Ger van Elk

This show of Ger van Elk’s work was an extension of his recent exhibition at the Centre National d’Art Contemporain in Grenoble. The passage to this version put things in order, both chronologically and compositionally. In the earlier show, small photographs, all overlaid with a painted brushstroke, were casually arranged in three types of frames—square, rectangular, and oval. Here, there was a greater sense of order and flow. The frames were again divided into three groups. The first were oval frames containing portraits of van Elk; they were marked by singular brushstrokes in the upper portions of the images, and a single flesh-colored line running through them. The second group included landscapes, views of meadows in rectangular frames marked by a line of green paint at the center. The third group consisted of 30 triangular frames containing still lifes of flowers and fruits—chrysanthemums, pears, violets, oranges, and pineapples—with a unifying line of yellow running along the lower edge of the triangles.

One couldn’t help but see this work as commentary on the golden age of Dutch painting, which has engaged van Elk’s interest since the early ’80s. His various series—“Flowers,” 1982, “Portraits,” 1986, “Landscapes,” 1986–87, and “Still Lifes,” 1988—make continual reference to traditional 17th-century Dutch art. The artist has systematically examined the painting of that era against the background of the current situation, both artistic and social: how society at the time of the formation of a Dutch state, with its consumer instincts, has resulted in the present-day consumer society. He relocates the elementary religious nature of those simple people within today’s cult of Japanese technology. Thus Honda Gothic, from the “Portraits” series, portrays a “madonna” with a motorcycle wheel as a halo. In the “Flower” pieces, the face-to-face confrontation is shifted to more recent developments in art: the drippings of Jackson Pollock are superimposed upon a rendering of bunches of flowers, without canceling them out. Finally, in this year’s “Still Lifes” series, van Elk interrupts the still life tradition with images from modern art. In Rietfruitveld, a Gerrit Rietveld lamp hangs above a table bearing a still life.

Two works from the “Still Lifes” series—Arrowglass and Counter Kalf National—were included in this show. Van Elk introduces passages of color over both photographs. The fruit is the thing that matters least in these still lifes. Shiny supermarket pears and melons serve as quotations of Claes Oldenburg more than of Dutch master Willem Kalf. Central to van Elk’s work is a particularly modern notion that is expressed through the structure of the work: the frames have grown out of scale, and in the end the paintings have become geometric objects. The shapes accentuate the modes of visual perception; sometimes they are frontal, sometimes skewed.

Untitled, 1988, is made up of small frames in a row, but the frames are empty, and their order is only structural. Two groups of frames are lined up along two wood shelves placed at eye level. The group of oval frames on a light, irregular plank is subdivided into three subgroups of different sizes; upside-down on a plank of dark wood is a group of rectangular frames, also divided into three subgroups. The two groups are presented as ideal reflections in a mirror, but the symmetry is only thematic. In practice, everything works against true symmetry: the planks are different, as are the frames, and it is impossible for one group to “see” the other. The viewer brings into existence a mirror that isn’t there, and this is the power of the piece.

Jole De Sanna

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.