Ben Sledsens - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Thursday, March 2, 2023 | Phillips
  • “I try to make something beautiful. An escape, a utopia. If you look back at this a hundred years from now, it will be interesting to see alongside the doomsday images of our present period. There are still amazing things in this harsh world. Nature is unbelievable and always beautiful. You can find beauty everywhere, if you look in the right way.”
    —Ben Sledsens

    Like a portal to an alternative reality, Ben Sledsen’s large-scale canvas, Wanderer with Dog transports us to an intimate forest scene which we share with colourfully animated vegetation and a solitary male figure with his dog. Rendered in a naïve style which reacts against more ‘academic’ representations of the world, Sledsens manipulates nature to an illusory effect. Radically simplified bushes comprised of thick, dark lines encircled by flat, block colour contrast to the more delicate rendering of the flowers in the foreground, subtle formal variations which connect the painting to both real and imaginary worlds.


    Applying both acrylic and oil paint to the canvas in his signature style, Sledsens brings the meticulously rendered scene to life through vivid, saturated colour. Matte areas of acrylic paint, such as the imposing vertical bands of tree trunks, coexist with the glossier textures of the hound’s coat and glistening pigment of the blue hydrangeas. Although the woodland scene and bold, amplified use of colour recall the vertiginous landscapes of German Expressionists such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Sledsens eschews more expressive, gestural marks in favour of a smoother, more refined approach to his compositions. As if in a dream, we marvel at the beautifully mirrored symmetry of the two anterior trees which frame the forest clearing like sculpted pillars, as we are ensconced within the instinctively inviting space.


    Henri Rousseau, La Charmeuse de serpents (The Snake Charmer), 1907, Musée   d’Orsay, Paris. Image: Bridgeman Images

    Sledsens’ paintings are informed by a rich understanding of painterly tradition. In Wanderer with Dog, subtle nods to art historical precedent are evident, most notably in his high-keyed Fauvist palette. Thematically and stylistically, the present work is in close conversation with Henri Rousseau’s highly stylised canvases, which employ a similarly manipulated sense of perspective, bold palette, and polished finish. As in Rousseau’s The Snake Charmer, Sledsens here builds up a sense of depth and spatial coherence through a dense layering of flattened forms, drawing our eye deep into the forest that stretches far beyond the small clearing in the foreground occupied by the titular wanderer. As with Rousseau’s painting, Wanderer with Dog possesses a compellingly obscure and almost mythical quality, the artist striving to create ‘mysteries rather than mystification.’While Rousseau’s snake charmer, faceless and occult, seems to sit comfortably in his exotic setting, Sledsen’s wanderer seems slightly more incongruous, his contemporary attire at odds with his fairy-tale forest surroundings.


    Peter Bruegel the Elder, The Hunters in the Snow, 1565, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Image: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Scala, Florence


    The panoramic compositions of Dutch master Pieter Bruegel the Elder also mark an important reference point for the young Sledsens, who has described the 16th century artist as ‘modern and traditional at the same time, a true pioneer.’ii As in pieces by Bruegel, such as Hunters in the Snow (Winter), Sledsens demonstrates incredible confidence in his handling of shape and line, creating vivid and evocative images with economy. There is something archaic too in both of these woodland scenes, the sweeping, snow-covered mountains and frozen lakes of the winter hunting scene chiming with the faux medievalism of Sledsens’ woodland setting. However, while the narrative of Hunters in the Snow is evident - the bone-chilled hunters unceremoniously returning to their village with a single fox strewn from a pole - Sledsens’ figure is more difficult to place. Swapping the wild game for a bindle, like the hunter our wanderer is on the move, but to where we do not know.


    Therapeutic Ambiguity

    “Paintings are an experience in themselves. The authenticity is there. Even if what they depict doesn’t exist.”
    —Ben Sledsens

    Instead of directly confronting the social or political issues of our time, Sledsens offers us an escape from them. Through the inclusion of recurrent characters which appear throughout his works, he has created a painted utopia which exists across his ever-expanding oeuvre. The figure of the Wanderer embodies the artist himself, whilst the Huntswoman, a blonde-haired maiden, acts as an avatar for his partner and muse. Other characters such as knights in combat, or forest creatures all add to this personal narrative, one that Sledsens communicates through a carefully controlled and powerful sense of nostalgia. In this way, his works are deeply soothing, unbridling us from the rational world and allowing us to temporarily escape time and place. Connecting a cryptic, fictional scenario with an accessible, pictorial language, Wanderer with Dog soothes the mind as a remedial escape to an arcadian place free from time and the apprehensions of modern society. 


    Collector’s Digest


    • Born in 1991, Belgian artist Ben Sledsens is represented by Tim Van Laere Gallery, Antwerp.

    • Examples of the artist’s work are now held in major public collections including The Contemporary Art Centre of Malaga, the Fundación Canaria para el Desarrollo del la Pintura, Las Palmas, and the M HKA (Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp), amongst others.

    • Since first appearing at auction in 2021, Sledsen’s works have been gaining attention, with a comparable exotic landscape, Two Bathers, establishing a new record price for the artist’s work when it was presented by Phillips Hong Kong in June 2022


    Ian Mundell, ‘Ben Sledsens Shapes Art History into Personal Utopias’, the low countries, 12 January 2021, online.

    ii ‘Ensor, the Godfather’, KMSKA, online.

    • Provenance

      Tim Van Laere Gallery, Antwerp
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Literature

      Manfred Sellink and Karen Van Godtsenhoven, Ben Sledsens, Bruges, 2018, pp. 24, 152 (illustrated, p. 25)

Property from a Distinguished Belgian Collector


Wanderer with Dog

signed with the artist's initials 'B.S' lower right; signed and dated 'BEN SLEDSENS 2017-2018' on the reverse
oil and acrylic on canvas
200 x 175 cm (78 3/4 x 68 7/8 in.)
Painted in 2017-2018.

Full Cataloguing

£80,000 - 120,000 ‡♠

Sold for £203,200

Contact Specialist

Rosanna Widén
Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+44 20 7318 4060

Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe
+44 20 7318 4099

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 2 March 2023