Mental Escape is a series of live interviews exploring how the art world responds to today’s challenges. Livestreamed from Flash Art’s Instagram, Alexandre Stipanovich interviews artists, curators, gallerists, critics, and collectors about their hopes, fears, doubts, visions, and projects they are dreaming of pursuing once the dust settles. This series took place during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Welcome to the third episode with Olivier Babin, the founder of C L E A R I N G Gallery in Brussels, and in Bushwick as well as the Upper East Side in Manhattan.
Alexandre Stipanovich: Hi Olivier, how are you?
Olivier Babin: Hi, Alexandre. I’m good.
AS: So you made it to your gallery?
OB: Yes, I was planning on taking you guys for a walk in the neighborhoods but, as you know, it’s very bad today. It’s cold and raining and super windy and stormy, so that will be at the gallery. It’s quite moving. It’s empty, but I haven’t been here in a month, so…
AS: How’s the gallery on the other side of the pond?
OB: In Brussels it is also closed to the public. But we have Zoom videos, like pretty much everyone on Earth right now, three times a week. So actually we probably for the first time are more connected than we ever were. So it’s pretty good. Yeah. It’s in good spirits. I mean, it’s not very different from… it’s very different from the life we usually live, but probably not very different from the life I would like to live, actually. So yeah, I think after that thing ends, I’ll probably spend half my time in the woods for a few years.
AS: So before we start your tour, you’re going to give us a tour of your current show on Sebastian Black?
OB: Yes. The show is titled “Local Warming.” There’s something premonitory about it.
AS: Yeah. Maybe we’ll just dive into it right now.
OB: Yeah. Oh, there’s a little leak here. So yeah, it’s a new series by Sebastian. We were fortunate enough to open the show basically a week before lockdown. It opened on March 4, and we closed the gallery on March 13. So, new bodies of work, all on linen, and they’re painted after thermal photos that you take with a little plugin that he puts on his phone. And they’re scenes of his own domesticity. Him at home with the cats — a lot of cats, actually.
AS: So what’s the process here?
OB: Well, as I said, they’re painted after photographs, thermal photographs, for that map-like reality, according to heat and color. And the warmer the color, the warmer the temperature. Red is hot, green is cold. He projects them and then paints them, including all the glitches and the highly pixelated edges.
AS: Nice. And they’re all photographs? I mean, thermal photographs of his cats?
OB: Yeah, it’s mostly the cats. It started really as portraits of cats that somehow allude to geography maps or weather maps. Which is somehow how we look at the world right now, in terms of high fever and low fever. So, yeah, it’s a radical turn in his career. So far it’s mostly been focusing on puppy dogs, and now it’s taking this radical turn and focusing on cats and signs of the times.
AS: But it’s funny that thermal devices — we use them, SWAT teams use them, I think in Predator movies also. I mean, it’s for immediate danger and invisible danger.
OB: Absolutely. I think Predator is one of the first — it’s really good.
AS: And here it’s just the cat. So it’s funny that it defeats the purpose a little bit.
OB: Yeah. It’s also that enigma of the everyday. There’s also something very, very soft about it. I think it’s also very dreamy. Looks like a very beautiful coral reef formation in the South Pacific or something. Yeah, I think they’re good paintings for our times. I think he was for a long time focusing on painting in a very timeless way, and these painting actually are more timely. I think that’s an interesting shift.
AS: Sebastian Black had his first show with you, right?
OB: Yes. We met when he was at Columbia, second-year MFA. So we met at the end of 2011. Let’s go look at more art. Right?
AS: Yeah. If you can focus on one piece at a time, that’d be great.
OB: Yes. Everything is a little messy. That’s a beautiful painting by Loïc Raguénès, a French painter. That’s another work by Sebastian Black. So how have you been keeping yourself busy?
AS: Well, I’m working on my new project and writing about art as well. And so I was really curious to see your roster of artists and learn about how you discovered some, but also how you’ve managed to reinvigorate stuff in the States. I was curious to know your approach. What do you have in mind? And, while discovering young artists, bringing back older, more established ones.
