Trauma – it is rarely possible to describe an artist’s oeuvre in one word, but in the case of the Belgian artist Berlinde De Bruyckere, it fits neatly and without reducing or trivializing her art.
The Ghent native is forever obsessed with the body, the human and the animal (usually horses) – its carcass, its bones, sinews, and arteries, the way it is covered and uncovered. She often uses horses’ corpses and hides, and her choice raw material is wax, with which she renders the bodies simultaneously lifelike and ghostly. They are not exactly bodies, but carcasses, whitened and frozen pink, like you would see in the butcher’s window. De Bruyckere’s father was a butcher, and as a girl she witnessed the men in his shop do their bloody work, which left a lasting impression on her.
De Bruyckere’s own work is violent and tragic. The vulnerability of the flesh, whether man or horse, is on display in her sculptures, installations, and drawings, some of which are on view now at Hauser & Wirth in New York in the exhibition titled No Life Lost.
The centerpiece of the exhibit is the monumental “Kreupelhout – Cripplewood, 2012-2013.” The sixty-foot-long installation originally conceived for the Venice Biennale in 2013 with her friend, the South African author J.M. Coetzee, is her most ambitious project. The massive tree trunks and branches are tide together in a way reminiscent of bandaged wounds, and covered with wax. This makes them look like bones of some mythical creature long lost.
Loss is a leitmotif in De Bryckere’s work, especially loss through death. It is most heartbreaking to see in an installation where a foal carcass (all horses De Bruyckere uses have died from natural causes) lays on a wooden table, his eyes bandaged and his legs tied together. It is the artist’s own sacrificial lamb.
The black background, the dim lighting, and the browns of the carcass create a cumulative color palette reminiscent of the Dutch masters. But all comparisons to classical art end there. De Bruyckere’s work is decidedly unique in its execution and its unflinching yet deeply empathic view of life that ultimately and inexorably culminates in death.
Berline De Bruyckere: No Life Lost – at Hauser & Wirth in NYC, through April 2nd, 2016.
All images courtesy of the gallery.