NA is a jack-of-all-trades. By resolutely embracing the pseudonym, Nel Aerts becomes NA. She makes her debut with performance, then turns to painting, immediately taking on monumental textile works, bizarre objects and colourful seating.
A hectic trail of large international solo exhibitions follows from 2019–2020, after which she retreats to the studio, her playground for tracking reality and delusion. She watches herself in the mirror, looking for a place in a locked-up world.
What’s happening here? In her video invitation, Nel thunders through her studio, boisterously headbanging, knee- and head-butting, banging Mohammed Ali onto the canvas without mercy. Her actions demonstrate the no-nonsense attitude from which this new family of figures grows.
With her collection of cloths and rags of every colour, pattern, quality and size, NA creates collages. SWALLOW MAELSTROM HUT HEADS (hotheads wallowing in slush and sludge) forms a new chapter in her oeuvre through its focus on one theme and one technique. The collages translate topical skin hunger into the tactile, haptic form of textiles. The focus is on one-eyed figures in strict profile, with changing identities. Puppet-like and self-conscious, they expose the wounds of the self. Framed as objects, they look to the right. “Heads together and all noses pointing in the same direction” sounds like a party-political drill or management diktat. The eye, which is the sensory organ of distance par excellence, refers to the giant eye of Homer’s man-eating cyclops painted by Goya and Redon, the hungry eyes of Little Red Riding Hood’s wolf, the shocking opening scene in Un Chien Andalou, and so much more.
This juggling act with the expressive gaze forms the core of the oeuvre – a rag-and-cloth family which NA exhibits in the vein of historical portrait galleries. There are no signs of presidents or boxers (m or f), but rather an amalgam of agitators and rebel girls. As regards the figure at the window, NA refers to window prostitution and the absurd pantomime behind glass in Tati’s Playtime. Looking through a glass wall creates distance. Everything seems to be calm and controlled but under the skin the Hut Heads are steaming with desire and frustration. Their physiognomy reveals the extent to which these cut-up figures speak in tongues.
The figures and their inherent masquerade slowly evolve – by glueing their eyes shut – into rectangles, speed cameras, water towers, Art-Deco ornaments, or Belgian shedification. In one work, the big eye disappears behind an image of someone generously offering his/her behind. Libertarian behaviour or a banal workout? Keep in mind that the pedagogical position doesn’t belong to men here but to women.
The inert heads regularly engage in lyrical, anarchistic displays full of “pure, stripped-down, no-bullshit rock ‘n’ roll”. The new family is forever living in a meta-reality that includes the “little madness” of psychopaths, clowns and artists.
Text: Wim Van Mulders
Translation: Sis Matthé
The full essay appears in the publication Nel Aerts, SWALLOW MAELSTROM HUT HEADS, 2021.