The palm trees of Bruno V. Roels settle in Saint Laurent

“You’d have to be crazy to refuse,” says Bruno V. Roels. The Ghent-based artist has collaborated with fashion house Saint Laurent on a solo show and capsule collection. Portrait of a palm fetishist who became an artist late in life. “Everything that happens to me today is a bonus.”

Belgium brings rain and sunshine to Saint Laurent. Anthony Vaccarello has been its creative director since 2016. And last week, a capsule collection featuring photos by artist Bruno V. Roels was released.

The Belgian also exhibits his latest works in two Saint Laurent flagship stores (Paris and Los Angeles: ideal timing, as California’s Coachella festival kicks off this weekend.) The line-up of the Saint Laurent boutique is a great recognition: before him, they exhibited Jean-Michel Basquiat, Memphis with Ettore Sottsass and Robert Mapplethorpe. “Art is in the DNA of Saint Laurent, and particularly that of François-Henri Pinault, CEO of the Kering luxury group to which Saint Laurent belongs,” explains Roels gallery owner Roger Szmulewicz. “Pinault is a great art collector. He also owns works by Bruno.”

The capsule collection based on photographs by Bruno V. Roels it has twenty pieces: hoodies, t-shirts, scarves, shoes, and even swim trunks. They are sold exclusively at the two flagship stores and, on a limited basis, online. “Naturally, my work on a hoodie is totally different from the original. I consider the collection completely independent of the photos that were used to create it,” says Roels. “For me, the collaboration with Saint Laurent is confirmation that my work has universal resonance.”

When Roels first presented his work, he was 38 years old. “It wasn’t until that age that I felt like I had something to say.”
©Alexander D’Hiet

Jazz and palm trees

Bruno V. Roels (46) sees his work as a “paradise quest”whose a perfect metaphor is the palm tree. “The palm tree is the symbol of exoticism, but also of glamour, adventure, mass tourism, luxury vacations, colonialism and paradise,” he says.

“Everyone interprets the palm tree in their own way, which makes it an interesting phenomenon. The palm tree is timeless and is present in many cultures and religions, like Palm Sunday, also known as the Fiesta de las Ramos. I have a collection of objects around this theme. I recently bought a Roman coin on Catawiki with a palm tree depicted on it. A jeweler set it up as a ring for my wife Eva, who for years has suffered from my propensity to collect it.”

The palm tree is recurrent in many works of Ghent. Produces series of photographic prints, strictly arranged according to a rhythm, as a graphic score, visual rhyme, or conceptual variations on a semantic theme. These serial compositions of palm trees seduce on different levels.

black room

“Everything starts with photos, mine or archive material. My work is mainly done in dark room: exposure time, temperature, development time, paper type, chemicals are parameters that many photographers want to control because they are looking for the perfect shot, but unfortunately the result is often sterile. I prefer to leave it to chance. If a water bottle cap is lying around in the dark room, it can become part of my frame. The inspirations of the moment are comparable to jazz improvisations. Sometimes there are, there are mistakes, but I don’t care. That’s why I could never go digital. It all starts with physical experimentation with photographic equipment.”

“My imagination takes me to paradise, beauty, palm trees, money, relaxation, luxury and vacations,” admits Belgian artist Bruno V. Roels.
©Alexander D’Hiet

For the realization of his unique works, Roels has the final control of the composition, the quality of printing and the type of paper. On the other hand, he does not control the way house of st laurent prints his works. “If it scares you, you should never agree to this type of collaboration,” she says. “If you were offered such a proposal, you would have to be crazy not to consider it. What is the probability that a house like Saint Laurent would choose my works among the hundreds of thousands of other artists?”

The magic of Instagram

“We get collaboration requests of all kinds, but if it’s just printing a photo of one of our artists’ work on a T-shirt, we turn them down,” explains Szmulewicz, founder of Gallery FIFTY ONE in Antwerp, which represents Roels. world.

How did Roels appear on Saint Laurent’s radar? “A talent scout asked me through Instagram if he wanted to collaborate with a big brand. At first, they didn’t tell me who he was. But I didn’t provide never free photos in exchange for greater visibilityRoels explains. And that’s when the Saint Laurent name was revealed. “There are only a few fashion brands I was considering collaborating with and Saint Laurent was one of them. I love French fashion houses that use both traditional craftsmanship and innovation.”