OB: Yeah. So, I mean, these are two different things, and it’s probably more challenging, or this is something that we are trying to learn to do, to work with the US, and that’s not so easy. We recently had a very beautiful show by Eduardo Paolozzi at the Brussels gallery, curated by my partner, Lodovico Corsini. We had a beautiful René Heyvaert show accompanied by a publication. And we had also the stunning Bruno Gironcoli solo show as the grand opening of the Brussels gallery. We continue to work with mostly young artists. And, as a matter of fact, a lot of the artists we work with, we are the first gallery they’ve ever worked with, like Sebastian, after our first meeting in 2011. He was supposed to have his show in May at the gallery in Brooklyn. It will be postponed to the fall. A lot of things were supposed to happen. Now I guess a lot of things are being canceled, postponed, etcetera.
But we have a great show by Marina Pinsky that is due to open in Brussels soon. It’s going to be an amazing, inspiring, thoughtful, intricate exhibition, combining photography and sculpture as well as storytelling. We’re going to get this, hopefully, before the summer. Actually it forced us to push things around.
AS: When do you think you can resume opening the different galleries, in Belgium and in Brooklyn?
OB: When it will be safe to do so. And when everyone else will feel comfortable working. So that is no rush. This is how it is, and maybe it’s good to not try to turn that thing into something else and just take it as it is. As a matter of fact, for us it’s not so much to do what we used to do — we take more time doing it and maybe we do it better. And in the meantime I think everyone has more time to sleep and to feel good and to read and watch films and maybe walk around. It’s pretty amazing being outside these days in the empty city.
AS: You don’t think there will be a dramatic change? A shift to the digital?
OB: I don’t know. Probably I’m not the right person to ask. It’s more like, right now, I’m just watching and it’s all happening. For the first time it’s definitely like we’re in a new world now, which is really exciting. It’s also very unsettling not to know what makes this world new and what exactly are the new parameters and what are going to be the new challenges. Let’s wait and run, look at what’s going on and go run out to clear your head.
AS: Yeah. What are your thoughts on the digital viewing room? Do you think it’s a good experience?
OB: I think everyone is definitely doing that right now, and we’re doing it, and everyone was somehow forced to do it in Hong Kong with the cancellation of the physical fair. I’m not sure what it means as a people experience. And it’s too early to say, but it’s definitely something that’s a door that was just pushed open, and it’s going to be a new avenue now. I’m not sure how important it will be, but I think once we go more digital, we won’t go back.
AS: I mean, you sell art. Do you think the physical interaction with the collector, with the art buyer, is necessary?
OB: To be honest, I would not… I mean, yes, I sell art and, as a matter of fact, that’s the sole source of revenue for the gallery and for myself. But it’s more like we mostly work on nurturing young artists and we very much focus on production and exhibitions. So for me the experience of art starts in the studio, materializing in discussions and finally in exhibitions. The sale is the very last leg of the trip. And it’s absolutely necessary, and it’s also fun to make sales. I think one of the upsides of this is that these are very exciting times for artists.
I’m not an X-Men guy, but you know, in the X-Men, there’s this guy who is the fastest of them all. And he can rearrange the situation while time is frozen. And I feel this is what’s going on now. There’s this unlimited, uncompressed amount of time, and no one’s watching. And that’s pretty amazing. I would say, for artists, they’re mostly alone, and somehow they experience this sort of situation, this survival situation, pretty much on a daily basis. They’re successful or not. Who cares about the art market? I don’t care about the art market, but I don’t think it will be good for art. And eventually, if it’s good for art, it will be good for the art market.
AS: I was curious to hear about your relationship with the collector or the art buyer. Do they need to feel and smell the artwork? I was wondering, you know?
OB: It’s a community. I mean, the online thing is going to bring more contact and more exposure. And yeah, we’re still a very small retailer, so it’s not like we need to spread ourselves that much either. We need to find new outlets. But to be honest, I am not a numbers guys, but I don’t think that we are performing significantly worse than two months ago. I mean, we are, but it’s definitely not a disaster. We sell art. Asia is very awake again, and I guess everyone has the sense that maybe things are stopping getting worse. It’s going to be bad for another few months. But let’s make the best of it.
AS: But it says something when people are buying art; it says something about the mood of the planet, in a way. It means they’re not as worried anymore. Maybe.
OB: I mean, it’s not like worrying is going to protect you anyway. So I don’t know.
AS: Tell me a little bit about how C L E A R I N G was created. Because it’s a great story.
