in the exhibition, figures swim in flooded Wallonia; the characters seem animated, under the influence and disconnected at once.
Thoughts on freedom and repression run through the show. Human commodities of profiling, From the way we learn skills to the way we dress, from the partner we choose, to the car we own: the creation of our identity becomes leverage. Like an expensive loafer or a steak-stuffed businessman, we might ask what confining structures do we give shape to for them to shape us in return?
News quotes find their way into titles of works, some of which are made on handmade paper. By recycling old paper, he makes thick pulp and processes it into new sheets that dry on a line like laundry: chewed world news. The paper, undone but still remembering its content, looks like concrete walls in the way it is mounted on canvas in Ludwig’s show. Potatoes, a borrowed Belgicism, fill the exhibition floor. Their stuffy quality nicely aligns with the starchy civilian characters in the space. In a mesh, different sources and types of information and dreams are processed – only seemingly random traces are left. Lutgens' paper processing room nicely alludes to the covering and undressing of uncensored pulp. Vieze mannekes, as his neighbour used to call his childhood drawings, still rule his universe. The men bathing in a flood speak to the puffed people protesting in the flesh.
Black A, white E, red I, green U, blue O— vowels
Some day I will open your silent pregnancies:
A, black balt, hairy with bursting flies,
Bumbling and buzzing over stinking cruelties.
This is a poem by Arthur Rimbaud titled Vowels. I found it in Shaking Woman, by Siri Hustvedt and was a bit bummed this too was another white dead man to mention. For me it was the playful, seemingly careless way of throwing up vowels while describing the underbelly of dirt and knotted complexity, that made me want to add this poem. Not for it’s poetic linguistics but for the gestural sway and the unwell underbelly; what my friend Natasja Mabesoone nicely pointed out as an “Urbanus” feeling, excuse the Belgian reference. But then we looked up Arthur Rimbaud, and William sent me an old picture of the old dead historical person we had to admit not having read much from. William plainly wrote “grappig mannetje”; funny little fellow, and the carousel was on again.