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Rudy de Belgeonne: The Man Behind ‘Who’s The Man?’

Published 1 June 2010

Who’s The Man? is an exhibition that showcases over 1,000 hand-painted panels, each featuring an idiom or a name including those that Rudy de Belgeonne himself has been called over the years. Lucy Pereira caught up with Rudy, a Slade-trained artist and creator of Who’s The Man? at his studio in Camden to find out more about his epic installation.

How did the idea for your installation come about?

The first idea I had was to make an artwork about the different kinds of women – but when I started doing it, it felt a bit impolite. Coming along, as a man, and putting a label on women, it all felt a bit boring and clichéd. So then I had a bit of a light bulb moment – why not turn the gaze around on men? It seemed like a more personal thing to do – more interesting in that sense and more clever – and to some extent it’s funnier. The kind of man you can be and the role of men in society has always been something that has mulled around in my head. The traditional manly roles don’t exist anymore. And also the traditional values that were held with men – aggression, violence – those bits are frowned upon now.

What do you feel is the purpose of your piece?

I think of it as a navigation instrument or a compass that a man can use to navigate his way through the gender landscape. You can look at it and think ‘I want to be that kind of man’ or ‘I could be like that but I’m not going to be’. Also, when people look at it, it makes them laugh. It’s just a really entertaining piece. People keep spotting words like rum cove, or long cold glass of water- it makes them laugh and that’s part of the appeal for me. It’s also about seducing people in with humour and bright colours and beautiful patterns.

So you see the instalment as entertainment as well?

Yes, very much so. I have a very traditional art education – I went to the Slade School of Art at UCL – and being a traditional art school, it’s all about high art. But I love where high art and low art collide. I think it’s great if you can create stuff that appeals to people on a very simple level, but that also has some underlying themes. Yes, it’s something that makes people chortle. It’s a great reaction. And maybe they see something else as well. Or maybe they just think it goes with the colour scheme in their house – you know, I don’t mind – if that’s what gets people’s attention, then great.

‘Who’s the Man’ has been a project of epic proportions – how long did the piece take to create?

That light bulb moment I was talking about happened around five years ago, but I haven’t been painting solidly since then. To begin with I spent a lot of time collecting words, doing a lot of sketches, figuring out how it would work, and doing a lot wrong – you know you can’t just dive in without making mistakes. At first, I did a lot of it first on one canvas and the words were a lot smaller. Got two-thirds the way through it and realised it was too fiddly. So I took a deep breath and scrapped the canvas and started from the beginning. I then worked on the composition as well – as you can see some of the words in around the artwork relate to each other – that took a bit of working out and there were some areas that I couldn’t quite figure out!

How did you create the artwork?

In the first year – I tried oil paints – but I wanted it to be really glossy and shiny, almost like logos or signs or painted signs, and eventually, I found these beautiful sign writers’ enamels in these lovely old-fashioned tins.  Designers use them for painting shop signs and customising motorbikes as well. In addition, I wanted the art to be solid, for the words to be solid objects, so I wanted to make them on wood. They have this feeling, almost like children’s blocks. I then found a company that cuts wood to size and I asked them if they have squares and like this, and they said ‘oh we’ve been looking for someone like you to come along!’ because they cut wood to size but they also have lots of off cuts, that they just throw them away, of a similar size to my blocks – so I sort of feel I’m doing something environmentally friendly by using stuff that would have been chucked away. That’s how I got the materials. Most of the time I’ve been sitting in here, stir crazy on my own, sixteen hours a day, painting one block after another after another. But I tend to do them in batches – ten red ones, and do all the red bits, then the black bits, and then the pink bits. People often ask me how long they take to do but it doesn’t work like that. I’ve worked on ten at a time, someday you don’t finish any, and then sometimes you finish ten or twenty all at once. So that’s how it works.

How did you come up with the words?

I knew most of them, but the problem was remembering them. Especially the ones that are new to me – someone would tell me one and I’d think I’ve heard it before. But I’ve got an Excel spreadsheet, with two to three thousand words on it. Every time I’d think of one or remember one, see one, hear one on TV or on radio, I’d make a note of it. So I had to actually get it down to a thousand. I had to stop somewhere or it would have gone on forever!  After a while I started to slow down and grind to a halt. And at that stage you start to go through the dictionary and thesaurus. And then you also start to go through song titles and movie titles.

How did you narrow it down to the final 1000 words?

They suggested themselves. Some of them are my favourites. Some near the bone and other are ones that people look and laugh at.

You mentioned that you had a few favourite words. Which ones are they?

The list I like is actually very long. I love the meaning of some of them. I just love the word lover. It’s beautiful. I don’t know if I love it because I like the word or just because I like the way it turned out [on the block]. I love good egg and hot dog too. I don’t know what it is about them that make them work. But I just look at them think ‘that’s perfect.’ I also like fool. A lot of the ones I really like I’ve made into prints and into box sets. Ones like lover, angel, star… Swine, fiend, devil, brute too. I’ve also got a bad dude set: bad ass, mean hombre, mofo.

I, too, have my own favourites, and I think that’s the nice thing about it – everyone can find a bit that they like. One word just might be so pertinent to person.

Yes. In fact, I had a woman friend who was looking at it and she started laughing her head off. She said that just looking at the artwork made her remember all of the boyfriends she’s ever had! Another friend, a single mother with a boy, and got teary-eyed looking at the work. She said, ‘I can’t believe it, you’ve put your finger on it. I think about it all the time, I think about what kind of boy I’ve brought into the world and about the kind of man he’s going to be. You’ve hit the nail on the head about what I think about all the time.’ Another group that the artwork is very popular with are the gays. I’ve had gay friends see this installation and they are quite touched by it. I think it’s because they’ve often gone through this process quite a lot more than heterosexual men. You know, thinking about how they fit into the world – they examine themselves a lot more closely.

Any words that you missed that you had wished you had got in?

One of the words I forgot was manwhore. Someone came up to me and said I bet you haven’t got manwhore. I find the word quite funny and wanted to find a way of getting that in. So yeah, when I talk about it [the project] going on, I think it’ll be a work in progress. You know, finding a way to use new words that people suggest and things like that.

The opening of Who’s The Man at the Future Gallery on 3rd June marks the end of this particular project. What plans do you have for the future?

I have a few things in mind. I am planning on doing a frame of words for the guy who is sponsoring me. Like a portrait of words, for example – big shot, head honcho, pussy, mentor – words that describe him. I really like this idea of word portraits. So possibly I might begin to commission portraits of people’s husbands, sons, and brothers and that sort of thing. But also, I’ve been thinking about going back to do more conventional and traditional portraits of people in a high gloss, colourful way (in a similar fashion to the Who’s The Man work but without words).

Just one last question that I must ask – according to your website, you are ‘Mr Woo Woo’ – where did that nickname originate from?

My wife always calls me different names – good, bad and indifferent. When I’m dressed up and ready to go out, she’ll go ‘Oooh Mr Woo Woo!’

For more information on Rudy Belgeonne, Who’s the Man? and his other works, head to his website: www.mrwoowoo.com

Who’s The Man? is an epic installation of a thousand individual hand painted panels with words used to describe and define ‘Man’. The original piece, measuring 5m x 4m, is on display at The Future Gallery in London, June 3-8 2010.

Address: The Future Gallery, 5 Great Newport Street, London WC2H 7JB