“OUTRIDER is a line of demarcation.” So begins American poet and Beat affiliate Anne Waldman’s Outrider (2006), which explores possibilities for developing a creative practice from a position outside the cultural mainstream. Eschewing ambition, piety, and reward, outrider can be many things: hybrid, witness, visionary, one who rides horses. But above all, it is a declension of possibility in a world that is increasingly commoditised, violent, and unjust.
It’s a figure I’ve had in mind while thinking-through Three Moral Tales, an exhibition that assembles works by three female artists, Joëlle de La Cassinère (b.1944), Ana Jotta (b.1946), and Anne-Mie Van Kerkhoven (b.1951), all of whom are the same generation as Waldman and are currently enjoying something of a late-career resurgence. Late – as recent shows at Malmö Konsthall featuring the likes of Siri Aurdal, Charlotte Johannesson, and Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt have also attested – in no small part due to gender.
In this case, the belated interest is also put down to something else the artists have in common: a politics of refusal. But this is not to say that they share an ‘unproductive attitude’ or have at some point exited the art world, only to be reabsorbed decades later. Rather, as the press release puts it, having “fought unwaveringly throughout their respective careers” to maintain a position where “total freedom remained their one and only rule,” each of them “pays no fealty to trends of contemporary art.” Outriders, just so.
Paradoxically, it’s limited visibility that today not only seems to guarantee the authenticity of their work, but also the moral and ethical position of fidelity to one’s art that, in this presentation, it comes to represent. This, I think, is what the exhibition’s curator, François Piron, means when he offers that the works on view “assume a moral dimension… as critical allegories.” That is to say, the works in Three Moral Tales become, in a crucial sense, allegories for the artists’ lives – their particular forms of life as artist-outriders. Indeed, if ‘idiosyncrasy’ and ‘eccentricity’ are, according to Piron, two of the show’s guiding principles, then a third term must surely be added: ‘persistence’.
Curatorial framing notwithstanding, there are other instances where the trio’s credibility is secured. Several of the works on view are themselves unyielding; many are clearly non-commercial, actively resisting consummation through visual strategies of fragmentation and excess, as well as a critical negativity that verges on iconoclastic.
This exhibition – Piron’s second for Malmö Konsthall in the span of a year – favours smaller works that reflect economies at the scale of everyday social practice, a far remove from slick big-budget productions and corporate studio systems. The result, while in many ways modest, is nonetheless demanding.
Take, for example, the broad selection spanning over fifty years of Cassinère’s ‘Tablotins’, a series in mixed-media on cardboard. Often taking the form of letters to friends, they are intricate, confounding, and suggest deep bonds of friendship, intellectual curiosity, and care. To properly view one might require several minutes – and much longer for those who speak neither French nor Spanish, two of the Casablanca-born artist’s preferred languages. Here, an assortment of around 150 such works are presented. Nearby, a feature-length film comprising stills of the ‘Tablotins’ is presented inside a black-box theatre. For this work, the artist solicited responses to the images in the form of vocal recordings which were then set to music and serve as the film’s score. The temporal elements provide an additional layer of complexity that, despite the helpful subtitles, does little in the way of making these dense compositions combining text, image, and ornament more accessible.
Portuguese artist Ana Jotta’s contributions are as withholding as they are – to borrow one of cultural theorist and literary critic Sianne Ngai’s contemporary aesthetic categories – ‘zany’. In the installation Ana e eu (Ana and I, 2018), characters from the American comic strip Krazy Kat (1913–1944) are drawn on colourful cardboard discs suspended from the ceiling. Elsewhere, the large painting Fala-só (Soliloquy, 2017) shows a sequence wherein a wisp of a figure struggles to transport what looks to be an unwieldy pane of glass; loosely sketched using bleach on heavy indigo fabric, the performance is frenetic, wildly precarious, and seemingly without end. As an allegory for contemporary art, or simply present-day labour conditions, it feels about right.
In a somewhat different key, Antwerp-based Anne-Mie Van Kerkoven presents a selection of work, ranging from works on paper to a multimedia installation, focused on representations of evil. Much of this includes eroticized and pornographic imagery of women, and various attempts to confront and undermine the male gaze. Of the three artists, Van Kerkoven’s aesthetic is the most stylistically coherent, its use of cut-outs, cut-ups, and détournements of popular imagery keeping faith with the critical art practices of the 1980s – a decade in which some of them were, in fact, made. And yet, her thinking also seems the most transgressive, drawing from sources such as mysticism and feminist technoscience, amongst others. The exhibition catalogue features a number of her texts, including reflections on recent shows as well as more gnomic utterances as these from a 2018 statement: “the essence is / to symmetrize the moralities… the immoral becomes immoralist / aka the artist as trespasser.”
Amongst the challenges of emphasising the reciprocity between an artist’s life and work is ensuring that the artworks themselves are neither reduced nor subsumed by biography, the “aesthetics of existence,” or worse: the canon. On these counts, Piron has acquitted himself well enough. With the exception of Cassinère – whose quasi-nomadic lifestyle and role as co-founder of the Brussels art-commune Montfaucon Research Centre are highlighted – we come to know very little about the artists’ lives, apart from their decades insistently making work on the margins of the European art world. The trade-off, however, is that without a clearer articulation of the terms of refusal (from both historical and artistic perspectives), the exhibition risks coming across as unduly formal, as is the case with Jotta’s puckish Collection of Js (no date), a heterogeneous collection of found-objects and materials resembling the letter ‘J’. Put differently, to the extent that there is one, the target of the critique is abstracted and vague; meanwhile, the marginal position is sanctified.
That said, I do find the stories told rather compelling. Particularly in relation to an increasingly professionalized art world where the relationship between art and life is normatively structured by networking, value-production, and rampant careerism. Whether or not the degrees of autonomy achieved by Cassinère, Jotta, and Van Kerkoven remain possibilities in today’s contemporary art context is, from my perspective, one of the most pressing questions posed by this exhibition. “OUTRIDER: At the cusp.” Surely, the answer is yes.