“Correspondentie Europa”

It was a joint decision of four curators at the Stedelijk Museum to exhibit the work of ten artists from six European countries under the title “Correspondentie Europa” (Correspondence Europe), assembled under a concept dictated primarily by democratic principles. However, the very title of this exhibition promised more than it delivered. Those who anticipated discoveries by industrious correspondence artists were as disappointed as those who expected a carefully planned harmony of Baudelairean correspondances. And although one could argue about the choice of participants—Jean-Charles Blais, Richard Deacon, Jeffrey Dennis, Francesco Leiro, Julian Opie, Georges Rousse, Remo Salvadori, Thomas Schütte, Susana Solano, and Jan Vercruysse—the show’s failure was due neither to the choice of artists nor to the quality of their work (although much weak work was included). It was the curators’ superficial interpretation of their own concept and the exhibition’s neutrality that were to blame. In the Foreword to the exhibition catalogue, one of the curators explains that “the title, Correspondence Europe, alludes to existing and desired contacts with other European countries”—that is, to young artists outside the Netherlands who would in a sense act as “foreign correspondents.” The point of the show was therefore merely to bring together a group of young artists from various countries in Europe in order to give the Dutch public a representative sampling of what is current. Furthermore, instead of applying a sharp critical focus to the works thus brought together, the curators mounted the exhibition with the attitude of a neutral observer, without any particular point of view, without going beyond the idea of being “representative” and toward what the work might be representing. The predominant impression of the whole was of an almost shocking uniformity in the installation of the various paintings and objects, to a large extent flattening out any characteristic peculiarities of the individual artists and casting a neutralizing veil over the show.

The exhibition was thus undermined by the curators’ decision to remain impartial and egalitarian, to give each of the artists equal emphasis so as not to offend any of them. Unfortunately, this approach, together with the cold, severe installation through which it was given form, resulted in none of the artists receiving the kind of treatment that might have revealed their true quality or some unexpected aspects of their work. It ended up giving the unfortunate impression that the more profound connotations inherent in the title were almost accidental and truly dependent on whatever patterns of thought the viewer arrived at. This state of contingency is of course always present between viewers and the art they observe, but the general feeling of arbitrariness here regarding the chosen representatives, in combination with the isolationist installation approach, really left the art—and the title of the exhibition —out in the cold.

Still, certain correspondences were strongly present, even if they were not necessarily recognized by the curators. For instance, the eleven sections of Schütte’s red-and-green wooden melon, Melonely, 1986, which were displayed like slabs on the floor, surely provided a remarkable correspondence with the eight large images of bowls that Salvadori painted on the walls of his Stanza delle tazze (Chamber of the bowls, 1986). Certain opportunities, however, were totally missed. As an example, had the curators explored current concepts of scale by using a small room to show Blais’ large mixed-media paintings of gargantuan balloonlike figures and a large room for Jeffrey Dennis’ oil paintings of deliberately miniature figures, a vivid and truly contemporary correspondence might have been revealed regarding the strategies and techniques used by these two artists. In addition to the relation between inflation and miniaturization, what could also have come across more strongly was the relation between the way that Blais produces his caked-together layers of torn-off billboard posters as his backgrounds and the way in which Dennis builds up his compositions layer by layer though they frequently look as if he has worked in the opposite direction (i.e., as if he had removed the areas of color in order to expose what lies beneath).

Alas for what might have been a challenging and quite provocative exhibition.

Paul Groot

Translated from the Dutch.