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Welcome to the Mid-Century Modern World

of Marcel Ceuppens

By Artspace Staff

FEB. 26, 2020

Sharp-eyed Angelinos will surely have seen the work of the Belgian artist Marcel Ceuppens on a billboard towering above them as they made their way down Melrose Avenue between Seward St. & Hudson this month. 

The Belgium born designer turned artist had the honor of being selected for

The Billboard Creative 2020 show with his “Composition 11/3" (2017). Billboard Creative turns billboard advertising spaces into accessible art exhibitions. Selected guest artists have included Ed Ruscha, Paul McCarthy, Marilyn Minter,

and Alex Prager.

The billboard was an apt medium for this breakout artist. After studying advertising at Sint-Lukas University of Art & Design in Brussels, Ceuppens became an award winning Art Director working at the most creative advertising agencies in Belgium before becoming a full time painter and illustrator. He began creating economic, highly conceptual digital paintings in 2010, works which often explore themes of disconnection, complacency and detachment as a universal aspect of day-to-day existence. Many works are centered around a faceless man situated within different dream-like locations, the paintings seem to beg the question: where is one’s place in the world?

Masterfully illustrated, these images attest to Ceuppens’s ability to extract a sensation and develop it into a statement. In 2013 his work took a new, less conceptual direction, with a series of neo-modernist paintings. Bigger, more colorful, more extrovert, these paintings are inspired by his passion for mid-century art, design and architecture.

His works have been published in American, Belgian and British media, and featured in the Creative Review’s Illustration Annual. Some of his exhibitions include  the Affordable Art Fair New York, Scope Fair Miami, Art International Zurich, and the National Arts Club, New York. Let's meet him!

The graphic works have a very mid-century modern feel about them in terms of shape and color, why?

I like many different art forms, I love contemporary art, I have a passion for Pop art,

but mid-century art had a major impact on me, and not just painting or sculpture,

but also architecture, design, photography, film, music or advertising. Mid-century art and design was trying to improve things, to make things better. It was a movement of hope. The future was going to be bright. They were re-inventing everything. They were really bringing answers, finding solutions, and with a great sense of aesthetics. There is like freshness, a sense of hope and optimism, and a joy about it that I’m in love with. I still get the biggest kick from that period and the people who were working during that time. It is definitely one of my biggest sources of inspiration and my studio is filled with books from that period. It seems that everything I make has that feel.

The same figure appears in many of them and maybe we can project whatever we want onto him. He could be a character from a Sixties sci-fi comic or - completely differently - a Jacques Tati-esque figure! Does he have a name

or a persona for you?  

The character doesn’t necessarily need to have a name. But an art blogger once called him “Everyman” and that worked for me. He’s a universal character; he stands for every one of us. It’s me, but it’s also you or anyone else. And I love that you evoke Jacques Tati, another hero of mine. I used that character when I first started working as an artist, after my advertising years. It was very much inspired and influenced by another hero from my art school days, the Belgian artist Jean-Michel Folon. He was famous in the Seventies, made covers for “The New Yorker”, worked in advertising.

His work for Olivetti is famous. His style was very different, and his technique was aquarelle, but he created this character with a hat. I used a completely different technique, more realistic, and I drew on computer. The character is observing the world that surrounds him, and that world can be absurd, crazy, fake. The rules we follow, the things we do or say, what we pretend to think. What we pretend to like. What we think we should like. I’m a guy, but it’s a universal character, I hope all genders can relate to him. 

What campaigns did you work on as an art director and what did they teach you about the various levels of human communication within a visual medium?

