Hiding in plain sight: Masks and the psyche in Lysandre Begijn’s vivid wall sculptures

For Lysandre Begijn, art and the psyche are intricately related. The brightly coloured “sad face” figures that recur throughout her work personify the duality of light and shadow, the yin and yang of human nature. Composed on shaped wood panels in flat planes of colour with rope and fabric embellishments, the paintings resemble masks, giving the mysterious wearer a new identity, or non-identity. The godfather of analytical psychology, Carl Jung, used the term Persona to refer to the personality that a person projects to the outside world, “a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and on the other to conceal the true nature of the individual.” In Lysandre’s art, this tension between hiding and revealing is a central theme, given voice through the prominent mask motif as well as the frequent appearance of painted and textile draperies where another layer of veiling and unveiling unfolds.

Before focusing on painting Lysandre studied sculpture and psychology, and these two fields continue to play a formative role in her art. Her work is better described as wall sculptures or installations than conventional paintings, with the textiles, cords, chains and shaped surfaces lending the works a distinctly physical, tactile quality. Lysandre’s work has equal parts figurative and abstract elements, and she works in a deliberately naïve style to “create an imaginary world that is detached from the everyday,” she explains. Her influences range from outsider, folk and “primitive” art, to pop culture, classical and religious art, nature, and Jungian interpretations of the subconscious. Born in the Netherlands, Lysandre lives and works in Ghent, Belgium. In this interview, she tells us more about her deep interest in human behaviour, visual interpretations of reality and the ebb and flow of the creative process in studio.

AMM: Hi Lysandre! I read that you grew up in an artistic family. To start us off can you tell us a little about your background and how you decided to be an artist?

LB: My father is an artist. I spent my youth in the polders (reclaimed land) of Zeeuws-Vlaanderen (Dutch Flanders) surrounded by paintings, Persian rugs, icons, ex-votos and other artefacts, as well as natural elements. The studio of my father was a mythical place that we could only enter sporadically. It was a place of silence and concentration, as well as of action, spilled paint, cut pieces of linen of cardboard. This place fascinated me to the point that I aspired to have such a place of my own, away from time and space.

AMM: Have you had important mentors during your artistic career? What insights or lessons did they teach you that has influenced your artistic journey?

LB: In particular, theory-teachers of the art academy provided me with food for the mind. Literature, philosophy, art history. Personalities that spoke passionately about Sartre, Lacan, Greek temples and the Neue Wilden. This gave me fuel to shape my own ideas visually, as well as intellectually.

AMM: Before focusing on art you studied psychology. What initially drew you to that field of study and in what ways do aspects of this cross over into your artistic work? 

LB: The human psyche remains one of my most important sources of inspiration. Human behaviour, psychological suffering, mental pain or excesses are fascinating themes in our existence. We all possess these facets. It is universal and at the same time very personal and specific. We are afraid of them, hide them or avoid them, but often they are a major motive behind human behaviour. I am fascinated by the theories of Carl Jung, especially the interpretation of dreams and symbolism, as well as his theory of the subconscious. My masks or faces often give expression to the state of mind. Anxiety, madness, boredom, arrogance, apathy, sadness, fear…

‘Magnetic Polarity’, 37 x 42 cm, acrylic on wood, rope

AMM: Alongside your paintings and mixed-media installations you’ve also made collages and drawings (which you don’t generally show). Please tell us about your experience working with this array of mediums and what you gain from each?

LB: Drawing for me has always been an excellent tool to give free expression to my intuition in an organic way. It is a more direct medium to articulate myself visually. No drying needed or layered materials. I like to work with graphite because of the softness of this material. This allows me to achieve gradations. The silky aspect of the material allows for a dreamy atmosphere that emphasises the imaginary character of the work. They are not preliminary studies to the works on wood. They are works in themselves.

AMM: Your flat wall sculptures/sculptural paintings blur the distinction between two- and three-dimensionality. Please tell us more about how you approach working across this spatial spectrum and about “painting” with textiles.

LB: Making masks on wood emerged out of the limitation of the shape of the canvas. The square or rectangular shape narrowed my possibilities. I now saw undulating or round shapes from wood. It is now also easier to include textile, chains or rope around these shapes. It becomes more of a total picture.

AMM: In what ways do you use colour in your art? What is the dynamic between dark and light?

LB: Colour is an important aspect in my work. Form and colour. I prefer using a large spectrum of colours, ranging from pure colours to tertiary mixed colours, and from intense to more low-key tones. I like to use a multitude of hues within one colour segment. Contrasts and tensions in colour make the work rich and delicate. Colour offers a specific aesthetic to the artwork. Colour seduces, attracts, enchants. Colour functions as a magnet and brings one in trance.

‘Cuscuta’, 54 x 89 cm, acrylic on wood, rope

AMM: The colourful ‘faces’ in your work are composed of abstract, flat painted forms and scraps of textile material. What appeals to you about working fluidly between figuration and abstraction?

