New York

Ger Van Elk

Goodman Gallery

Ger Van Elk is a Dutch painter well known in Europe but not in America, and it is easy to see why: the work is adamantly European, informed by both Dadaism and Surrealism. It is tactical in a Dadaist way: there is the paradox of the readymade and there is spurious logic (one work of ’72 is called The Rose More Beautiful than Art but Difficult, Therefore Art Is Splendid); there is perverse appropriation (in C’est moi qui fait la musique of ’73, a photo of a piano and pianist is deformed to fit the frame); and there is the exhibitionism of Dada (the titles insist, “c’est moi”; most of the portraits are of Van Elk; and in one work, It’s Me Twice as Flat as I Can Be, he even poses as a kind of Christ).

Ger Van Elk is also reminiscent of Rene Magritte. There is the magic of Magritte’s Surrealism (in the present show Van Elk has a series called “The Missing Persons,” much like Magritte’s L’homme au journal), and like Magritte in Ce n’est pas un pipe, Van Elk is concerned with the ratio of thing to name, to representation. The rhetoric of Surrealist art is literary. Ellipsis, metaphor versus metonymy, the word pipe versus an image of it, these are the forms that interest Van Elk as they did Magritte.

Van Elk may be a European, but the norms or conventions he engages are often American, set by painting here in the last 25 years. This is a reversal: we are more used to “American sensibility” under “European influence.” In It’s Me Twice as Flat a photo of Van Elk is mounted on a pole which holds a triangular canvas of piece of paper, a profile photo and a short pole. The work is Dadaist but the parody is aimed at American painting: the Abstract Expressionist rhetoric of flatness and pathos and more recent issues of the suspended cruciform aspect of painting, the canvas as a figure upon the field of the wall, etc. In 1974 and 1975 Van Elk did a series entitled “Adieu,” works which picture one or more canvases at an oblique angle. Unlike Magritte’s La condition humaine, which shows an easel canvas exactly in line with the landscape, the canvas here (often highly perspectival) points to a curtain or painterly surface. The parody is clear: in a mock-somber way Van Elk announces, rather after the fact, the “death of easel painting” (adieu), ironic in that he is firmly within the easel tradition. In the hands of a Duchamp, parody can be appropriation. Perhaps because of Duchamp, it does not work fully for Van Elk.

Van Elk is allied with two other Dutch painters, Jan Dibbets and Ger Dekkers. In recent years all three have done Dutch landscapes (with a one-to-one land-sky ratio, not the traditional Dutch formula) which serve form(ula), not vice versa. In the “Structure Studies” of Dibbets and the “Planned Landscapes” of Dekkers, landscapes are photographed with a set of systematic and random variants (focus, angle, weather); our own perception becomes the subject. In the present show Van Elk does much the same thing. We are given a landscape (a mountain or a field), part photograph and part painting, presented in such a way that the painting, not the photograph, seems “real” (more illusionistic), and the painted symbol ( ^^^^ for a mountain) more immediate. Van Elk points out that cognition is often reflex, that we identify by gestalt. In Mountain Lake the sign even defines the format: a mountain and its reflection form a diamond. The mountain in nature makes the reflection but here the mountain is painted, the reflection is a photo of the mountain—the actual thing is painterly, the illusion is photographic, so that “realism,” formerly the convention of photography, is refracted to painting.

Four of the landscapes are mountains, two are fields. The latter show a chiasmic construction: painterly sky/ photographic field//photographic sky/ painterly field. There is no spatial continuity (we cannot enter the field—the paint is flat, the photo recessive) and no legible narrative (they cannot be read left to right, top to bottom). There is instead a painterly narrative: we read the chiasmus, the diagonals of paint to paint, photograph to photograph (in two other works that narrative informs the structure of the whole). We read the works as abstract design, not realistic landscape. Here as elsewhere with Ger Van Elk, what first seems child’s play is profound paradox.

Hal Foster