Sometimes, artists feel like other artists are their competitors – it’s not true. You are your only competitor. You compete against yourself.”
Says artist, Lorenzo Belenguer. It doesn’t take long for him to get into the nitty-gritty of what it means to be an artist, just as we begin our conversation at his Notting Hill flat, which doubles up as his showroom.
I look around. Lorenzo’s art encompasses sculpture, drawing, and painting. He describes his work as minimalist, and as informed by Arte Povera. Art historian Susie Hodge describes him as a neo-geometric conceptualist. Certainly, Lorenzo is a deft thinker whose work is bolstered with conceptual clarity. But as he begins telling me, he hasn’t always been able to express his ideas as his true self, as an artist.
Growing up in Valencia, Lorenzo went to university to study economics. He had never painted, drawn, or created anything by the time he entered his first jobs in admin and accounting.
Lorenzo realised he hated working in the world of finance just at the right time: an opportunity to live in Paris came up, after his sister cancelled a job as an au pair she had arranged.
I contacted the mother and asked, ‘Do you mind if, instead of my sister, it’s me?’. I’ve always wanted to live in Paris. Everything is so beautiful there.”
Lorenzo spent his time at galleries, exploring the endless beautiful window displays, and even managed to attend a fashion show by Yves Saint Laurent with Naomi Campbell cat-walking. He had always been fascinated by fashion. But he never translated this fascination into his own art.
Life wasn’t the same when Lorenzo returned to Valencia. The experience of having lived away from home had opened up a new way of thinking to Lorenzo. And not only that: Lorenzo had been exposed to a version of beauty that had stirred him more than he thought possible. He decided it was time for him to leave Spain.
Lorenzo had studied English at school, and moving to the UK seemed to make sense. Lorenzo moved to Reading and continued working in admin. His job did not fulfill him.
Lorenzo found himself searching for beauty, just as he had been exposed to in Paris. Reading had little in the way of museums, but being so close to London, he often found himself exploring London’s galleries. On one trip to the city, he came home with a painting starter kit. But left it unopened.
Lorenzo had entered his 30s when, one night, something bizarre happened to him.
In the middle of the night, he woke up, went and ripped opened the canvas and paints and started painting.
I think you are an artist because you are born an artist. You are a musician because you are born a musician. You are not made; you are born. You have the need. I‘m not sure why or how or if it’s genetic code.
But you are an artist because you have the need to make art. You will make it regardless of whether you sell it or not. You just keep making it. I’ve always had this need – always, always, always – but I always also felt you have to have a proper job – a safe, secure job.”
“I’ve always been postponing me. This is me: I am an artist. There’s no plan B in that sense. There’s a moment when you just give in. You start making. And it’s the best moment of your life because you feel so happy and liberated. You just do it and go and go and go.”
Six months later, Lorenzo was made redundant. But the company gave him enough money so that he could continue to support himself for a couple of years.
For Lorenzo, this was a gift and an opportunity. He decided to leave the worlds of finance and admin altogether.
The feeling of liberation soon melted into something a little more realistic and mundane. Lorenzo found that working in art is just like any other job. Pretty soon, everything became normalised.
You start getting to know and meet other artists who have been artists for a very long time. From the outside, it’s got this kind of myth – the artist is a special person, a bit mad. At the end of the day, it’s another job. You make art the best you can then sell it. I’m sure there are other jobs that are much more important and necessary for society. But once you do it and you get into that and you meet talented artists and realise that they are normal, you just accept it and get on with it.”
Lorenzo set up a group of artists and started exhibiting in shops around Reading, and eventually, opened a gallery, which was big news in Reading at the time, being the first gallery to have opened in the town in more than ten years.
Lorenzo very quickly outgrew Reading. London drew him in. He moved.
“It became very clear to me that I had to move to London because all of the top people – the collectors, the curators, the galleries – are here. And they don’t have the need to go outside of zone two. There’s so much going on: you have the best museums and galleries; you have the best of the best.”
Setting himself up in North West London, Lorenzo took a job running a community art gallery in Willesden Green. The gallery, formed of a cooperative of artists, had a special arrangement with the council. The gallery would provide local art services for free to the community and in exchange they did not have to pay rent. Lorenzo held onto the job for 7 years.
Lorenzo launched a documentary project at the gallery for the Olympics and Paralympics in 2012, called Testimonies. The project collected testimonies of Londoners talking about their experiences of life in London during the run-up to the Games. The project reached widespread notoriety, with the BBC taking it on board.
Lorenzo had found a huge audience for his creativity, and realised he was faced with a fork in the road.
You are either a gallerist or you are an artist. You cannot be both. You have to choose one way or the other.”
Now more confident than ever, Lorenzo left the gallery and became a full time artist.
The first type of works Lorenzo began to put out were semi-abstract paintings. Though he developed his love of primary colours, he became worried that he would find it difficult to break out into new language.
