On my latest visit to Brussels, I was greeted by sudden fits of torrential rain intercepted by brief episodes of victorious sunshine. I should never have left my embarrassingly tattered umbrella at home. Emerging from the streets and into art galleries looking like a pitiful sodden wreck was far more mortifying. As it happened, reaching Xavier Hufkens at the onset of yet another unexpected deluge struck a somewhat providential note. The muffled sound of rain pattering on the roof played harmonious back up to my experience of Roni Horn’s latest show, Selected Drawings 1984 – 2012, while the sensation of being safely cocooned inside the gallery provided a multilayered satisfaction.
Xavier Hufkens is a stunning location. Elegantly refurbished, it combines original features with contemporary linear architecture, comprising four temporary exhibition rooms plus a second floor for the gallery’s library and stable collection. The clever architectural layout allows curators to group works into cohesive sections, as in the current show where the installation illustrates distinct junctures in the American artist’s drawing practice. Nonetheless, a clear aesthetic sensitivity and conceptual rationale link the three decades of drawing practice represented here. On the whole, Horn’s works are marked by a quasi-analytical approach to her medium. Pure and often monochromatic, her works are characterized by an understated compositional and technical complexity. Lingering to look more carefully allows us to appreciate their quiet richness.
Roni Horn, Such 4, 2012, pigment and varnish on paper, 208.3 x 215.9 cm; Courtesy of the artist and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels / Photo © Thomas Müller.
We start our visit with her most recent works, which also happen to be her largest. Lines of pigment and graphite are layered on white paper, which has then been cut and recomposed. Standing at the crossroads between painting, drawing, and collage these works are painterly, sculptural, and graphic at once. Their scale allows us to substantially shift our viewpoint. From afar, we are confronted with organic images, in which details fuse into each other masking points of disconnect. These images recall molecular structures, and implore us to move closer. Upon approaching, the pigment’s textural quality becomes far more apparent. It is layered thickly on the paper with sparing use of turpentine and contrasts starkly with the surrounding unmarked paper. Horn made several similar “plates” for each piece, then cut and pasted these together in the finished works. It’s a long and meticulous process, reminiscent perhaps of video or photographic editing, which is telling of an artist also widely known for her photographic practice.
These works also possess a definite cartographic quality—bringing my nose dangerously close to their surface felt like peering onto an imaginary map. Horn’s pencil intervenes on the page to mark the points of rupture and intersection within the image: tracing and linking the places where the original plates were severed and recomposed. The pencil marks act like milestones, registering routes and pauses, while Horn’s use of language—words with no narrative relation to one another save an occasional rhyme or letter switch: TOAD - ROAD - CODE - RUG - GHOST - CHIN - MODE - FOO - TOO - BOO—also add to the sense of a sequential journey that our eyes follow as they carve a path for themselves across the piece. From word to word, ‘MODE’ to ‘ROAD’, line to line, mark to mark, and gap to gap, passing over thick rivulets of pigment and back onto blank rivers of paper, then reaching a further word, ‘GHOST’ followed by ‘BOO’, then on to ‘TOO’... The algorithm opens onto the infinite.
Roni Horn, The XL, 1989, pigment and varnish on paper, 57 x 62 cm; Courtesy of the artist and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels.
In further rooms we encounter some of Horn’s earlier work, among which is a series of small-scale drawings, where thick layers of pigment form pairs of specular shapes seemingly pasted onto the otherwise untouched page. While differing from her recent work in both scale and ostensible complexity, these similarly explore duplication and fragmentation. Painting two virtually identical shapes, Horn forces us to reflect on their juxtaposition. We pick up on subtle differences in texture and contour, and are left to ponder the essential elements that make up each form. Rich, carefully layered hues exacerbate the rupture between the palpable flatness of the blank page and the seeming depth of the painted shapes. This too is a quality that Horn takes to her later work.
As the Eurostar now charges its way speedily back to London, I am left hoping the weather on the British Isles will be less fickle. Reflecting on my brief Belgian blitzkrieg visit, I contemplate my next trip. The capital’s galleries are promising some tantalizing programs for the coming months… Perhaps I will treat myself to yet another stab at the Belgian contemporary art scene. What is certain, come rain or come shine, is that Xavier Hufkens will be top of my list next time round too.
(Image on top: Roni Horn, Untitled (Hamilton), 1984, pigment and varnish on paper, 25.4 x 30.5 cm; Courtesy of the artist and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels / Photo © Thomas Müller.)