Joris Van de Moortel: The ne’er-do-wells set out for a dubious pilgrimage

28 November 2019 - 25 January 2020 Cloître Saint-Merri I & II - Paris

Galerie Nathalie Obadia is very pleased to present Belgian artist Joris Van de Moortel's fifth exhibition, after This incomplete mythical world whose perfection lay outside it in 2018, in Brussels.

Through a group of works on paper, mural sculptures, installations and a video, Joris Van de Moortel builds a 7-act journey into madness, following a syncretic approach that combines 15th and 16th century Flemish painting, popular folklore, experimental music, medieval thought, writing and mysticism. Joris Van de Moortel uses a wide spectrum of techniques, which he has developed himself: engraving, gouache, neon, collage, recycled musical instruments, wax installations, videos, sound devices. The artist thus hyphenates classical figuration with rock culture, and traditional iconography with popular references.

The theme of the Ship of Fools, whose origin goes back to Plato and which was made famous in the 15th century by the writer Sebastian Brant, is the point of departure of this one-way journey toward a marginalized, spiritual and underground world, which is at once parodic and transgressive. Through the allegory of a ship carrying madmen and destined to be shipwrecked, Joris Van de Moortel questions the artist's place in society and our conscience when faced with the materialistic norms and values of the time. A depiction of drifting at sea which can also be construed as a metaphor for exile or quarantine, and which carries a clearly political dimension.

Works like The ne'er-do-wells are sailing out and The Ship of Fools introduce the theme through explicit references to the illustrations that Albrecht Dürer made for Brant's written work. The composition, enhanced by gouache or lit with neon lights, the use of engraving in the background, and the vigorous drawing all find their sources here. The procession of dead people who haunt the first scene confer an air of danse macabre, another theme that is dear to the artist, and one that draws upon Hans Holbein's work, which influenced a counter-culture to which he too ascribes. The drawing Diagram Ritual/Horror/Animism Pilgrimage/OOO/Unfixed Fool, which expresses the artist's connected thinking, is inspired by Hieronymus Bosch's famous and venerable representation of the Ship of Fools. Satire reaches its paroxysm in the form of a total inversion, with the ship having run aground. The famous Dulle Griet (Margot la Folle) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder and his upside-down world, an apocalyptic vision of madness, constitutes another influence for the artist, who seems to convey here a lucid and worried outlook on the future of the world.

In this same vein, the collages Pilgrimage and Pilgrimage II weave a clearer parallel with the status of the artist and musician: with neither perspective nor horizon, but an upturned sea where absurd drifting, which is ironically qualified as a pilgrimage, takes a carnivalesque turn. Excess, travesty, popular music and procession appear just beneath the surface, like nods to all sorts of medieval rites linked to a social experience of music (especially the tradition of charivari) but also to the artist's performative practice.

A large part of Joris Van de Moortel's work is derived from the liberating energy of live music. In fact, the artist reuses remnants of his performances in his visual practice. Thus, the artist's neon-lit self-portrait as a trumpet player (after the first representation of Jörg Schan's "Mr. Nobody" character, 1507), a guitar player's hands frozen atop his fetishized instrument, an electrifying concert reproduced on video, and song lyrics that sound like incantations cropping up throughout the exhibition. Joris Van de Moortel reminds us that the Ship of Fools became a cultural symbol for the entire rock and underground scene of the 1970s and 80s, which included the likes of John Cale, The Doors or Erasure, who made it the emblem, through their titles, of accepted and borderline non-conformity.

Several installations incarnate the dysphoric counterpart of this ambiguous frenzy: whether it is a drummer imprisoned in the chains of his instrument at the prow of a suspended ship or slumped before his image reflected in the water, Joris Van de Moortel seems to tell us something of the solitude of the powerless artist, abandoned as he is to the silent sea, unanswered.

Finally, the exhibition's central work, to which the artist devotes an entire room, is a video, which transposes, in stop motion, the 7 acts that constitute the storyline of the exhibition, and which follows the model of an opera. Using maquettes and miniature people which he makes in his studio, Joris Van de Moortel gives body and life to the world of spirits. At every scene, there is a way in. Against an eerie soundtrack composed by the artist, esoteric rites, black magic and voodoo cult are suggested by different effects (light, fire, smoke) and, no longer surprisingly, are associated to the phenomenon of musical trance. The video culminates in a new representation of madness borrowed from Bruegel's Elck (Everyman): familiar to artists, this seems to finally incarnate a form of misunderstood wisdom.

A multi-talented artist, adept at plastic and visual experimentation, Joris Van de Moortel thus deploys a whole visual and mental universe, rich with multiple underground ramifications, nourished as much by art history as by literature and music. A celebration of alternative and spiritual lifestyles in a disenchanted and consumerist world, the exhibition appears like an invitation to set sail: « What weight have we put on the world / What phantasms we gave birth / (...) Lets the wind in the sails of the fool / Preventing ourselves drowning in the garden's pool ».