Ilse D’Hollander spent the three years leading up to her suicide in 1997 at the age of 29, working feverishly in Paulatem in rural East Flanders, a village surrounded by flat fields, unassuming copses and narrow waterways. She would take long walks, return to her house and paint non-stop, using oil and gouache to channel journeys outdoors and inside her head into hundreds of small canvases and works on paper and cardboard. These largely low-key ruminations, like the work of her most obvious progenitor Nicolas de Staël, tease a slippage between landscape and abstraction, while exploring painting’s possibilities and limits. As her first London solo show affirms, they are controlled exercises in mystery, which, though created at speed and in retiring shades, demand our time and scrutiny.
With a handling of paint that veers from delicate wash to brief, purposeful bursts of thick pigment, many of these conjure the becalmed landscape she trekked through in the Low Countries. Brushy horizontal, vertical and diagonal sections progress up the canvas suggesting the demarcations of fields, rivers, shorelines, horizon and sky. Colours are those of a world that is stilled and soft, from the plums and pinks of autumn and dense summer vegetation’s sludgy green to the hazed Tupperware grey of winter clouds. Occasionally, a blaze of orange evokes corn in the sun, or mottled ink-blue the drama of an incipient storm. The eye is lead into the illusory distance implied by perspectival lines: hinting at a hedgerow, a ditch, a path through a white field towards grey trees that calls to mind the poet Robert Frost’s melancholy meditation, Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening (1922). And like Frost’s verse, they imply a forward and backward-looking journey into memory, time, nature and the self.
Given that D’Hollander came of age in the 1990s, her commitment to romantic and abstract traditions seems especially remarkable. In Belgium, Luc Tuymans was busy reinventing quiet tonal painting as a means of harrowing cultural critique while her friend Raoul De Keyser’s playful, ironic approach to the medium’s oft-pronounced endgame had garnered later-life recognition. Yet what she threw herself into was a singular, deeply personal project, isolated from the art world’s cut and thrust. (Large earlier works on cardboard from 1992–93, where the paint is thick and fleshy and the colours strong, show how much her vision was honed in Paulatem.) Still, this is hardly art that shrugs off doubt. In fact, D’Hollander makes a virtue of uncertainty, and painting’s unique facility for it.
The rural vistas she channelled are notable for geometric order. However, while her paintings reproduce their shapes and divisions, nothing is ever precise. What looks like landscape frequently breaks down. I became lost in one gloomy 1996 painting where two denuded tree trunks seem to rise from a regimented earth bed into the umbrella of a shadowy black canopy, against a cloudy backdrop. Or is it a ladder, climbing a wall into the liberating pitch of night?
D’Hollander’s edges always blur and lines wobble in a way that feels very human. ‘My essence is present in my action on the canvas,’ she wrote in 1991. Yet ‘essence’, her work suggests, is the thing we can never grasp. It’s all contingent, the fuzzed borders say: paint, our memories, the artist’s endeavour. Then there’s the way her paintings are always built up in tangible layers. In Elizabeth (1996), for instance, one of only three works in the show to be titled, a hot coral lurks, veiled beneath milky white and dull grey blue shapes. There is always something left, which hints and teases just beyond our vision.
'Ilse D'Hollander' runs at Victoria Miro, London, until 21 December 2018.
Main image: Ilse D'Hollander, Untitled (detail), 1996, oil on canvas, 47 × 40 cm. Courtesy: The Estate of Ilse D’Hollander and Victoria Miro, London/Venice © The Estate of Ilse D’Hollander
First published in Issue 201