Most of my advertising career was in Belgium and I doubt the campaigns I worked on are known outside of Europe, but some of the most awarded ones are “Bru” (a water company) and my “Saab” (the Swedish cars) campaign. What my years in advertising tought me is to simplify things, to reduce things to the essential. And to communicate an idea in a very direct and simple way with a minimum of signs. What I couldn’t say when I was working in advertising, was that I was secretly often working like an artist, and that my process was very similar to that of an artist. I guess I was sometimes more concerned about the “artistic” qualities of the work than some of my colleagues. But to be honest, in my mind some of the greatest advertising campaigns are as great as contemporary art. Check out the book “Remember those great Volkswagen ads?” and tell me that’s not great art!

What inspired you to start creating in the first place, how did your first childhood experiments manifest themselves?

The first visual epiphany I had was in 1967, I was a young kid. I was in my uncle’s car and we were driving alongside a billboard for the Car Show in Brussels. It didn’t show a car or anything else, it just featured the word “auto”, painted in black and blue with a thick brush on a white background. But the word “auto” had the shape of a car, the letters formed the shape of a car. So stupidly simple but so brilliant. The idea reduced to the essence. And I thought: I can do that! I later found out that billboard was created by a guy named Julian Key, and I would not only meet him many years later but work with him in the same advertising agency.


What feeling do you get from your own acts of creation?

Happiness! Satisfaction! The greatest feeling in the world.  I work the best when I feel great, when I’m in a good shape and a good mood. I cannot work when I’m depressed or not feeling great. I don’t know how other artists do that.
What are your current inspirations?

Everything. A situation, a magazine, a conversation, a film, a book cover, watching the news. In a positive or in a negative way. I guess my work can also be seen as an attempt to escape things. To escape today’s ugliness. The populism, the vulgarity. There’s a lot of mediocrity out there. Working allows me to escape all that.

If I buy one of your pieces what should I say to friends about it?

One day at an art fair there was an older man in a suit staring at my “Les Baigneuses” piece. He just kept staring at that piece for a very long time. And he was smiling. I asked him why he was smiling, did he like it? He said he was smiling because it made him happy. It’s the greatest compliment I ever got. So I would like you to say that it makes you feel happy! 


Where do you fit in, who do you think you belong alongside?

I honestly don’t know where I fit in; I think my work is a mix between art and graphic design with influences from mid-century art. With my compositions I’m everything but conceptual, and I’m not afraid of being decorative. Picasso made decorative art.


How does your work fit together – is there a journey you can see?

People tell me there’s a link between everything I do, but I don’t see that. I’ve done very different things, in very different styles, using very different techniques. I hate doing the same thing over and over again, and people I admire are like that too. I don’t understand how certain artists can do the same exact things over and over again. But whatever I make, whether it’s abstract or figurative, some way or another it always refers to the things I’m passionate about.

Can you control where it takes you – do you guide it like you would a commercial work or do you let it guide you?

Usually I start to work simply because I have a great urge to create something new that’s really really exiting and super cool. Like a kid with Lego blocks. I have a vague idea of what I want but don’t really know where I’m going. And I don’t know why a piece works, or doesn’t work. Sometimes it’s really easy and fast, and I’m instantly happy with the result. Those are my favourites. But sometimes it’s difficult and long and painful. Sometimes it’s like the piece has a will of it’s own and doesn’t want to work. I always tell people my abstract compositions are like visual Sudoku. I’m moving, sliding, changing, and puzzling shapes and colours and forms in every possible way and direction until it finally works!  So I guess I don’t really control where it takes me, I just know it when the piece is done. When it’s perfect. And then I have to stop and not touch it anymore.

What are the bits of being a fine artist you still struggle with  - the bits that are different to being a commercial artist?

I’m not a very social guy. What I really like is to be in my studio and work.  I’m not very good at functioning in the ‘art scene’. I really like the contact with the collectors; I like to talk to the customers, those who genuinely like art. And I love talking to other artists. But I hate the bullshit, the pretenders, and the fake. Many of the people who work in the art world confuse art with fashion shows.

What are you working on next?

I’m starting a new series of hand painted works on canvas. I have absolutely no idea where I’m gonna go or what I’m going to do. 

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