Belgium-based artist Matthieu Van Assche does a bit of everything. He’s a photographer, illustrator, engraver and graphic designer. A sense of playfulness and experimentation are the constants throughout his work in every medium. We talked to him about the evolution of his artistic life, and he shared a few of his favorite projects with us.
Can you start by introducing yourself to our readers and telling us a bit about yourself?
My name is Mathieu Van Assche, born in 1980, I live and work in Brussels, Belgium. Graphic designer by profession, I try as much as possible to combine my work with my passions for illustration, engraving and photography. For more than five years now, I also try to diffuse and show my own work through exhibitions and publications. Recently, I am also a co-editor with Editions Le Mulet, a publishing house specialized in photo books and fanzines.
You work in a variety of mediums (graphic design, photography, illustration, engraving.) What came first? And how did your art progress from one medium to another?
Since I was little, I loved images and like most children, I started to draw quite quickly and finally, I never stopped. I was very quickly attracted by comic strips or illustration books such as "Crasse Tignasse" or "Max et les maximonstres" which really marked me deep inside and which continue to echo in my current work.
After my studies of graphic design, I launched myself professionally in this field but very quickly I also had the desire to develop a manual artistic work without computers. At the beginning, I tried screen printing in an academy where there was also the possibility to do engraving. Intrigued to try while I knew nothing about it, I finally did not do silk-screening and continued engraving until today. With this technique and particularly etching, I immediately understood that it was a medium that corresponded well to my way of drawing and to what I wanted to do.
Photography is the last medium I started working with. I always have a camera in my bag or in a pocket, ready to trigger when I see something.
In the end, I juggle between the different mediums. There is no rule, I do according to my desires and projects. Finally in all cases, the goal and the challenge remains to make good images. The biggest difference between the three techniques is rather in the temporality. My practice of photography remains something very spontaneous in the way I work and very fast as far as the shooting is concerned. By working without staging and without posing, I try to capture moments that do not last long and that one must know how to seize very quickly.
Engraving is the opposite, it is a laborious and slow process. I can sometimes spend two months working on the same print. For the illustration or the "sabotage" of old photos, it is between the two, there is often a long process of research of images but the moment I draw can go very quickly.
Can you tell us more about your “sabotage” technique of combining illustration with old photographs? When did you start doing this and what do you enjoy about it?
At the beginning, I started to draw on old photos only for fun and without any specific idea or project in mind. I had collected some old family photos and it quickly became fun to draw on them. As time went on, I began to see that in addition to having fun, this work was growing and that series were starting to appear.
I work a lot with masks and monsters but I also like to sometimes hijack photos representing moments of everyday life, always trying to bring in something a little funny, provocative or just questioning. The other important aspect of this work is that I always draw directly on the original photo. I like the idea that sometimes I give a second life to these photos, which for the most part would end up in a trash can or cardboard box. I also like the idea that each image is a unique and original copy.
These pictures are full of humor and playfulness. Is humor important to you in art?
Even if I don't always try to be funny, humor is often the best way to say something. I keep in mind a sentence I heard in an interview with the Belgian comedians "Les Snuls" who said, "we do things seriously without taking ourselves seriously." Since then, this sentence resonates in me and has almost become a kind of mantra in my way of working and interpreting certain subjects. I think you can laugh at anything but not in any way.
How did you discover film photography?
A friend and work colleague who has been shooting film and black and white for a long time lent me a half size Olympus Pen with a loaded film inside. Before that I did very little photography and usually only on vacation like most people. With this camera I started to photograph the area where I was working and I realized that I didn't always have to look far to get something interesting to photograph. I quickly found myself involved in a collective exhibition of street photography which also gave birth to the first book of Editions Le Mulet (1010 South station).
As a self-taught person, this collective project with photographers whose work I already greatly appreciated, was my school of photography. Today, I often try to photograph things that most people don't necessarily look at. I like the idea of trying to find beauty in the ugly, sensitivity in something raw, even dirty.
What gear do you like to use for your photography?
As I am not a technical or studio photographer and I like to always have a camera at hand. I only use small point-and-shoot cameras. They have their limits but that's also what forces me to be creative, to take some risks to make a picture or to accept the accident and the imperfection. Today, I mainly use the Olympus MJU 1 and Canon Prima mini and still the Olympus Pen of my beginnings.
Do you have any new projects you’re working on that you can share with us?
I always have an image to make or an idea for a project in my head. When I'm not doing anything concrete, it's because I'm thinking about it. Recently I had the pleasure of publishing a book with CFC, containing a large part of my illustration work on old photos. Today I continue to work on my engravings and my photos, and more and more I try to find the synthesis between my different mediums. In this perspective, I just started a series of illustrations on iPad mixing monsters and my silver photos of Brussels, all in black and white.