©Alexander D’Hiet

Naturally, Yves Saint Laurent (1936-2008) is a source of inspiration. The couturier was also an art-loving scholar, passionate about literature, like Roels. And, like Roels, he loved exoticism and palm trees. “Do you believe me when I tell you that I haven’t had a chance to go see the palm trees and cacti at Jardin Majorelle in Marrakech yet? I like the idea of ​​just being a guy who can get around.” the world thanks to the palm trees that he incorporates into his work”.

paradise chimera

As an artist, Bruno V. Roels started his career late. He did not attend the Academy of Fine Arts, but studied literature and linguistics. “It was in college that I first understood that there was an artist in me. At that time, I wasn’t doing art photography yet, just photos of my everyday life,” says Roels. “Magnum photographer Harry Gruyaert once said to me, ‘I think defining yourself as an artist when you’re a photographer is very arrogant.’ : Am I a photographer because I know how to use a camera, or am I an artist because I master a photographic process?

©Alexander D’Hiet

When Roels first presented his works in 2014, he was 38 years old. “By that time, I had already seen so much art and read so many books on anthropology, psychology, and philosophy, that my intellectual background was greater than that of the average 18-year-old student. For twenty years, I watched and learned, and it was only then that I felt that I had something to tell. When I became known as an artist, I didn’t have much to propose. But, in my head, I had a catalog of ideas to extract from. Thanks to my literary training, I knew that love and death, eros and thanatos, are the two main themes in literature, but also in many other forms of art. Death is not explicitly recurring in my work, unlike ‘escaping death’. And it is in this context that my chimera of ‘paradise’ fits, a promise made of beauty, palm trees, money, luxury, vacations, idleness… The big luxury brands are also playing with it.”

A fairly light resume.

This maturity may explain why Roels’ career takes off, making people jealous at the same time. “I feel like I missed some steps,” she admits. “As an artist, you first take part in small group shows, hoping that an art dealer will notice you. It may seem arrogant, but this preparation course seemed unnecessary to me: I wanted to be exhibited in galleries immediately. I told them to my friends, laughing: ‘In a year, I want to sell works that you can no longer buy.’ They were not amused, but that is how it happened: I could no longer afford my own works when, in November 2014, I was exhibited for the first time time in Paris Photo”.

Gallery owner Roger Szmulewicz exhibited Roels’ work for the first time at an emerging talent fair. The reactions were so good that he took it to Paris Photo.
©Alexander D’Hiet

Just six months earlier, Roels had reached art dealer Roger Szmulewicz, with a single work under his arm. “I wanted to ask him which gallery might be interested in my work. I never would have guessed it would be him!” laughs Roels. After a two-hour interview, Szmulewicz decides to exhibit it in September at Amsterdam’s Unseen, the art fair for emerging talent.

The reactions were so positive that Roels was entered in November at Paris Photo, the world’s largest photography fair. “The palm tree series was very interesting. And Bruno’s darkroom work sparks the imagination,” adds Szmulewicz. “We sold very well, even if Bruno’s résumé was quite low. Major American and French institutions have shown interest in him, while ‘new’ artists take longer to find their way. Simon Baker, then curator of photography at Tate Modern, He regularly came to our stand to show Bruno’s works. For me, that was an important sign.”

Master plan

However, as of 2014, Roels was still working full time at a software company. Since then, he has had the honors of three individual exhibitions at Gallery FIFTY ONE and one at Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York. Despite the success, he is still not a full-time artist.

He still works as a marketing content manager at Kongsberg Precision Cutting Systems, a producer of cutting tables. “I prefer to have two sources of income, especially since one of the two does not offer me any guarantee,” she says. “I don’t want to have to worry if I sell less. In these uncertain times, it’s dangerous for me to switch completely to the solitary life of an artist. The romantic idea that an artist should work full time and struggle to survive is ingrained. I don’t share it I point to what in ancient times the Greeks called ataraxia: being mentally free from all worries.”

Bruno V. Roels’ capsule collection for Saint Laurent includes clothing and other accessories, as well as tableware and surfboards. Hoodie ‘Fake Billboards (Looking for paradise?)’, 1,090 euros.

“It may be due to my rational view of things, but I have a master plan for my career as an artist. I have a very clear goal and I know where I want to be by this or that deadline. The artists that I find interesting, – John Baldessari, Ed Ruscha, About Kawara – everyone has reached certain milestones in their life. This is also what I want. A collaboration with a fashion house was not in my master plan, but I welcome it. I’m also aiming for a solo show at a major museum. My work is not yet ripe for this, but I am already far away and I don’t always realize it. That’s the advantage of a late start: everything that happens to me today is an advantage.”

The Bruno V. Roels Capsule Collection
it is available at Saint Laurent in Paris and Los Angeles. www.ysl.com,
www.brunoroels.art, www.gallery51.com

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