New York

Ger Van Elk

Among artists who use photographs, the Dutchman Ger van Elk has a particular role. He was one of the early focussed practitioners: at the end of the ’60s, when his compatriot Jan Dibbets began his perspective corrections and Conceptualists flocked to a new-found tool, van Elk was already at his work. But he was never the medium’s convert. For him photography was not an “accurate” means but one of sharp transmission—a medium whose realist pretensions and cultural force made it both usable and suspect. He juxtaposed it in his work with other modes of image-making, playing different representations against one another.

Throughout the ’70s these plays with reality and its encoding forms were phrased in paintings, assembled sculpture, environments; films, and highly ersatz objects, all rendered with cheeky comments and witty asides. If they seemed, at the time, unserious, and unshaped to eyes still blinded by formalist codes, from today’s vantage they acquire a new relevance. Is this critical revisionism? Historical realignment? Attention to Europe after a long focus on American art? Hardly—it’s just that in the wake of formalism, van Elk’s attention to representation—to those interpretive images that mediate experience, standing for and finally subverting the real thing—ring true.

This is an ironic art, determined in its questioning of all conventions and not averse to using puckish pranks to make its points. Its strategy consists of opposing reality to esthetic schemes, using the photograph as an initial reference that can be retouched, painted, lacerated, or otherwise manipulated, or juxtaposed with different imagistic modes. In his attention to the point at which forms become formulaic, van Elk has ample range. He plays with esthetic genres (landscape, portraiture, etc.), and he plays with material codes (painting, sculpture, photography). He can question the many metaphors by which rivers “snake” or “roll” like “ribbons,” thus deforming reality into formal shapes (the structure of reality here clearly dominates reality). And he questions, most importantly, those many pictorial styles that, through “touch,” “tone,” and “stroke,” romantically claim to convey an always distanced experience.

Van Elk, of course, is Marcel Duchamp’s heir not only in his purgative approach, by which the various artistic supports are emptied of their resonance, but also in his plural means. And central to his most recent work is not only the impossibility of “seizing” reality in a world that is endlessly mediated by codes, but also the evasiveness of the very codes that claim to interpret experience. Categories change: canvas, when crumpled, becomes a sculpture, while a retouched photograph assumes pictorial guise. Van Elk stretches these limits in Pushing Sculpture, 1981, building a pictorial mass with heavy paint, adding veristic weight through photographs so as to test sculpture’s material presence. And styles change, mocking their own rhetorical focus. The thick, frenzied paint that masks the photographic paper in many works seems to suggest the impossibility of ever evoking the deep, authentic sentiments it once conveyed. The artist, van Elk implies, can never accept, but only question, his ever fragile means.

This doubt is topical, current, “relevant.” But it also carries echoes of van Elk’s ’60s experience, when, under the banner of “Adynamism,” he protested both the fashionable energies of Tachism and all formal, factural creeds. In several paintings the same sickly pinks and baby blues, decorative circles and triangles, recur. In Three Pets van Elk places three photographic images—a dog, a cat, a baby—on backgrounds painted with sentimental hues, playing clever games with evocation. An eye is an eye—a photographic detail; but its mate is an abstraction, a bright vermilion circle, suggesting that all is equally ambiguous. And elsewhere the babies are covered with thick strokes of brilliant paint and placed against night-sky grounds, to imply that the artist can no more “render” the reality of flesh and form than paint the starry skies.

Kate Linker