Lorenzo became fascinated by the three-dimensionality of Jackson Pollock, which led him to sculpture. He created his “Hommage to Pollock” in 2014 using a mattress and paint.
I always say that I’m not a sculptor, I’m a painter. And the reason I say that is that I apply paint onto metal. I use metal like a canvas. Any other artist would use a flat canvas, or piece of paper to apply paint on. I apply the paint on the metal structure. So I would say I’m a painter. This is the first type of work I started doing that I felt happy with. It’s an innovative way of using paint. It’s also a dilemma. The idea was: everytime you see a painting, the perspective you see is an illusion because the surface is flat. So you need to create tonalities to create illusion and lines of depth into the painting. So then I wanted to create a sense of perspective and three-dimensionality just with the use of primary colours. But how can you solve the problem of creating perspective just with primary colours? So the other way around, you use the canvas that is three-dimensional.”
Taking inspiration from Egon Schiele and Jean Cocteau, Lorenzo moved on to minimalist drawings.
Garabatos, Lorenzo Belenguer.
Lorenzo needed a means of obtaining cheap frames and trawled car boot sales for frames, which could often be found in the form of Constable and Velasquez reproductions.
Everyone in England has seen a Constable painting. They may not think they know it, they may not be able to name it, but everyone knows a painting like it. This type of image, I’m fascinated why these type of paintings are so popular even with people who don’t go to museums and other types of paintings are not. And one of the things I noticed was that, those type of paintings tend to represent a nostalgic view of rural times. I say nostalgic because in the paintings, people are not in pain, not worried; everyone’s innocent. But at the time of the painting, that’s obviously not the way it was. People in those places at those times were in poverty and hunger. But in a way the artists, like Constable, knew what viewers wanted better than we know ourselves. In a way it’s a kind of advertisement for hope. So I was fascinated by the way in which they are represented, and wanted to understand why everybody has a copy in their house.
Left: Constable #4, Top: Murillo #1, Bottom: Murillo #2, Lorenzo Belenguer.
So the paintings are idyllic; they represent hope. Hope is very attractive – we all need hope for a better future. Sometimes life is difficult and tough, and that’s what these paintings give you.
Many landscapes like Constable’s will lead you to the limitless view. The limitless view is hope. Simple as that. Your subconscious will get it, but you don’t get it consciously.
So, the idea behind the reproduction series was to block key elements of the painting with the use of metal and oil to avert the way we look at the painting. Once you block key elements of the painting, you break the dynamic and force people to see other parts of the painting.”
Creative Londoners: What kind of dynamic do the Constable and Murillo reproductions operate within in today’s world?
Lorenzo Belenguer: The idea translated into the way society is going now. I believe we are going through big changes at the present moment. We are questioning institutions; we are doing the same things but in a different way. Now we have cryptocurrency, we can transact outside the central banking system. We have a way of paying for services and goods outside institutional banking. We have Airbnb, taking power away from hotels. Power is going away from North America and Europe to China and India. We have alternative energies, and eventually, everybody will be able to collect their own energy. We share our cars. We are moving into a completely different system. We still have the same needs, but the needs are provided for in a different way.
I think the way in which I block the traditional painting – specifically traditional European colonial power – people will see the same painting they’ve seen for years in a different way. Similarly, when you block traditional institutions, you see them in a different way.
I really like it when someone says “Oh my grandmother has that painting. And now that I’ve seen you’ve blocked elements of it, I’ve seen it in a totally different way.”
Creative Londoners: What is it about minimalist art and 60s art makes it a language that you use to communicate more so than creating a radically new form?
Lorenzo Belenguer: I think the Renaissance and the ‘60s were probably the two biggest changes in visual art. You have the Renaissance where man becomes the centre of paintings and techniques. In the 60s there was a huge explosion of new movements. You have abstract expressionism – moving away from figurative paintings – you have arte povera, minimalism, land art, performance art, and conceptualism. There was a real explosion of movements. I think it provided the next generation of artists with a wide variety of tools for expression. Maybe it’s naïve or nostalgic, but the 60s tends to be much more authentic and genuine. In the 90s and now, art can be too commercial, too money-oriented. Contemporary art is moving towards big productions and big profits. Artists have factories with hundreds of employees. I think that’s a bit too much. So the 60s for me is a bit more genuine in touch. When I see video interviews of 60s artists, they seem to be so honest and genuine – and brave. For example, in the late 50s, Dan Flavin was making an exhibition with light strips – I’m fascinated by how brave this was. Even now, people struggle with an exhibition with light strips. Imagine that 60 years ago – that seems so brave. Picasso was still making art in the 60s. Joseph Beuys was still alive. Then there were newcomers.
