Morning Encounter, the largest work in the exhibition. / MIGUE FERNÁNDEZ

Green windows of utopia to escape through

The Belgian artist Ben Sledsens is making his debut in Spain with an exhibition inspired by nature and the history of art

CRISTINA PINTO

When they go into the galleries at Malaga's Contemporary Art Centre (CAC), visitors find themselves in a new universe reached through 16 windows. It is a form of escape that Belgian artist Ben Sledsens embraces in a mixture of the imaginary and the real.

"It's nice to feel that you're putting yourself inside the painting," he says, as he looks around at his works from the centre of the room. This is his first time in Malaga and a completely new exhibition in Spain: 16 paintings which sum up part of the last five years of his artistic career, in which there are colour, harmony and tones which symbolise the four seasons of the year.

The paintings are large format and visitors are introduced to them in a way that can be quite hypnotic, such as the work immediately behind Ben Sledsens as he talks to us.

Egg Thief is one of the windows onto nature that this young artist adores and in which the forest fuses completely through the constant green colour in the work and the stippling to create the leaves of the trees.

"In my town, Antwerp, they've done a lot of building but there is still a little nature in some parks with trees and those are partly my inspiration," he explains.

But it is not just his walks through nature that inspire these refreshing brushstrokes; he also draws on benchmarks in the history of art such as Cézanne, Matisse, Monet, Rousseau, Bruegel the Elder and Hockney, literature and an imaginary world of fantasy with which he himself avoids reality: "I have created this, which is my world, as a type of Utopia in which I try to escape to say what I want to say," he says.

And what he wants to say is within a very extensive universe that encompasses countless meanings and multiple colours: reds, blues, greens and yellows abound in his brushstrokes, accompanied by animals such as birds, foxes, deer and the occasional duckling hidden amid the minute detail of his works.

This is a set of fictitious scenes inspired by his everyday environment, and the result of a very thoughtful and well-planned creative process: "I work on something for a few weeks, then I stand in front of the painting to look at the details and I carry on thinking and adding or changing, until I get what I want," he explains.

This debut exhibition in Spain can be seen in Malaga until 11 September, and its curator, Fernando Francés, says it fits well with the CAC's commitment to nature.

"We are very involved with environmental issues and we wanted to show Ben Sledsens' work because his main source of inspiration is nature and he is the most successful Belgian artist in terms of auctions and waiting lists of collectors," says Francés.

Looking again at the content of Sledsens' paintings, it looks as if he is in some of them, such as Wanderer with Bird and Sitting on a Cliff's Edge. "Yes, it could be me," he answers with a nervous laugh, looking the same as he does in the pictures with his cap, jeans and trainers.

His partner's designs

Among floral motifs, forests and trees, the sea can be seen in two of the paintings in this exhibition, and in one of them a woman is posing.

"Some of these female figures don't exist, but others could be my girlfriend. She is a fashion designer with the Bernardette label and she inspired me with her dresses," he says, referring to his partner Charlotte De Geyter. Their shared love of art inspires them both in their creations.

During the inauguration of the exhibition at the CAC last Friday, the mayor of Malaga, Francisco de la Torre, addressed a few words to the artist. "It is a sign of great success to get so far when you are so young. This is an exhibition to be enjoyed at a leisurely pace," he commented.

And between now and September, there is plenty of time to make a leisurely visit to enjoy the fantasy and real worlds of Ben Sledsens.