'Peel (America)', a new series by Hedwig Brouckaert, which was supported by a Cafe Royal Cultural Foundation Grant, embodies a significant evolution of her practice that integrates life-defining experiences. The title suggests removing a protective coating which is integral to the artist’s physical process and emotional journey of making the work. 'Peel (America)' is on view at Project: ARTspace, 99 Madison Avenue, New York, NY, from December 19, 2023 to February 20, 2024.

Brouckaert faces the messiness of life and death with optimism during a time when the world seems unmoored. The series evolved during the pandemic, a moment of extreme sensitivity to our bodies. On a recent studio visit, she observed how fear of touch induced in those early days made her even more aware of skin. “Physically the skin is a barrier between ourselves and the world, but I’m fascinated by skin as the organ that gives us the capability to gather information and to feel; and as a metaphor to expand our awareness beyond our physical borders.”(1)

The bas-reliefs are comprised of grids of pale green ceramic tiles festooned with flowing forms built up from layers of magazine clippings of imagery of skin. Upon closer inspection, some shapes suggest baroque floral carved reliefs while others conjure amorphous body parts. Brouckaert has developed several methods to make these elements. Some are constructed from magazine pages depicting skin from bodies that have been glued in many layers, then meticulously incised to create forms that leave trace lines of the original photographs. The rich, red-brown forms are sculpted from several shades of blended paper pulp. The action of carving into the layers of newsprint, while building up other forms with paper pulp, was her attempt to remove the slickness of the source material, to go deeper, peel open, and create a new surface that feels more ‘embodied and alive’ to the artist.

As she turns the body inside out, the contrast of conventional beauty and the grotesque has always been an undercurrent in Brouckaert’s work. Since 2005 she has been working with magazines and merchandise catalogs to critique consumer culture, capitalism, wastefulness of society, and stereotypes of beauty and sexiness. Her process is meticulous and repetitive, ultimately obscuring and undermining the original image. In earlier work, she responded intuitively to the transformation of her own body and the experience of her surroundings. For instance, the drawings comprising the series 'Uprooted' (2011)(2) which were made while in residence at The Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center Residency Program in Italy,
show the subtle influence of the surrounding landscape and her choice to refer to the growing life in her own pregnant body. In 'A knot, a tangle, a blemish in the eternal smoothness' (2014), a site-specific installation at the Kentler International Drawing Space in Brooklyn, she incorporated her hair which was falling out - after giving birth to her daughter - to create paper pieces of imagery from hair product ads sewn together with her actual hair.

The pale green color and glossy surface of the tiles provide a foil for the wide array of skin colors that are built up and incised. For Brouckaert, the tile color is cool and calming, a tint of green found in old hospitals in Belgium. The way she leaves some of the paper on the tile surface was inspired by the ubiquitous griminess of subway tiles that form an interior skin of the New York City’s transportation system, which, like skin, is a crucial organ for the functioning of the city. Tiles also play an important role in her family history in Belgium. Her late younger sister, Elfriede, worked with broken tiles all her life to create mosaics (3). Over the years, their late father collected a mass of tiles for her in the basement, which has become the source of tiles used by the artist to honor both of them. Confronting complex loss led to the series 'Illusive Flesh of Light'(4), 'Joy Rides'(5), and now 'Peel (America)'. Brouckaert noted: “Grappling with loss opened up pathways in me to appreciate life more, to find more sensuality and joy working with materials, and that informed my use of patterns that are playful, and expand outwards from a center.”(6)

At Project: ARTspace, the installation sets up a double-negative spatial relationship between the wall and the tile units, and the tile with the built-up imagery. The imagination is stimulated and compelled to fill in the missing patterns or observe sections that were constructed together, flipped, and reappear to expand from the center. By engaging the viewer in this play, the project holds space for optimism and the incongruities and inconsistencies of life.

Jennifer McGregor
December 4, 2023

1 Studio visit with author, November 8, 2023.
2 Exhibited in 'Re/pro/ducing Complexity' curated by Peter Lodermeyer (with Nelleke Beltjens & Jorinde Voigt) at Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens, Deurle, Belgium, in 2011.
3 'To Pieces' with work by Elfriede and Hedwig Brouckaert was exhibited at Jan Dhaese Gallery, Ghent, Belgium in 2017.
4 Exhibited at 'Crossing the Dateline', Bangkok Art and Culture Center, Bangkok, Thailand, in 2017.
5 'Joy Rides' was exhibited at Jan Dhaese Gallery, Ghent, Belgium in 2019.
6 Studio visit with the author on November 8, 2023.

Hedwig Brouckaert / Peel / Examining the Layers / Jennifer McGregor