Each painting at the Carl Freedman gallery will or will not speak directly to its audience. As a result of the ordinariness of the subject matter: a woman depicted in banal scenes, I find as I enter the world of Nel Aerts that I may not tune in to her aspirations. The title of the exhibition The Village Idiot, which is a synonym for simple-mindedness, evokes the reduction of thoughts and brushstrokes, the elimination of any superficial layers which could pollute the pure conversation the artist wishes to engage in with her viewers.
The artworks are a mix of fabric collages and paintings. Plunged into an eerie atmosphere of childlike drawings and pastel colours, the main character gets on with her life. Sitting at a bar, dining, resting on her bed or painting, she seems to be spending the majority of her time alone, except when she looks in our direction, and then it feels like we are two people hanging out. The concept of loneliness looms large. Perhaps it is due to the repetitiveness of the female character posing alone or perhaps because loneliness is a sentiment the artist, while painting herself by herself, felt so deeply that it ended up transcending her art. It is therefore paramount to know that Aerts, indeed, worked on these canvases after she attended a three month residency in the Netherlands during which she felt a deep sense of isolation.
The young lady in the paintings is the artist herself. Genuine and authentic, the works denote a touch of naivety which is twofold: either it is perceived as poignant or humorous. The décor in which Aerts settles in her paintings is composed of surreal details such as a multitude of perfectly ordered clouds, tear drops as large as her hands, and patterns which resemble lilies or daisies. These enhancements are perhaps her way of softening a throbbing, mounting loneliness. At first it doesn’t seem like it could have been that awful, but as I pay more attention to the environment this young lady lives in, I interpret signs which prove that simplicity and self-mocking humour might have been hiding tormented feelings. Did Aerts ever perceived herself as the village idiot at that precise time? Suddenly, a wave of sadness surges up through the canvases. The painting which speaks to me the most is The Magician. With her long arms, and her face cut in half and inhabited by a darker version of herself, she seems to have been transported into another world. I am not sure whether I should interpret this representation as punishment or escape. Aerts knows how to push the limits of a happy landscape to the point where the most drastic of suppositions can be imagined.
As I gaze through the ensemble of paintings, I remember times where I felt alone. “How do you perceive loneliness?” is a question Aerts, in the guise of the young lady in the paintings, seems to be directing to her viewers. The flow of answers in relation to the art facing me is unlimited, and although sadness resurfaces, it is slightly less heavy and painful with pastel rainbow colours, big raindrops, and cherry-red curtains.
The Village Idiot – Nel Aerts at Carl Freedman (22 June – 29 July 2017)