7 November - 21 December, 2018
Review by Claire Phillips
Drifting across the porous outlines of misted horizons, open fields and canals, Ilse D’Hollander’s paintings are like the remnants of dreams as they begin to dwindle in the morning sun. Spread through the galleries of Victoria Miro’s Mayfair outpost, though, these paintings are perilously intertwined with D’Hollander and her story of tragedy and woe.
Born in a small village in the Flemish lowlands between Antwerp and Ghent, D’Hollander came of age in the 1980s at a time when most critics and teachers were peddling the death of painting. D’Hollander continued with her education and made a body of work anchored in the natural world, imbued with a sensual visual language that is rooted in her experience of the rolling Flemish countryside. The results are a refreshing antidote to the moneymaking machines we’ve come to know as Zombie Formalists. In contrast, D’Hollander’s paintings capture an essence of the Belgian landscape, with smears of colour juxtaposed by references to the real world in the diagonals of tree trunks and muddy tracks.
D’Hollander held her first solo exhibition aged 28 in 1996 before tragically taking her own life just a year later. The promise of what might have been still hangs heavy in the air at Victoria Miro. The quiet, intimate works on display come largely from the final years of D’Hollander’s career, spent in the small village of Paulatem, where she settled in 1994. Painted from memories of winding paths and upright trees dotted across the landscape, D’Hollander’s pictures are filled with hazy volumes of colour that bleed and collide with the edges of the canvas or cardboard. A fragile moment takes shape, like a sharp intake of breath, as these forms meet: the tangible land of the living and a softer, internal landscape of the soul. D’Hollander’s ability to tread the tightrope between the Flemish scenery and her own world of emotion and spirit, establishes her place in the canon of abstract painters beside Piet Mondrian and Nicolas de Staël, and even Mark Rothko’s stained fields of colour.
D’Hollander fits the profile of an artist ripe for rediscovery – something the art world has become increasingly concerned with as dealers seek out the most undervalued names on the market. Recently the battle has focused on female and minority artists, including the estate of Diane Arbus, jointly represented by David Zwirner and Fraenkel Gallery, and Jack Whitten at Hauser & Wirth. Having resurfaced with her first show in the US in 2016 at Sean Kelly’s gallery in New York, D’Hollander’s estate is now represented by Kelly and the powerhouse British dealer Victoria Miro. And in the case of Ilse D’Hollander the spotlight is entirely justified. Her paintings are beautiful distillations of a brief, but poignant life. While the earlier works on display are jigsaw puzzles of vibrant crimsons, greens and turquoises, D’Hollander moves into the final years of her life with a series of landscape that tremble and dissolve. Between 1995 and 1996, the horizon seeps into the fields, broken by the outlines of trees, paths and buildings that are indistinct and otherworldly.
In much the same way as Francesca Woodman though, whose early death at the age of just 22 has made her into something of a cult figure, D’Hollander’s paintings are cast in the shadow of her personal history. Without this sorrowful tale, it’s interesting to consider whether the works would pack the same punch. In his catalogue essay, writer and critic David Anfam argues that with D’Hollander’s “brevity of life” comes a “brighter flame.” Like a horrendous car crash on the side of the road, it’s true that we can’t resist the paintings of a tortured genius. Maybe we are just morbidly fascinated by a good old-fashioned tale of torment. D’Hollander herself recognised how tangled her delicate existence and artwork had become, explaining, “I am not facing my canvas as a neutral being but as an acting being who is investing into the act of painting. My being is present in my action on the canvas.”
Particularly in these final years, D’Hollander’s work takes on a bold simplicity of form and uninterrupted tone that rings true of the Belgian countryside. However, as the edges of vast open skies and land meet, there is a quiver of uncertainty to these paintings - a feeling that conjures the image of an artist never entirely at ease with herself.