Ger Van Elk

Art & Project

Now that quoting and combining styles appears to have become an end in itself, it is refreshing to find an artist who refers to tradition in art with a clear purpose. In his still lifes of flowers, Ger van Elk does more than give an up-to-date interpretation of art history’s bygone subjects and styles; he questions our attitudes to such genres and at the same time makes a distinction between “decorative” (for which read “meaningless”) and “expressive” (read “meaningful”) forms of art.

It seems ages since painting flowers was considered a worthwhile occupation. Perhaps the most recent examples in Dutch art history are Vincent van Gogh’s sunflowers, usually full of life, sometimes withered, which the artist described as “gothic church windows” and as “expressing an idea symbolizing gratitude.” Here flowers are the expression of something holy, something of the innermost self. But this attitude completely opposes that of earlier times. Artists of the 16th and 17th centuries loved to paint rare blooms and brightly colored bouquets as proof of their virtuosity—the glittering result of their rich palette. A solitary fly or worm would refer to life’s transience, giving the paintings’ owners the religious alibi that they were watching not merely an artistic miracle, but also that of God’s creation.

Throughout his career van Elk has dealt with the traditions of art history, and has commented on the particular esthetics of such categories as portrait, still life, and landscape. He is also well aware of the decorative and expressionist approaches. By making these two options his central concern, he transcends his somewhat tiresome subject matter.

Photographs of flowers in a vase, shot from oblique angles, are painted upon with enamel in a way that resembles Jackson Pollock’s drip method. In fact, with its doodlings and drippings across the flat surface, the technique is so clearly borrowed that it must be seen as referring directly to Abstract Expressionism. The latter, in its freedom and deliberate chaos, has seemed in the past to represent the opposite of the decorative. Thanks to our more distant view of the phenomenon, we are able to see the patterns and grids of such paintings as a recognizable style.

Van Elk uses this style as he would a pattern. Dots of paint blend with each other, suddenly emerging as poppies or pansies and then becoming “real” as they fuse with a stem in the photograph. As another layer to the work, not all the photographed flowers are “God’s miracles”; some are fabricated by the artist, made out of paper in a style reminiscent of art deco. Related motifs are repeated on pieces of cloth draped behind the fake bouquets.

This description could be thought to imply that van Elk is a late-’70s pattern painter, but this is hardly the case. The decorative is his subject and not his aim. While looking back at both 17th- and 20th-century art, van Elk masterfully handles different painting styles and media, merging them into a coherent whole. Many painters nowadays use expressionist styles as vehicles for wild emotions and vehement statements; the difference here is the conscious way in which the artist analyzes the vehicle he uses. Coolly, he distributes the dots and spots of Abstract Expressionism to create a flat top-layer over his photographic still lifes, and obscures at will the intricate perspectives in the photographs. The pseudo-geometrical shapes of the works echo the strange perspectives and underline the intricate character of van Elk’s “artificial miracles.”

Saskia Bos