Johan Debruyne


New paintings by Mieke Teirlinck have appeared with increasing regularity in recent times. Her work is starting to gain attention across the entire country and is crying out to be represented in a monograph. This is my short contribution to this endeavour.
Just a few weeks ago, I paused a while outside a small, new art gallery in Mechelen. I had taken the train and left the station through the Nekkerspoel, exit, and found an exposed “vliet” (as the shallow water courses in the city are called) in the middle of a rather playful piece of contemporary architecture. Space had been made in the bright, lapidary building for a brand new gallery and Mieke Teirlinck was showing her work there. It was a square, white space made of glass. On the walls were no more than nine paintings, collected under the title Identity. I had followed her career for some time, but now I felt confused. It was a rainy winter’s day and the paintings were bathed in a bluish light. I experienced a unity to her work that I had never been aware of before and I wanted to stand there a while admiring the ensemble from a distance. It intrigued and captivated me. When the few visitors who were moving about inside got in the way of the overall vision, jammed the frequency, as it were, I grumbled quietly to myself. A little later, to break the spell, I finally stepped inside.


All the paintings were unmistakeably an artistic indictment of (child) abuse, corruption and power. Teirlinck paints humanity in all its vulnerability and failure. This has always been her self-appointed task. She concerns herself with the fate of people, with the world outside her studio, a building that stands hidden in her capricious, overgrown garden. This studio offers her a refuge where, in a sort of lush silence, she can give explicit expression to her pain, to her anger and helplessness, to her disappointment and her enraged protest. Separated from the world where all this horror continues ad infinitum, Teirlinck produces her utterly original response.
By chance, I have been able to follow the entire evolution of her work from close by and from the absolute beginning. From the very first portraits, I could see what was driving her: on the one hand, to master the techniques and on the other to find the identity and soul of who or what she was portraying. This was a decade and a half ago, when Mieke Teirlinck had just completed her studies at the Art Academy in Bruges. I remember the day when she realised her dream of building a large studio at the bottom of her garden. In the years before that, she had shown a rare degree of perseverance and willpower. And finally she had a solitary place where she could escape all the noise and routine of daily life. Painting at this level requires total concentration and seclusion and is no tea party. It is work and it is a voyage of discovery. It is trial and error and scrapping and starting over again, time after time.
In the early days, the landscapes, still lives and portraits were in part just an excuse to paint. After all, the long road to competence does need to be paved: the route to brilliance for someone like Teirlinck, who is not easily satisfied with herself, would cost blood, sweat and tears. Passion and persistence has meant that technique no longer stands between the painter and her vision. These days, she can readily tell what will go wrong, what will inspire her and what torment. Her compassion is also a crucial element. Even the faces of those subjects who have behaved badly are not shown. We are all fallible.
The work of Mieke Teirlinck transcends the anecdotal. Her sober, transparent images – no frills, no decor – are therefore universal. A viewer would have to be blind to reality to not pick up fairly quickly what they are about. It is only very occasionally that a picture demands explanation and this is primarily in the rare moments when the artist draws from her own pain or personal experiences (the scars on her soul) to depict trauma, using attributes that are particular to herself or that she deliberately wishes to be obscure.


Teirlinck processes the struggles of the outside world but also her own feelings, the pain that she – like most of us – experiences in her life, has suffered in the past or that is simply the nausea of existence. For her, painting, for us, looking, can heal. She might stage an unusual, somewhat childlike world complete with knickknacks, which she photographs, manipulates and finally paints. The viewer is confronted with what appears to be a beautiful, joyful, nicely painted picture of kitsch. But if you look more deeply, then a world opens up that is far less pleasant. Now that Teirlinck understands so much better how people and things work, she uses aspects of her childhood to make this clear and present. Look at how she purposively lifts the veil of the seemingly flawless porcelain doll. She surreptitiously destroys the illusion.
Her work has evolved – and what a prolific artist she is! – to the point where a sort of uniformity has been reached that draws in the viewer. For me, this recognisable style has always been there, even when she used bright colours and it seemed as if there could never be enough light, shine or reflective surfaces. I cannot say whether the artist with the formal, stylistic uniformity of today is as happy – it is an artistic process that you should not obstruct – but for many art lovers, recognisability is of major importance. It has to be “a” Mieke Teirlinck. I wouldn’t give a fig if this also meant that the artist was compromising the content, authenticity and quality of the paintings. Needless to say, this is not what Teirlinck is doing. It seems like a game, and in moments it is just a little bit of one, but one can get hurt playing games. You may be left out, feel alone; see your daydreams turn into nightmares. Many of the attributes hold a symbolic value for Teirlinck. There is the hippopotamus that for her, just as in Egyptian mythology, protects the unborn child. There are clothes and packaging that do not cover the contents or hide them from the glare of truth. Deception. Vulnerability. Like her other works, these depict joy and pain. Life.


