Critics’ Picks

View of “Dear David Johnson,” 2011.

View of “Dear David Johnson,” 2011.


Rinus Van de Velde

451 N Paulina Street
April 2–May 14, 2011

Rinus Van de Velde’s mural-scaled wall drawing is a short story hand-lettered directly on the gallery’s walls. Told from a first-person perspective, the narrative is interspersed with charcoal illustrations appropriated from archival sources and subtly altered in ways that make oblique reference to the story. The Flemish artist’s fictional alter ego, a painter also named Rinus Van de Velde, authors the fictive letter on which the actual artist’s current exhibition “Dear David Johnson” is based. The letter explains why the avatar-as-artist failed to show up for a meeting with Johnson (an equally fictitious curator) several months earlier. While en route to the meeting, Van de Velde saw a painting lying in a trash heap. Inspired by that work’s “authentic” qualities, he set off on a journey to Nepal with the goal of reinventing himself as an outsider artist—as the artist puts it, a “foreign madman” capable of seeing “through blind eyes.”

The fictional Van de Velde’s letter is dated August 1963, around the time that Andy Warhol was making his “Death and Disaster” paintings and Donald Judd and Robert Morris were unveiling watershed Minimalist sculptures. The era predates that of global art fairs described in Van de Velde’s letter as “the metaphorical labyrinth of the contemporary art world turned real”—an otherwise apt observation that is nonetheless comically anachronistic. Yet when the 1963-era Van de Velde writes that his own art-making process had become stagnant, “a matter of blind production,” as he puts it, he articulates a frustration that transcends eras and artistic movements. It comes as no surprise to learn that the results of Van de Velde’s spiritual quest are far from epiphanic. He returns to New York, unchanged yet strangely invigorated, closing his letter with a valediction that is deeply cynical and oddly hopeful—and, as such, thoroughly contemporary: “Let’s meet soon.”