Geometrically Wired: IO Van Oostveldt - Between Clothing & Art

MoMu, Antwerp (25 February - 30 July, 2023)

‘I did not want to make difficult things’, the Belgian artist IO Van Oostveldt is credited with saying. Instead, she explains, I ‘worked with squares and circles, sometimes triangles. Everything had to be easy, for example, in a poncho that you could pull over whatever you were wearing when you went out in the evening’.1 The comment is as deceptive in its simplicity as many of Van Oostveldt’s creations. Textile structures – even the characteristics of individual fibres – often dictate garment shape. A crocheted black cape is striped with white bands reminiscent of sparkly hoar frost; tinsel provided inspiration for a series of glittering chenille knits; while simple squares of cloth became the entire basis for a wedding dress design.

Van Oostveldt’s story is in many ways familiar: a creative woman professionally overshadowed by her husband’s career. ‘We were at art school together’, she explains of meeting Mark Verstockt (1930–2014) whose career is credited with making an important contribution to the Belgian ‘ZERO’ movement in the 1950s. After their marriage, Van Oostveldt recounts with generous humour: ‘when the children arrived, the husband declares, There cannot be two artists in a single household. And who was that artist? (laughs). So I redrew my plans’.2 While Van Oostveldt’s work is not well known, even in Belgium, this sensitive exhibition does not dwell on past oversights. Instead, it simply puts the record straight in the present.

Charlotte Van Oostveldt (IO is her nickname from childhood) was born in Antwerp in 1928. In the late 1940s she studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. After her marriage she began making clothes, first for herself and her three young children and then to supplement the family income. This exhibition brings together sketchbook pages and original garments with recent and historic video and insightful wall texts. In particular, the scanned pages of her sketchbooks reveal a working process that saw the potential for the textile on vastly different scales. Loops of knitting and crochet collaged to sketched figures and pre-existing fashion photography cover the entire figure, often with just a head and ankles peeking from the proposition. For decades Van Oostveldt worked and reworked her drawings and collage in random order – an archivist’s nightmare that this exhibition solves by foregrounding material themes, rather than a strict chronology of the work.

By the late 1960s experiments with a knitting machine resulted in clothing Van Oostveldt often wore to her husband’s exhibition openings. By the early 1970s these designs enjoyed a popular following with clients and seven knitters worked to produce the one-of-kind clothing she sold from the attic of the family home. The vibrant patterned knitwear of the Belgian designer Ann Salens (1940–94) is offered in the exhibition wall text as a comparator, but Van Oostveldt’s shimmery creations remain distinctive in their devotion to a monochrome palette.

In the mid-1970s Van Oostveldt lit upon the idea of knitting with Christmas tinsel. At the time tinsel was manufactured with a wire core. Working with a textile manufacturer she developed a thread with a supple core that held Lurex in a chenille structure with a striking glitter effect. Van Oostveldt’s self-financed research and development ran into disappointment when she learnt the manufacturers were marketing the fibre without consultation. Sparkly monochrome vests and a sweater in navy, gold and crimson are included in the exhibition. But the sour experience with industry discouraged her investment in further commercial projects.

‘Recuperated materials’ is the phrase this exhibition uses for the variety of experiments she continued to explore in the decades to follow. A silkscreened pattern of bricks appears on the clean geometry of a kimono-shaped garment as well as bedding. In 1986, she designed a wedding dress comprised entirely of squares of cotton organza for Ingrid Van Haute, sewn by a friend of the bride. Several decades later a set of blue folding rulers became the basis for an artwork that looks – from a distance – like striped woven cloth.

Curated by Romy Cockx with exhibition design by Johanna Trudzinski, one modest gallery space was devoted to this thoughtful jewel of an exhibition. Located in a side gallery before visitors contend with the dramatic but imposing staircase of MoMu, the location was pitch perfect for the exhibition content. Rather than an exhibition about the drama or ego of fashion, Geometrically Wired is about a creative individual’s persistent curiosity despite the absence of much public recognition. During my visit, Cockx lamented the difficulty in adequately capturing in photographs the tinsel-inspired vests and a sweater on display. The textile is well known for evading adequate capture by even the most accomplished photographer’s skills and Van Oostveldt’s creations are no exception. Seeing them would cheer even the dreariest of outlooks – a precious dose of joy in our current times that I am grateful to have caught in time.

1. & 2. exhibition wall text

  • Written for

    Clothing Cultures

  • Image credit

    IO Van Oostveldt, collage design for poncho in lurex chenille, c. 1977. © Photograph by Stany Dederen, MoMu.

    IO Van Oostveldt, collage design, 1970–80. © Photograph by Stany Dederen, MoMu.

    IO Van Oostveldt, poncho in Lurex chenille, c.1979. © Photograph by Stany Dederen, MoMu.

    IO Van Oostveldt, collage from fashion magazine and Lurex chenille, c.1977. © Photograph by Stany Dederen, MoMu.

    IO Van Oostveldt, collage from fashion magazine and Lurex chenille, c.1977. © Photograph by Stany Dederen, MoMu.