Ilse D’Hollander; Fiona Tan: Elsewhere – review


Ilse D’Hollander was so young when she died that almost the first response to her work might be a kind of shocked sorrow to think of such brilliance so abruptly extinguished. The artist killed herself at the age of 28. But the paintings she left defy such melancholy thoughts. Small, calm and balanced, these landscapes are exceptionally beautiful. Whatever was going on in her life does not seem to have been happening in her art.

D’Hollander was born in East Flanders in 1968. She studied first in Antwerp and then in Ghent; the earliest works in this show – painted on cardboard when the artist was about 24 – invoke the countryside between the two cities in all the rich greens of spring and summer. In 1995 she moved to the provincial village of Paulatem, where she seems to have worked with increasing energy and seclusion for the last two years of her life. Her career may have been short, but D’Hollander was prolific. More than 500 paintings survive.

Her habit was to go for long walks and cycle rides through the Flemish Ardennes, returning to the studio to paint what she had experienced from memory. It is the romantic tradition – emotion recollected in tranquillity – reprised for modern times. The light in these visions is chalky, often pale or opalescent, arriving in soft layers on the canvas as if remembered through both weather and time. Each image leans towards abstraction, but is deeply rooted in reality.

The Belgian landscape has its own geometry of crisscrossing dykes and pastures, low horizons and canals. D’Hollander tilts this orderliness into a new poetry of colour and form. Dying twilight presses down upon bronze soil in horizontal bands. A single fluid line curves up the edge of a canvas, describing the contours of ploughed fields. In one highly enticing image, a grey line running diagonally across a vista of misty blue water and dark trees measures the distance to the far horizon as if travelling from here to eternity.

ALSO READ   Stan O'Neal Ended the 'Mother Merrill' Culture and Hasn't Run a Company Since

In a rare statement, D’Hollander spoke of the layers and lines in her paintings playing together to make readable figures. She didn’t mean people. It might be a barn, a post or an isolated copse. In one marvellous canvas from 1996, the figure is a windmill, top-heavy and outlandish beneath veils of glowing sky.

Other painters and places may come to mind before her works: Seurat’s still shores at Gravelines on the French border; Nicolas de Staël’s highly abstracted landscapes; the paintings of D’Hollander’s compatriots Raoul de Keyser and Luc Tuymans. There are even nuances of 17th-century Dutch art in the wintry whiteness and high skies; she was always deeply versed in past painting.





Untitled, 1996 by Ilse D’Hollander.



Untitled, 1996 by Ilse D’Hollander. Photograph: © The Estate of Ilse D’Hollander

But what makes her work so distinct is its combination of serenity and daring. Smooth vertical strokes end in sudden but sumptuous full stops. Gorgeous ultramarine waters meet anxious grey skies. She will paint the divisions of a window frame just to entice the eye further into the greenish mist beyond, or send a pencil-thin shadow raking across the flatlands to conjure their atmospheric desolation.

There are only 20 works in this show but they are astonishingly various. Where other painters subjugate the landscape to their personal aesthetic, D’Hollander renews her own every time. Her brush may carry the sense of hurtling through cornfields, squinting up at eye-blinding snow or staring hard at sharp dykes veering towards the vanishing point. The world, and the way she sees it, are fused in these dense sonnets.

There was only one show in her lifetime. D’Hollander was one of those painters who put all their strength into work, not reputation. She is said to have spoken of never growing old enough to paint all the pictures she had in her head. Victoria Miro has commissioned a brief film about her, which gives almost nothing away except the profound isolation of her environment. But there she is at the end, in a photo, dark-haired and apparently smiling even as she turns away.

The landscape of Los Angeles, as seen from high up in the hills, is the entire focus of Fiona Tan’s latest film installation at Frith Street Gallery. To describe this view as captivating would be an understatement. Tan’s camera gazes at the scene in long, unhurried takes, watching dawn break over distant canyons and trees, noticing the sun gradually glinting off reflective skyscrapers, witnessing the slow close of day as the lights of cars streaming home describe a silver river through the city.





a still from Fiona Tan’s film Elsewhere, 2018.



‘A vision of the afterlife?’: a still from Fiona Tan’s film Elsewhere, 2018. Photograph: Courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery

Everything looks strange and new through Tan’s pensive eyes. That is one of the great gifts of this international artist, daughter of Chinese and Australian parents, born in Indonesia and based in the Netherlands. She seems to be always coming upon each place for the first time. And soon a voice begins to comment on the enigma of arriving in this land of the angels: perhaps we are to think of it as a vision of the afterlife?

Here, there is apparently no racism or violence, no crime or pollution. There is no more need for money, electricity, government – or even memory, as one day flows peacefully into another. And that is what the film appears to confirm: a utopian vision, unchanging, straight out of Samuel Butler’s Erewhon. But the narrator gradually begins to wonder how she will be able to tell the time, experience spontaneity, remember anything of value. She meets neighbours who express a longing for chance and imperfection. And as this haunting film draws to a close, the lofty view grows dark but also familiar: which would be better, the cinematic illusion or the real world?

Star ratings (out of 5)
Ilse D’Hollander ★★★★★
Fiona Tan: Elsewhere ★★★★

Ilse D’Hollander is at Victoria Miro, London W1, until 21 December

Fiona Tan: Elsewhere is at Frith Street Gallery, London W1, until 12 January



READ SOURCE

Leave a Reply