a talk with Charline Tyberghein
Charline Tyberghein has recently had successful gallery and institutional exhibitions, and seems cut out for a perfectly brilliant artistic career. In 2018, she received the KoMASK Masters Salon Painting Award – a prize for best master student in the arts, which offered her immediate popularity in the Antwerp art scene (and beyond). Ironically, she nearly dropped out of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in her second year. The first years at the academy are very focused on mastering techniques and drawing ‘correctly’. Charline, however, excelled later, when she was encouraged to find her own voice. She nuances the impact of the prize by stating “only fourteen European academies participated.”
A conversation in her studio gives insight into Charline’s methods and working process, in which simplicity and modesty are key.
Hands with symbols cut out in them, two pairs of legs and their uneven shadows, tablecloth-like patterns with optical swellings in the shape of hearts, heads, distorted cutlery. Charline Tyberghein’s paintings are neither abstract nor figurative. Their fresh colours and candid style are appealing to the eye, yet they hide a multitude of possible stories and associations. The works are characterized by a compellingly poetical visual language and a moving simplicity, leaving enough mystery for the viewer’s imagination to toy with.
Charline populates her visual universe by a limited selection of symbols, simple images that almost seem to function as pictograms. Where they will lead you, is unsure. Bricks, cigarettes, feet, hands and heads are the main characters. Combined, they appear as rebuses without one singular solution. They tell their own story, but also the tale the viewer will make of it. “It’s a search,” the artist says. “It is feeling you can’t quite put into words, like a dream you can’t remember very well.” The symbols don’t necessarily have a fixed meaning for herself, either: “Sometimes I use them for a very specific reason, sometimes I paint them intuitively, and their meaning remains open to interpretation.”
Above all, Charline is constantly nuancing any reading of her work: “I don’t want anything to be too sad or too heavy,” she says. “So when I feel that a symbol or a story behind it is heavy, I tend to use a brighter, more happy colour. Or I’ll give the piece a funny title.” Her work is characterized by an overall modesty. No bold statements, no attention seeking, no big sentiments. Only the small, daily human tragedy is found in Charline’s paintings: the secrets hidden behind a gesture, under an umbrella, underneath the chess-pattern tablecloth in the kitchen, or behind your brick wall. What these objects have seen, says more about our life than we care to reveal.
“I have several well-organized binders in which I collect visual materials,” the artist explains. In these binders, she gathers images – found in magazines, books, online, etc. – that inspire her. One single binder is devoted to stones and hands, for example. “Whenever I need inspiration, I start browsing through these clippings,” she says. “I might stumble upon the perfect idea in an image that I found years ago.” Her own work is equally collected and gathered in binders, and equally an inspiration. “I must have an image of each of my works. I need it physically: I’m afraid I will forget them if I don’t print out the photographs.”
Just like her catalogue of symbols, Charline’s colour palette is rather limited. “There are only so many colours I really like,” she explains. “I don’t like bold, flashy colours, I prefer mixed shades. For example, I will never use orange!” And again, her colour use in informed by a wish to tone down ‘big emotions’: “for example, when I feel that a painting is too sad for me, I will give it a candy-ish pink colour. Or the other way around: when things are too goofy, I’ll tone them down with a more sober shade.”
But it is not only a question of taste; not all colours accomplish great effects with the airbrush, which is one of her most frequent instruments. “I recently switched from spraypaint to airbrush. It’s much more practical in the small indoor space that is my studio.” First the spraypaint and now the airbrush allow the artist to work faster, yet more meticulously. “It is an active, physical process,” she says, “I love how the paint leads its own life, beyond the structures you force it into.”
Because of her experience during the first years studying art, it took Charline a long time to find confidence in her work: “I used to be afraid to produce a ‘bad’ painting. I would first make one sketch, then another, then a drawing, then a ‘better’ drawing, and then the painting. If something would go wrong, I would be totally bummed out.” Although she is still rather afraid of making mistakes, there is now room for coincidence, for errors to be visible. When working with airbrush, she demarcates the structures for the painting with tape, creating a framework for the paint. Often, her impatience leads her to pull the tape off, only to realize the paint hadn’t completely dried yet. “That means I have to start again, but I don’t really mind. The layers created by previous attempts on the canvas, result in an interesting depth. It’s alright for the process to be visible.” She produced very few paintings at this pace, and the demand for exhibitions made her accelerate. “The more I produce, the more I can live with my mistakes,” she says. The paintings have a life of their own and in no way Charline places herself or her artistic view above them.
In this newly accelerated production, a fear of repetition arises. “I’m terribly afraid of repeating myself,” the artist says. Every once in a while, she browses through images of her own work (also kept in neatly organized binders), for inspiration, but also to check the originality of a new piece: “I need to remember my previous works so that I don’t make anything too similar.” The line between repetition and finding your own voice, is a thin one. She allows for repetition in her symbolic alphabet, because they are her tools. They open new meanings in new combinations. They shape her language, from which she constructs a new visual poem with every work.
The same thing could be said about Charline’s exhibitions. “A work can change completely when it is shown in a different context.” She particularly likes to present her paintings in the space, rather than hanging on the wall. She did this for the first time at the Academy, where the installation was bound by many restrictions. “Ironically, the presentation options at the Academy are very limited, and the exhibition spaces are small. So I decided to install my paintings in the space,” she says.
She continued on this exploration of less predictable ways of exhibiting her work at Beursschouwburg in Brussels, where she created an installation with paintings sitting around a dinner table and hanging from the ceiling. “They became characters, you could walk around them.” Both the artist and the viewer are made equal to the pieces. The paintings are characters; therefore their personality is their own. They allow for a conversation with the viewer, but in no way are they dominated by the intentions of the artist or the associative interpretations of the viewer. The installation somewhat resembled a wordless play, with diverse actors, a well-chosen decor and several possible storylines. And although she also shows her works hanging on the wall, she feels confident about continuing to explore the possibilities of paintings as spatial installations. “It feels good to break the conventions of painting.”
Charline recently found a new focus for drawing. “For the first time, I feel that some of my drawings could be independent artworks,” she says. “Some of them are versions of preparational drawings, others have subjects that I haven’t worked with before.” Just as for her paintings, she marks the outlines of the drawing with tape, but her drawing technique is very different. She uses graphite powder and softly rubs it in the paper with a cotton glove. The fragility of this method cannot be compared to the way she paints. “The result is much more refined. The effect is dreamier and lighter, more ephemeral.” She has never exhibited any drawings before: this will be a next step. “I do feel that the drawings could be shown in a dialogue with the paintings. They complement each other.”
Maybe Charline’s drawings are even more modest than her paintings. They are fragile and soft, in black and white – displaying many subtle shades of graphite grey. They could never impose themselves on a viewer. Therefore, indeed they complement her paintings, by offering a new layer of subtilty and mystery. Charline Tyberghein’s works are not readily readable – with their combination of humour, tenderness and visual poetry, they seem familiar yet fresh. Without being out of your comfort zone, they will trigger your emotional imagination.