Born in Scotland and educated in Belgium, Fen de Villiers’ work has roots in both and neither. His powerful sculptures tell the story of his own identity, but also a more general European sensibility that thrives in the anonymous shapes of his modernist figures - representing transcendent values.
Undergoing his art training at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp, founded in 1663 as one of the oldest in Europe, de Villiers is an alumni alongside some of the most important minds in contemporary creative thought and design. Amongst those names include Martin Margiela, Dries Van Noten, Demna Gvasalia, Jan Yoors, Jan Fabre and even, very briefly, Vincent van Gogh.
Despite most of these graduates helping to reshape the world of fashion, their sheer impact on the art world - well beyond the confines of fashion itself - highlights the kind of figures produced from the school. De Villiers, clearly inspired by the contemporary sculptures of his forebears like Fabre and Yoors, chose to steer away from the abstract and conceptual and move towards something more figurative and dynamic.
It was in the modernist movement of Futurism, particularly the sculptural work of one of the movement’s pioneers Umberto Boccioni, that de Villiers has derived a lot of his artistic philosophy from. Besides the dynamic and highly kinetic aesthetics of Boccioni’s works, he also had an exuberant manifesto that shone the spotlight on the perceived stasis of Italy’s culture at the time.
One section, the introduction of the manifesto, translated from its original in Italian, reads:
TO THE YOUNG ARTISTS OF ITALY!
The cry of rebellion which we utter associates our ideals with those of the Futurist poets. These ideals were not invented by some aesthetic clique. They are an expression of a violent desire which boils in the veins of every creative artist today.
We will fight with all our might the fanatical, senseless and snobbish religion of the past, a religion encouraged by the vicious existence of museums.
Similar themes are echoed in de Villiers’ own manifesto which offers us context into the ties that bind the social with the artistic. Both of the manifestos arose and developed at a particular time in reponse to the pervasive zeitgeist. Both sought to yield art and culture as a weapon against the world, a way to manifest strength in an increasingly compromised social system.
Working mainly in stone, with bronze and plaster casting, de Villiers utilises his materials not only for their physical properties, but their representational value, “Stone carving for me is the absolute essence of sculpture. You work directly in a material that was given to you by nature: raw and with its own free will, but at the same time pure and imbued with age-old vitality.” In this most primitive of materials, the artist can engage with his most primal instincts.
Drawing on the reciprocal balance between harmony and chaos - the form of the sculpture and its dynamic contents respectively - the artist opts not to portray trends or contemporary issues, but to detail the timeless. Rather than commentary, de Villiers is interested in transcendent values.
Interpreting the text on de Villiers' website, the intention of a sculpture isn’t there to be decoded as much as to be experienced. These sculptures, as with the early Italian Futurists, thrive on impact, “I am always looking for archetypes of strength, dynamism and energy, and seek to create powerful sculptures that uplift the viewer’s spirit.”
De Villiers is working within a very niche territory of sculpture, but his active engagement with timeless themes and materials, the eschewing of trends, means that he will never be in, nor will he ever be out. De Villiers will be and he will keep on being.
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