Julien Meert at Sorry We're Closed, Brussels

A recent trip to Brussels illuminated several salient issues within social and art-related infrastructures; one of the less serious of which was the influx of playful, bright, almost childlike painting techniques and aesthetics in the Belgian capital's art scene. This is, of course, not entirely alien to that found in London, but it was interesting to see how artists such as Julien Meert, currently on display at Sorry We're Closed, employed such engaging and soft visuals, and to what end. 

Installation view: Julien Meert, Planetarium, 19 January - 18 March 2023. Sorry We're Closed, Brussels, Belgium. Image courtesy of the gallery.

Prior to even encountering the paintings, the building is worthy of an honourable mention. Sorry We're Closed is located in a beautifully central part of Brussels, snugly equidistant between Palais de Bruxelles, Palais de Justice and Bruxelles-Midi, one of the city's main train stations. Even better, the gallery's street, Rue des Minimes, has a quiet air to it, so not only are there no excuses for finding the space in between checking out the bigger tourist hotspots, but it presents itself as a spatialised moment for reflection and tranquility amid the chaos of a popular European capital city. Sorry We're Closed is housed in a nineteenth century mansion, beset with original features inside and out, and an irrefutable evocation of opulence. Whilst the work by Belgian artist Julien Meert are playful and fun, there can be no doubt that Sorry We're Closed is a serious player in Brussels' art scene, with a name that brings with it a fresh, contemporary touch.

In the artist's bio, Meert's style is described as "at once (hyper) figurative and radically disembodied" which arguably throws the viewer solidly into the present moment. The chaos that we find ourselves immersed in today is often beyond language; it is certainly beyond the visual. How would we even attempt to anchor this moment when as soon as we grasp it, it has surely changed, been swiped, scrolled and discarded? Meert shows clear artistic influences from the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Tracey Emin, and Roger Hiorns, but the gallery assures us that the work "could not belong to any other era than today's". Given the volume of artists working with the aforementioned bright palettes and playful themes and aesthetics, this is a convincing argument. 

Installation view: Julien Meert, Planetarium, 19 January - 18 March 2023. Sorry We're Closed, Brussels, Belgium. Image courtesy of the gallery.

The spectacle of the Sorry We're Closed space itself, in addition to that of the work, initially flirts with over-stimulation, however the incredibly satisfying scale of the paintings, in that they support the full immersion of the viewer, is somehow grounding and facilitates engagement. One particular work, with an orange hue near the start of the exhibition, felt very familiar, and soon the connection with Roger Hiorns' recent practice revealed itself. At once playful, puerile and somewhat violent, one investigation of interest is regarding the colour palette used, as the peach tone does not escalate the perceived violence or roughness, instead playing into the bodily, silly mood of the rest of the body of work.

Installation view: Julien Meert, Planetarium, 19 January - 18 March 2023. Sorry We're Closed, Brussels, Belgium. Image courtesy of the gallery.

What happens when we push through this initial perception of playfulness? In a world that is intensely serious, politically driven, and socially conscious (whether or not some of us wish to admit it), of course playful aesthetics are something of a respite, but it would be naive to leave the experience stunted there. The press release of 'Planetarium' tells us of the artist's fascination with recognition, and it doesn't take a great deal of critical thinking to see this in practice; for instance, more liberal feminist and women's rights movements have, and still do, call upon men to frame their disdain for sexual assault as if the survivor or victim were their mother, sister, girlfrind, cousin, etc. 

Shifting paradigms to aspire to a sense of 'recognition' from the viewer certainly has its own balance of advantages and disadvantages. In Meert's work, however, this dynamic seems less complex and contentious, and Sorry We're Closed embraces the silliness in the artist's work, stating that "the soul does not learn anything, it remembers". Then, if the viewer does not recognise themselves situated within the environments present in Meert's work, it feels like an invitation to luxuriate in the un-knowing. Knowing is productive! Art can, nay should, exemplify 'time off'! The act of looking does not need to be meaningful, at least not every time. Regardless of our individual, and collective, missions in life, we all must have space to engage the senses to no tangible end, and that is the purest joy to be found in this bright, bold exhibition. 

Julien Meert, Planetarium, 19 January - 18 March 2023. Sorry We're Closed, Brussels.

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