The first works that grabbed the public’s imagination and that put Mieke Teirlinck on the art world map were… flesh-coloured. Freud (when it comes to portraits) and Cézanne (landscapes) must have been role models. What she paints now, so many years later, is surprisingly different. The works are generally larger. The paint is rubbed in so that the contours are blurred. Teirlinck’s world is now darker and more mysterious. The work is more fragile. There is less texture. The dark colour contrasts enhance the feeling of intimacy, secretiveness and menace. At first, she still painted in thick dabs of colour. Teirlinck has always sworn by oil, since the wet-on-wet technique offers the flexibility she needs. It was almost like sculpting, which was in fact the discipline she started out studying at the Art Academy.
When she creates a portrait, the “suffering subject” needs to sit unmoving for 15 hours. Fortunately for the “victim”, this is spread out over a few sessions. Of course, not everyone has such a poor back as yours truly does. The people with disabilities whom she managed to persuade – with a lot of effort – to model for her, got through those sessions – during which time also seemed to stand still – with great grace. When she painted nature, particularly rocks and water, it was an act of defiance. She wanted to feel and smell nature and in her artistic practice only allowed herself to be rushed and antagonised by time and the frequently changing weather conditions. When it was high tide, when the water was fierce and imperious, then the work had to be completed. The impetus was a love for nature and respect for the elemental forces, but she was also interested in the professional challenges. And when she painted still lives, of fish or pastries, then these “ingredients” were brought into the studio. To see and smell, of course, and then the battle with time would commence; with decay, with the limits of personal skill. When she painted portraits, then she looked her models in the eye. She saw into them and she forged bonds with them.


Teirlinck never desired to paint top models, and athletes even less. It was “uncle” Kamiel who regularly posed for her in the studio. This was not out of vanity, since we have already touched on how difficult it is to sit motionless on a chair for hours. Undoubtedly, Kamiel felt that Mieke was creating something profound and wanted to witness the miracle that would transpire before his eyes. There were also Linda, Rika, Evelien, Jean-Pierre and Luc. Not forgetting Sam, whom she met at the Academy: young, pale, skinny and scarred by life. For a while, he was Teirlinck’s favourite model.
Mieke Teirlinck generally works in series. One day, a nude series of obese people appeared. Teirlinck portrayed them from the back. This gave her the opportunity to prove how relative beauty is. On the walls of the exhibition space, they could be looking towards or away from each other. The concept was intriguing, daring and meaningful. The series also dovetailed perfectly with the city of Bruges’ five-yearly art festival, Corpus, leading to the selection of a number of these works in 2005. The artworks were employed as a sort of trigger for the event, which had international aspirations. The arresting images attracted a lot of attention in Bruges, both in the window of the Arentshuis and in the St. John’s General Hospital, where they were displayed. There was also the series of portraits of people with Down’s Syndrome who were residents of the nearby “Instituut Ter Dreve”: to see them was an unforgettable, extraordinary, captivating and rewarding experience. This was a key turning point in her painting career: undoubtedly, also in her life.


All these efforts, “sacrifices” and sheer hard work have led to what she paints today: inspirational images that are simultaneously aesthetically pleasing and painful. In her current practice, Mieke Teirlinck – also a highly capable photographer – takes pictures, freezes frames in films and captures images from various media, such as newspapers and current affairs programmes, that impact on her. She manipulates the images and colours and only then starts to paint. The resulting works are dark and fragile, with barely any texture, but utterly comprehensible.
These days, she no longer feels the need to show reality. In her inimitable way, she suggests it. The viewer is given the space for a personal interpretation, can furnish the canvas with their own experiences since she has cut out superfluous detail. This makes her work exciting. And Teirlinck does not judge. She nudges.
Do I need to add that light has remained of the utmost importance to Mieke Teirlinck? That she is fascinated with reflections? What does the mirror tell us? What does a mirrored image show us that we do not normally see? And should we not all take a long, hard look in the mirror more often? This is about the confrontation with the “I”, about staring back at the gaze that represents the soul.
There is so much unnecessary suffering in our society that we need have no fear that the artist’s inspiration will dry up, that her anger, pain and fear will ebb away. She will continue to make beautiful records of the limitless ugliness and mess of life. It sounds strange to say this, but it is so. When you look at her work, at first you feel delight but this soon turns into uneasiness. What you perceive beyond the image is not pretty and yet it somehow offers solace. It is unequivocal but the aesthetic beauty makes the confrontation bearable. Look, enjoy and do not be afraid of a truth that is so often a lie. Tear up the newspapers, turn off the Internet and the radios and look at Teirlinck’s work: you will feel what ails the world. A part of you will enjoy the artistry and the images will linger on in your memory, along with the evils they depict. Furthermore, in contrast to newspapers and magazines, the indignation that Teirlinck dishes up is unselective and unfiltered.
Mieke Teirlinck gives us what we need in a world that bludgeons us with horrors. I personally need beauty. My profession helps me to appreciate it. But I also need to see the reality. Feel the pain. Mieke Teirlinck’s work satisfies my melancholy soul.

<H>ART art magazine