Steven Vandervelpen

Sint-Truiden, Belgium


We meet with artist Steven Vandervelpen (°1991) in his hometown, Sint-Truiden. He has a studio at the back of his parent’s garden centre and an exposition room right above it, called Galerie TCH. As such in order to get to Galerie TCH visitors must first cross aisles with plants, and navigate through shelves filled with garden paraphernalia. But not only this garden centre is full of paraphernalia, also Steven’s studio is packed with vintage and less vintage novelties. This of course has to do with Steven’s passion for the past.

These paraphernalia Steven collects are related to his artwork. His work revolves around nostalgia and the past. Thus he collects found and given objects such as porcelain statuettes and tiles, green felt frames and especially old family pictures. “It started with my grandparents’ family pictures which I found very interesting. Nostalgia has always been a part of my work, but now I consciously deal with it and I try to figure out why the subject is so appealing to me. You can almost describe my work as kitsch.”

As a child Steven attentively listened to his grandparents’ stories and especially those of his grandfather on his mother’s side. “My grandfather used to be a cook on a ship. He told me he had once hidden a big ara in the inside pocket of his jacket to smuggle the bird from Brazil to Belgium. But one time the bird escaped so the first thing he bought when ashore in Antwerp was a box to put the bird in. I can vividly picture those stories in my mind. My grandfather was my source of inspiration and at the same time a big question mark. For example, he too was a painter and every time I would go up the attic to look at some of his old paintings of which I thought he created them and found myself inspired. Later I found out most of his paintings were reproductions of very famous paintings (laughs). He was my hero when I was a kid but when you grow up you start doubting things and you want to figure out yourself where all those stories come from and whether they are true. It’s at that point that you poke around and you find old photos. As such I found out my grandfather had also been a photographer in the army.” Steven discovered his grandfather’s pictures from his time in the army and therefrom Steven’s collection started.

Steven then tried to grasp the stories he had heard so many times and the pictures he had looked at over and over in a single image. “Eventually that didn’t work out, so I shifted my focus to compositions of different paintings. During my master I made a composition of all my artwork together for the first time. From then on I also tried to create a nostalgic atmosphere in my work.” As such Steven now focusses on installation art with the key focus on the past. However with his art he does not want to show a predetermined story but bring about an atmosphere of earlier times. This includes a kitsch richness that emanates from the collected paraphernalia he exhibits. “It is the kind of kitsch that has to show good taste and wealth.” It is this sumptuous facade that appeals to Steven. “It shows a different world. For example, do you see that pheasant over there (Steven points at a stuffed pheasant flaunting in his atelier)? It was my grandmother’s. Having a silver pheasant back then was very expensive and so my grandparents had him stuffed after he died and put in the house as a trophy. It’s still their treasured possession.” Furthermore by working compositionally and juxtaposing different elements Steven wants to bring forth logical connections. When every element comes together something interesting happens in his work.

Steven just started studying Graphic Design. “We are now just learning some techniques, photography techniques for example. It does help me to handle a photograph and it teaches me about visual imagery.” Steven’s focus is now shifting from painting to photography. A shared denominator in all his work, next to nostalgia, is destruction. Steven’s work is not about painting proper or to take the ‘perfect’ picture. “My internship at Patrick Ceyssens really helped me with that. I had to tear pictures and he made me do collages. I learned it is not the image per se that is sacred but the pulling apart and putting together of images.” Just to be clear, Steven would never tear his grandparent’s photos. “I first scan their pictures before I deconstruct them. I have to guard them with my life (laughs)!”

Steven also holds a gallery: Galerie TCH (Tuincentrum/Garden Centre De Hollander), where he exhibits his own work and that of others. His gallery opened last year. Steven aims to exhibit in an experimental way. “At the beginning of this year I collaborated with Troebel Neyntje and participated in their exhibition ‘Biënnale van de Banale Dragers’ (for more information about this exhibition check out our story on Idris Sevenans). I want to integrate the absurdity of Troebel Neyntje into my own gallery. It is also because of collaborations with galleries such as Troebel Neyntje that I have learned to play more with art, and to dare to say ‘je m’en fous’.” 

Galerie TCH started out as a side project of Kunstenaar Zoekt Ruimte (Artist Searches Space). “Kunstenaar Zoekt Ruimte is an initiative I started because of the lack of places for artists to exhibit in Sint-Truiden. I want to give artists the chance to exhibit their work here outside the ‘official’ circles (like Cultural Centers). For Kunstenaar Zoekt Ruimte I cooperate with a real estate agency. We look for houses of which the owners want to open it for artists and their public. I then look for artists who want to make art in particular areas of the house. Thus it is very much spatial art. The result is shown at open house days.” Moreover it is not excluded that the art remains in the house after it is bought. For example, Steven tells us that artist Waldorf made a big mural in a courtyard and it is possible it still exists. It can be a fun extra for the eventual buyers but they can also decide to remove the art. Kunstenaar Zoekt Ruimte furthermore received a wildcard residency at ‘ALERT / ALL ART’ in the Ambiorix barracks during the Cultuurzomer (Summer of Culture) Tongeren. So if you want to visit Steven and Kunstenaar Zoekt Ruimte you can from August 14 to September 11, 2016.

Of course everyone is also welcome at Galerie TCH, especially if you bring a bottle of liquor! Do not worry, Steven is not an alcoholic, but he accepts liquid donations for the opening nights of exhibitions. And also old (family) pictures are always more than welcome!