Splendid Isolation €‚ƒ„, Ghent 14 May – 18 September


In 1972 curator Harald Szeemann presented the then little-known art brut of Swiss artist Adolf Wölfli alongside works by world-renowned artists in Documenta 5, and Roger Cardinal published his groundbrea­king book Outsider Art, drawing attention to a constellat­ion of visionarie­s and self-taught makers.

In the half-century since, formerly arbitrary definition­s of what constitute­s contempora­ry art’s inside and out have grown more porous, and this exhibition at ®¯°± is the latest contributi­on to that process. Prompted by the enforced confinemen­ts of recent years, it’s a wide-ranging reflection on isolation and its psychologi­cal and cultural repercussi­ons.

Only a handful of the 22 artists here could be considered ‘outsiders’ in the original sense of the word: indeed, this show includes establishe­d artworld names such as Louise Bourgeois, Derek Jarman and Nalini Malani alongside lesser-known and local figures. But what unifies this heterogene­ous group is that they have all been sequestere­d from society in some way, whether through metaphoric­al ‘outsiderne­ss’ or literal isolation.

Their circumstan­ces and fortunes, though, vary dramatical­ly. Some withdrew voluntaril­y in pursuit of an ascetic existence, such as Guernsey-born Benedictin­e monk and concrete poet Dom Sylvester Houédard, represente­d here via several collages and ‘typescript­s’. Others, such as the sculptor Judith Scott, who was born deaf and with Down Syndrome, were marginalis­ed as the result of a disability. And in several instances works were made in response to places of captivity, as exemplifie­d by the wistful paintings of the reclusive David Byrd, who worked as an attendant in a psychiatri­c ward.

Elsewhere, the extent to which punishment and imprisonme­nt shape our society is indirectly highlighte­d by works depicting the dehumanisi­ng reality of being locked up or living under martial law. In 2017 Kurdish artist Zehra Doğan was jailed for almost three years, having been charged with ‘terrorist propaganda’ after she shared images, on social media, of her painting portraying the devastatio­n wreaked by the Turkish military on a mainly Kurdish village in southeaste­rn Turkey.

The series of drawings on display here capture the brutality of prison life and possess the quality of a graphic novel, with narratives presented in sequential frames. There is an element of reportage to Doğan’s work, but this is ultimately a form of storytelli­ng that uses animal imagery and symbolism, and to further accentuate the full extent of injustices she and others have been subjected to.

A storytelli­ng impulse also governs the work of Shuvinai Ashoona, an Inuit who spent much of her early life in remote outposts of Canada’s Northwest Territorie­s. Ashoona’s drawings o£er insights into her everyday life, but also feature visionary details that evoke nature myths. In Compositio­n, Woman Battling Walrus, Elephant, Octopus and Bird Creature (2019) a woman is pictured from behind wrestling a chimerical hybrid of the named animals. Ashoona’s impression­s represent both her individual experience­s and, on a more universal level, also revivify voices and worldviews previously marginalis­ed by the long-term cultural homogeneit­y imposed by settler colonialis­m.

In bringing together such a diverse assembly of artists, Splendid Isolation reveals commonalit­ies and shared tendencies, rather than fetishisin­g or reinforcin­g otherness. It’s evident that all the works here were made out of necessity: art created as a means of sublimatin­g or communicat­ing.

The majority of these works, most of which are wall-based, possess a handwrough­t quality produced via manual processes such as stitching and drawing, which lends a distinctly intimate and human character.

Additional­ly, while many of the inclusions show a propensity for figuration and narrative content, some of the most intriguing pieces employ abstract vocabulari­es or self-devised systems of notation. Belgian artist Danny Bergeman’s idiosyncra­tic drawings – consisting of grids of geometric forms, seemingly intended to demarcate time’s passage or to record observatio­ns, and hung in a monumental installati­on – were produced daily over a seven-year (2011–18) period at De Zandberg, a welfare organisati­on establishe­d for artists with disabiliti­es.

The potency of Bergeman’s work stems partially from its formulatio­n and execution according to criteria we are not party to; nor need we be to glean something valuable from it. Like many of the creations here that emerged from margins and solitude, Bergeman’s work possesses an intensity and unselfcons­ciousness that, even in art’s now-expanded purview, are all too rare.

Pádraic E. Moore

 ?? ?? David Byrd, Patient Pondering, 1995, oil on canvas, 61 × 79 cm. Courtesy ®¯°±, Ghent
David Byrd, Patient Pondering, 1995, oil on canvas, 61 × 79 cm. Courtesy ®¯°±, Ghent
 ?? ?? Nalini Malani, Exile – Dreams – Longing: My Reality is DiŒerent, 2020–21, drawings on paper, 31 × 23 cm. Courtesy the artist and Burger Collection, Hong Kong
Nalini Malani, Exile – Dreams – Longing: My Reality is DiŒerent, 2020–21, drawings on paper, 31 × 23 cm. Courtesy the artist and Burger Collection, Hong Kong

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