The type of artist that I admire most, like Joseph Beuys or Picasso, are artists who have always been very free – they have always done what they wanted to do ahead of whatever criticism. I think an artist needs to be self-contained and go ahead with his own way of making. I think that’s very important. If an artist wants to please society or specific people in order to sell – which of course is tempting – then it’s not genuine, it’s not made by you, it’s made by expectations of pleasing. You become a lapdog. I think you have to make what you make. And then, obviously, try to improve yourself.
I think I started admiring Beuys when I decided to become an artist. Joseph Beuys is a very interesting character. With Beuys, you never know where he is actually. He created a myth. It’s always unclear which part of a myth is the truth. You never know when he’s pulling your leg, or being genuine, or when he’s playing. He’s always in this grey area. When I became an artist I found that – regardless of whether you like his work or not – I admire his bravery, his “this is the way I make it: that’s it.” I think when you are an artist you are much more sensitive to this type of behaviour, this way of making things that you are. If you don’t like it, fair enough. But this is my instinct, and this is the way I will carry on.
Creative Londoners: What is the role of beauty in contemporary art?
Lorenzo Belenguer: In contemporary art, beauty has been seen as a taboo – you cannot say you made something beautiful. A pretty blond girl cannot be clever, but many blond girls are very clever. So there is a bit of a taboo with beauty by some contemporary artists, but that’s rubbish. Beauty is a hook that the artists use to attract attention. It’s as simple as that. For me, beauty is important in my works. It’s the way I attract people. Once I’ve attracted and we develop a language and I express things – or even if they don’t want to go any farther and they just see something beautiful – I’m happy by that because I made someone pause, stop, pause and look at it. In a way, it’s like movements like mindfulness, you attract someone and you drag them to the present.
And they stop.
At that moment, if they like your work, there is no future, there is no past, there is just now. You attract someone to the now. When I manage to do that I like it. I think one of the illnesses of society is that we are sometimes trapped by the past -something happened to me… blah, blah, blah). Or we are trapped by the future – when I get a better job, when I get a better car, when I’m travelling etc.
We always postpone happiness to the future. The only moment we can enjoy happiness is now, in this second. We don’t know about the future, and the past is gone. So that’s also part of my work. I’m very interested in these techniques that attract you and drag you into the now. Then you stop and pause and maybe meditate or at least relax – even if it is for a few seconds, I’m already happy with that.
Creative Londoners: What’s the story of this place, your flat/showroom?
What I realised is that even though it’s a very small flat, it’s well located. So I thought, why not make it like a showroom? I’ve got a studio workshop, but it’s in Harlesden. And if you want to get key collectors or key people to come and see your work, they’re not going all the way to Harlesden. But some of them live around here, you know Knightsbridge, Notting Hill. They just pop in – it’s very easy.
That’s when I decided to make it like a gallery. But I wanted to do it in a way that only people who are really interested will come. I didn’t want people to come here just to gossip or be entertained, for free alcohol or drinks. So I developed a strategy that has worked really well. People come here by appointment. It’s very kind of intimate, or personal, it’s like one-to-one or very small groups. So it’s very bespoke, very personalised. People have to make a donation of £20. The donation goes to cover the drinks and champagne or whatever they drink and the time invested in taking them around – and if they buy anything that £20 is deducted.
If you want to be entertained, you go to the theatre, you buy your ticket and your drinks. But you go to an art gallery and expect to be entertained for free, to be given your wine for free. It’s like the time of that person is not really valued. Top galleries can do that, because if an art gallery is selling an artwork for 250k you know it’s fine because by the time they’ve made a couple of sales they’re funding everybody’s time and everything. But I think smaller galleries need to find a way that people will help out with funding.
Something I’ve found is that when people are willing to make a donation a) they come here only if they really want to come and the experience is more interesting for them and b) people love it, because once you pay for something you have this kind of sense of ownership, and you can ask any questions, there is no such thing as a stupid questions, because you have already paid for the service. So people feel very free. And c) once people realise that if they buy something the £20 is fully deductible, they are much more willing to buy something. So I’m not saying this is a system that is good for everybody. Some people didn’t like the idea. In my case, it has worked really well.
In one newspaper, one collector called my work a gimmick. But she never came here, so I don’t understand why she thought that. I’ll understand if you come here, you see my works, and you say, “OK. Lorenzo, your works are a gimmick.” But she hasn’t been here. You put things down because it’s cool. It’s like when people talk about a film or a novel you haven’t watched. If you want to critique a film, you have to watch it first. You cannot critique something you haven’t seen. So, in that case, I thought, fair enough, everybody is entitled to an opinion. But you cannot express an opinion about something you have never seen. So I felt that sometimes in the art world, people put things down that are automatic because they think it makes them look cool. But you cannot make an opinion about something you have never seen.
When you get these kinds of reactions from people, it’s good. One way or the other. Because the last thing an artist wants is indifference. People like your works or they dislike your works, either way, it’s good because both are reactions. If people are indifferent, that’s not good.
Photographs by Michael Wayne Plant, London-based social documentary photographer.