LB: The formal aspect and the touch of brushstroke can be seen as a sort of style of writing, as a kind of visual language of the artist. It is a visual grammar or vocabulary that the artist makes use of. My visual language tends to be naive. It is as well figurative as abstract. It detaches from a realistic rendition. My aim is to create an imaginary world that is detached from the everyday.

AMM: The tension between hiding/revealing seems to be an important theme in your work. Can you tell us more about this and about your interest in masks as a visual motif?

LB: This is a beautiful and essential question. A mask does carry several functions. It can act as a mirror (recognition) and it can open a door to a deeper connection, that of the soul. But a mask can also hide or reveal. It offers the possibility to be someone else. Both have the effect of being liberating. You can use a mask in day-to-day life to regulate your existence. But usually we know masks from ritual ceremonies. Masks are used all over the world in many cultures. Often they are used to enter another dimension, that of a divinity or the ancestors. Moreover they are instruments to enter into contact with your own inner self.

AMM: What is the meaning of the crying sad face in your work, which is at odds with the otherwise quite playful tone of your work? 

LB: Indeed, the ‘sad faces’ are cast in a colourful joyful shape. In this hides an essential tension. It is at the same time confusing and misleading. Sad expressions are made beautiful with a broad scale of colours and ornaments. They are elevated to higher spheres, just as they enable and embellish the shadow side of man. They are made sacred. Christ is often represented as a being of suffering. He who bears the sorrow of the world, but who also has the face in which we recognise our own suffering. We are not alone in this.

‘Saccade’, 42 x 51 cm, acrylic on wood, rope

AMM: Take us inside your studio: what does a typically day look like for you? What are you busy with right now? Do you have any specific daily routines that feed your creativity?

LB: The studio is an important place. Since last year my studio is located in an old historic building that features a large wild garden. This atmosphere of silence has a very strong influence on my work. It also is an excellent place to receive people and to show my work. I favour the mornings and morning light. The awakening of the day. I am a bad sleeper and the morning always gives me new determination after a difficult night. Mostly I start working around eight thirty; I make tea, put on some music and look at my previous finished or unfinished works. I study them and let them infuse me before starting to paint. At noon I lunch, if weather permits in the garden, briefly. After work I continue work at home until four o’clock and get my kids from school. Once at home again I keep working on my graphite drawings, which commute from my studio and home.

AMM: What ideas and themes are you currently exploring in your work?

LB: For the moment I study tree bark structures, stones, leaf structures of exotic plants, minerals, in fact all kinds of elements from nature. My attention also goes to fossils. In my drawings I aim to render invented fossil-like structures. As far as the formal aspect of my work is concerned, I’m also very interested in the ornamentation of romanesque monuments and frescoes. Content-wise I’m currently reading creation stories from India.

AMM: What is your process of working and how do you know when a work is complete?

LB: I work in stages. The creation of an artwork is a process. I never have a preconceived plan or idea. Everything occurs intuitively and with high concentration. Of course I develop my own visual language and colour palette. It is an interaction between me and the work. I anticipate and react to what arises, to what appears. It is as if the work itself gives me instructions and direction to its own identity. The work is finished when there is nothing more that needs to be added and a ‘total’ image is created.

‘Favorite Favarin’, 50 x 89 cm, acrylic on wood

AMM: What are some of the sources you draw inspiration from for your work?

LB: In first instance old art. ‘Primitive’ prehistoric art; the naive, honest style speaks to me tremendously. This is equally the case with romanesque art and its flat, almost childish shapes and faces. Outsider art is an important source of inspiration because of the compelling repetitive character of it. It has an unambiguous total focus. Human proportions are often out of scale or absent. It is a singular interpretation of reality. I find religious art such as icons fascinating because of their sacred nature. Facial expressions are expressive; their droopy-like eyes and grumpy little mouths. Obviously I draw also a lot of inspiration from nature.

AMM: When you’re not in studio what are some of the other ways you like to spend your time?

LB: I like to spend time in nature. Trees, bushes, rocks, sea. About every single landscape can seduce me. But I’m equally to be found in art galleries. In particular old art of art brut take my interest. LAM in Lille (France) is one my favourite art galleries. I always visit ancient churches and chapels when travelling.

AMM: Despite the ongoing uncertainty due to the pandemic, do you have any exhibitions or projects coming up? What’s next for you?

LB: The pandemic meant for me personally a greater focus on my work. Life fell still for a moment. I was able to work well. Studio visits of people on a national level remained possible in a safe way. Receiving people from outside Belgium is on hold, but eventually also for this solutions exist. For instance I show my work in Amsterdam without being able to travel there and I participate in an art project for Sonsbeek in Arnhem. Art in some cases paradoxically received a greater podium during this pandemic. Never before have so many art galleries and museums  been visited over the last few months.

Find out more about the artist: www.lysandre.be

Interview by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Magazine.

‘Cuprian Adamite’, 83 x 107 cm, acrylic on wood, rope


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