OB: Well, I don’t know about great, but, as I was saying, I wish the weather had been nicer today because I would have taken you for a walk down the street. I was watering the plants at one of my artist’s studios, Harold Ancart, who turned forty yesterday. And I wanted to take you up to the gallery, walking on Johnson Avenue, because it’s been a little less than ten years. I think it’s been nine years or something. It started in February 2011, in this space, in the studio building on the second-floor corner room. I used to be in a studio when I was a struggling and starving artist. Now we have this bigger and more proper space at 396 Johnson Avenue. So you do the math. That’s pretty much what a gallery equates to, 505 minus 396. So it was not really meant to happen. I decided to give two of my friends, Harold Ancart and Jacob Kassay, a show in my studio that I had emptied out because I figured out that was the end of the road for me as an artist. And, I guess, finding myself on the other end of the stick, the two artists made me somehow like that. The gallery: I’m like director, conductor, janitor. Janitor very much.
AS: A janitor in chief.
OB: Yeah. Always carried half a pound of keys in my pockets.
AS: But tell me, I want to hear the backstory of the backstory, which is the pasta delivery and the lock on the bike. Actually, I don’t know if you want to tell this story.
OB: No, actually, that’s funny because I was thinking about this bike thing. So, very quick: it was at an art bookshop. I was leaving PS1, the art book fair, and someone had locked a bike to my bike and I couldn’t take mine. And that kind of thing drives me absolutely nuts. You know what I mean? It’s very difficult for me to follow instructions, and it’s very difficult for me to be held in place against my will. At that time lots of things needed to change in my life, and I figured out, while I was jumping around and being very frustrated about my bike, having to wait for this person to come and deliver the key and free me, I figured out that I would do this food delivery business at my studio, which was absolutely insane because it was really not equipped at all for proper food making at all. It was a pretty tragic attempt at a business. But one thing that came out of it was Olivier, like my first name, but spelled capital letter, space, capital, space, which is now C-L-E-A-R-I-N-G, the signature, the gallery logo. The motto of the company was “Only Good Food For Good People.” And I think this is still what we are trying to do.
AS: Nurture in a way. And tell me, what makes you want to represent an artist? I read that you were interested in the fire and the supernatural energy.
OB: Yeah, it makes me sound like a total psychopath, but yeah, I like fire and energy. But that’s the least you can expect from artists somehow. It’s work, and it’s not a magical thing being an artist, but it’s not nine-to-five, you know? I expect artists to be exceptional beings with exceptionally insightful and revealing truths that they have to share. If not, then it’s cool. It’s a hobby. But I don’t know. When I feel like I can be part of something and that I can help — and also for me it’s an honor and a thrill to get them on board. It’s really exciting. And as a matter of fact, very often, sometimes as much as the work, you would pick artists — it happens, it’s happened several times that I was absolutely taken and almost instantly struck by this idea that I had to work with this person I was talking to. It’s happened many times that I was in the studio and there was no work to look at. It happens sometimes that I work with an artist for a year — with Marguerite Humeau — till we finally see the work in the flesh for the first time, and I remember being very emotional about it. So yeah, it’s definitely something, always like a personal and then an emotional connection to people.
AS: So it’s not only the work?
OB: Yes. You have to be able to project yourself. Someone’s banging at the door. Yeah, it’s closed, dude.
AS: Oh, I see you have visitors.
OB: Hey guys. Oh, that’s the Ramiken gallery’s guys.
AS: Okay. Maybe we should let you go then.
OB: It’s Andrew Dubow and Mike Egan of Ramiken. They are going to work.
AS: So, it was great. Thank you so much for giving us a tour of Sebastian Black’s solo show.
OB: Thank you so much.
AS: I hope you can open soon. I look forward to coming and seeing you in person.
OB: We’ll try to get a summer show, and I hope that the US will be able to celebrate July 4th. That’d be fun. It doesn’t sound completely unrealistic. We would have a summer show, and then we’re going to reopen with Jean-Marie Appriou in New York followed by Korakrit Arunanondchai. In Brussels we will have Marina Pinsky. Then you have Dewar and Grégory Gicquel, new sculptures in wood in September in Brussels. And then Calvin Marcus’s new watercolors. So we still have a great year to be looking forward to.
AS: Well, thank you for your time Olivier.
OB: Thank you, Alexandre!