We sat down with the young visual artist João Freitas to talk about his practice, upcoming projects and collective Muesli. The Brussels-based artist has shown work in group exhibitions in Belgium, Luxembourg and Italy. His latest solo shows include Chapter V at FuoriCampo in Siena (2022), Unshielded at La Patinoire Royale | Galerie Valérie Bach in Brussels (2022), Heimat, curated by Stéphane Roy, at Centre Tour à Plomb in Brussels (2020) and In the open at Centre d’art Dominique Lang in Dudelange (2020).
João, can you introduce yourself and tell us about your studies at the Ecole nationale supérieure des arts visuels de La Cambre (ENSAV La Cambre) and how your work has evolved since then.
I was born in Portugal, grew up in Luxembourg and moved to Brussels back in 2009 to study drawing at the ENSAV La Cambre. During my studies I was questioning what drawing meant to me, not just the act of drawing but everything that goes with the practice. I felt a bit frustrated, I think I had a naïve approach to drawing and art itself as I didn’t study art history or have a background in art. At some point I began to shift my practice from creating works on paper to putting paper to work. I focused more on the gestures that go with frustration, like crumpling up or tearing paper and how this affected the surface I was working with. I took this as the starting point for my Master’s project. Since then I have become more interested in the question of materiality. I try to take drawing out of its two-dimensional context and consider paper and other found materials as surfaces to work with instead of just on.
João Freitas, Transcription (L'essentiel II), 2020, 31,5x23,5x2,5cm
pencil, newspaper-ink, paper, wood, paint and glass, €1700 - work available on Murmur
Why did you decide to stay in Brussels after you finished your studies back in 2014?
There are a lot of opportunities for young artists in Brussels. After finishing my Master’s I got accepted onto a 1-year residency programme at La Fondation du Carrefour des arts. I had a studio, a small budget to produce works and the opportunity to present them in an exhibition. That was a big motivation for me to stay in Brussels. That same year I also realised I needed a side job to make a living so it was very natural for me to stay here. I like Brussels and have created a network here. I don’t really want to leave that behind.
João Freitas' work at the group show 'Ineffable' in La Patinoire Royale | Galerie Valérie Bach ©Regular Studio
João Freitas' solo show 'Heimat' in Centre Tour à Plomb, curated by Stéphane Roy ©Stéphane Roy
For your latest series of works you’ve used different kinds of found materials such as magazine and book covers, Tetra Pak and old posters. By peeling, scratching, heating, stripping and tearing them you reveal the hidden side of these materials. What motivates you to work with ordinary objects? How do you get a hold of them and how do you decide what to do with them?
I find a lot of my materials on the street, at construction sites or on trips. I don’t actively look for them. When I decide to take something with me it’s because I find the object intriguing or it appeals to me for some reason. Most of the materials that I collect are rubbish. I collect these materials in my studio and my apartment but don’t immediately know what to do with them. Some of them I use straight away and others I forget about and rediscover years later. Sometimes I also use materials that other artists don’t need anymore, or that people give me. I transform them and present them to a public that wouldn’t even notice these materials otherwise. I try to respect the history and composition of the materials I use. I’m not creating anything new, I’m just writing a new chapter for/with them. I don’t erase their past but add something to it instead.
In these past few years I’ve built up a vocabulary of gestures, processes and different materials. It’s important for me to work with the material according to its properties. The process I choose varies depending on its composition. There’s no specific idea from the start. It’s very intuitive. I try things out and see how the material reacts. Often I find the right process by chance.
Take the works that I created with Tetra Pak. I started with the facts. I knew that Tetra Pak is made of aluminium, paperboard, polyethylene and that it’s made to isolate the product inside of it and protect it against heat. So I thought about ways of getting rid of the outside layer. It became clear to me that I had to use heat. I first worked on the outside but it didn’t feel right. I then decided to turn it around instead and work on the back side and adapt the distance between the surface and the welding torch.
Or take the poster works. During the pandemic I always passed by the same billboard on my way to the studio. The posters on the billboard were glued one on top of another. As time went on they became quite heavy and started peeling off. One day after a storm part of it just fell off. The front of the poster was varnished so it was water resistant but the back side of it absorbed the rain. I picked it up and took it with me to the studio. When I had to leave the studio I decided to tear it into pieces for practical reasons. I never thought that I’d use the pieces as they were for a work series. Later on, though, I used an etching needle and the drypoint technique on the blue-back side of the poster, which made it look woolly instead of flat and revealed the white layer between the front and the back side of the poster.
João Freitas' solo show 'Unshielded' in La Patinoire Royale | Galerie Valérie Bach ©Regular Studio
João Freitas' solo show 'Chapter V' in FuoriCampo, Siena ©oknostudio
What’s it like altering the surface of these materials and how do you decide when a work is finished?
When it’s a new material that I haven’t worked with before or if I’m trying out a technique for the first time, I often have a moment of doubt. But as soon as I feel that it’s working and that the material reacts the way I want it to, I’m so happy, like I’m discovering something new. I don’t have a specific way of knowing when a work is finished, it really depends. Sometimes I try to set clear goals. For example I have a few works where I decided to remove the entire first layer to reveal the hidden surface beneath.
Close up of João Freitas' 'Untitled (Italia Oggi)', 2018, pencil, newspaper, 62x48,5cm, 2800€ - work available on Murmur
You also formed an artist collective with two of your former classmates from the ENSAV La Cambre, Louis Darcel and Hannah de Corte. You have a 2-year studio residency at KULT XL ateliers. The work you create is a lot about materiality, chemical reactions and experimentation. Can you tell us more about the collective?
We work with sensitive materials and create artworks that constantly change and react to the environment that they are exhibited in. We use chemical indicators on different types of canvases to create our work. These paintings react differently depending on the type of fabric (silk, cotton, etc) and the inner frame (wood, metal, etc) that we use for the canvas and depending on the environmental conditions (humidity, temperature, pollution, UV rays). The colour and patterns change depending on these factors. We have no direct influence over the outcome. We collaborate with scientists and chemists to study all kind of materials and their reactions. Our long-term project is to create a work that reacts to all environmental factors that aren’t visible to the eye, which causes it to change constantly without using any technology.
We each have our own artistic practice which informs our work in the collective and vice versa. The name of our collective, Muesli, came from the idea that we’re three people from different countries and with distinct personalities, just like muesli mixes different ingredients together to create something better.
muesli collective, Unruly painting, September 2020 - present, indicator and found fabric, 40x30cm
muesli collective in their studio © Serge Brison
What are you currently working on? Do you have any exciting projects or exhibitions coming up?
After a busy 2022, I am happy to be back in my studio, to clean up, try out new things and create new works. Other than that I will participate in two group shows in 2023. I will present my video work 'Cycle' at Santa Maria Della Scala in Siena (Italy) thanks to Esther Biancotti and Jacopo Figura from FuoriCampo. I will also be part of SAARart in Saarbrücken and show my work in the Institut für aktuelle Kunst in Saarlouis (Germany).
Interview by Atena Abrahimia
Brussels, December 2022