In Paying Tribute to the Masters, Joël Moens de Hase Pushes the Boundary Between Art and Pornography

A tribute by JoThe Girl with the Pearl Earring  was created in 1665 by Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) This is a 21st century tribute to the masterpiece."The Girl with the Pearl Earring  was created in 1665 by Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) This is a 21st century tribute to the masterpiece.
A tribute by Joël Moens de Hase to “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” created in 1665 by Johannes Vermeer. Image courtesy Monika Olko Gallery.

By Tessa Raebeck

Joël Moens de Hase has collected over 75,000 images of the lower half of women’s bodies, but his wife doesn’t seem to mind.

Mr. Moens de Hase, whose work will be on view at the Monika Olko Gallery in Sag Harbor from Friday, July 4, through August 1, collects the images online and then fashions them into mosaics, creating portraits and larger images of the lower half of women’s bodies, as well as reinventing masterpieces like “The Kiss” by Gustav Klimt and Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring.”

After starting out as a painter, the Belgian artist began using computers in 2011.

“I think it’s the media of the future,” Mr. Moens de Hase said in a phone interview this week. “I switched my canvas for my computer and I switched the pencil for the mouse.”

Each digital print is comprised of some 7,000 vignettes taken from the internet. They are shrunken down in size and arranged into digital mosaics, which are then colored to replicate the classic pieces. From afar, “Girl with a Pearl Earring” looks like the 1665 original, but upon closer investigation, it is construed of thousands of bikini bottoms—a likely shock to the average art historian.

Initially focused on small bikinis that then give way to large bikinis, Mr. Moens de Hase has expanded his collection to include digital print replications of Japanese-style paintings of geishas, portraits of Marilyn Monroe and reinterpretations of the work of masters including Leonardo da Vinci and Edvard Munch.

Joel Moens de Hase, Portrait of Marilyn, 2014, 39.5 x 39.5, Archival Digital.
Joël Moens de Hase, Portrait of Marilyn, 2014, 39.5 x 39.5, Archival Digital.

“It is a tribute to old masters, but it’s also contemporary, so it has a little bit of duality in it,” said the artist.

Mr. Moens de Hase’s work is, perhaps obviously, intended to be controversial. The thousands of bikini images that make up “Adoration Bleu” expand outward to depict a nun gazing toward the sky. Another shows the eyes of a woman wearing a hijab.

“The devil is absolutely in the details,” said Wafa Faith Hallam, an author and the art curator and gallery manager at the Monika Olko Gallery.

Ms. Faith Hallam said she was taken aback at first by her attraction to the pieces. As a feminist, she questioned her enjoyment of art that seemingly objectifies women.

But art, she said, is “all about how it makes you feel.” After a year of showcasing Mr. Moens de Hase’s work, she said nine of 10 clients who purchase the images are women.

“Women have had an amazingly positive response to these pictures—they love them. They’re beautifully done, they’re not offensive and they are…some of them are even a little risqué,” she said.

“But they’re a good conversation piece, they’re not in your face and they’re pleasing,” she added. “So they don’t become as, maybe, threatening to women as pornography would.”

Men, she said, are understandably hesitant to bring a mosaic of women’s lower halves home to their wives. Their wives, on the other hand, say, “Oh, I see this in my game room, I see this in my bedroom, this could go up in our powder room…it’s no issue,” according to Ms. Faith Hallam.

Mr. Moens de Hase, who Ms. Faith Hallam said, is “not at all the kind of person you would think that would be doing this,” said his reason for choosing to make art out of thousands of images of small bikinis is both technical and subconscious.

Joël Moens de Hase "Adele Bloch, Tribute to Klimt," 2014, 39.5 x 39.5, Archival DIgital.
Joël Moens de Hase “Adele Bloch, Tribute to Klimt,” 2014, 39.5 x 39.5, Archival Digital.

“On the technical side,” he said, “I needed to have very simple structures to have a good result on the large scale, because I did try to use other small pictures like faces or places, but when they get very small you don’t see it anymore. The end result was not so good.”

“And then there’s the subconscious part, of course,” he continued. “Why did I do it? You should ask my subconscious. It’s also personal history, of course, and it’s also the charm about love and women.”

He has been asked by several of the gallery’s clients to create mosaics using the other sex, but he’s not thrilled at the notion of searching the internet for 75,000 images.

“You cannot do something with your heart if you don’t like it, especially in art,” said Mr. Moens de Hase, adding of his work, “Maybe there’s also suffering in it.”

Joël Moens de Hase, “A Digital Art Tribute to the Masters,” will be on view July 4 to August 1 at the Monika Olko Gallery, located at 95 Main Street in Sag Harbor. An opening reception will be held Saturday, July 5, from 6 to 8 p.m. For more information, call (631) 899-4740 or visit the gallery’s website.