Ger van Elk

Van Abbemuseum

Ger van Elk is a well-traveled Dutch artist who has often worked on and at the intersections of object and (photographic) image, emerging, like his countrymen Jan Dibbets, Stanley Brouwn, and Bas Jan Ader, from a Conceptual art context. Through the early and mid-’60s, when the Dutch artist had already begun to divide his home between Amsterdam and LA (settling, finally, in Holland in 1991), his work was marked by the transatlantic influences of Fluxus and Pop. By the end of the decade, he entered the orbit of Conceptualism at a number of key points. He established a long-term relation with the Amsterdam gallery art & project; took part in the ludic 1968 “Rassegna d’Arti Figurative 3: Arte Povera + Azioni Povere” in Amalfi; and in 1969 participated in the concurrent avant-garde surveys “Op losse schroeven/situaties en cryptostructuren,” at the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum, and the landmark “When Attitudes Become Form: Works-Concepts-Processes-Situations-Information,” which traveled from Bern to Krefeld to London. In 1972, van Elk was one of seventy-five participants—running from Acconci, Ader, and Baldessari to Warhol, Wegman, and Weiner—in the Düsseldorf-staged “Prospekt 71/Projektion,” dedicated to slide projection, video, photo-text, and film. Since then, he has appeared in numerous solo and group exhibitions throughout Europe and the US.

This itinerary is intended less as a sketch of an artist’s origins, pedigree, and significance than as something of the historical and material force field that undergirded two successive van Elk shows recently on view at the Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven. The first, “The Horizon, a Mental Perspective,” was organized around the theme of the landscape and consisted mainly of photo-assemblages from the late ’60s through the late ’90s, with a focus on the more recent work. (At the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, the artist himself installed a concurrent exhibition of Dutch landscape painting.) The second, “The Cadillac and the Nun,” was dedicated to slide-, film-, and video-based pieces dating mostly from 1969 through 1972.

In 1969, Seth Siegelaub characterized the “general feeling” of the “Attitudes” show as one of “nonchalance,” which might serve as well to describe much of what was on view in “Cadillac” (the title, referring to something van Elk remembered seeing thirty-five-odd years ago in LA, is apparently meant to stand for the conflicted impact of the US on the artist). Many of the pieces presented comic narrations of ostensibly meaningless efforts. On one wall was projected The Flattening of the Brooke’s Surface, a looped film from 1972 in which van Elk himself, folded into a tiny rubber dinghy, glides in and out of a static shot of a narrow canal, hopelessly and laconically running a trowel over the ripples made by the boat’s movement. On the facing wall a film “record” of two cross-Atlantic sea journeys, east and west, in 1971, again starring van Elk, aimed at finding the proper wind conditions—one free of dust—in which to paint a small wooden block: What we see are the main scenes, the artist moving loaded brush over block, struggling to maintain his balance.

The two films are deadpan performances, free of manifest angst or irony, narrating the “work” of art—both process and product—as a series of small, personal, repetitive gestures, the results thwarted by or incommensurate with the effort. But what and where is “the work”? The action in the film? The filmed record? Both? The very notion of a “record” confers a certain neutrality and dignity, perhaps a framing or metadiscursive authority, on its particular “work.” Or does the recording of absurd gestures—their materialization—simply repeat this absurdity? The sea film is called La Pièce, and to complicate the problem, this names as well a small, white-painted block, dated 1971 and exhibited at the “Cadillac” show, enthroned on a red cushion and a beveled-edged, polished wood platform.

Projected on the wall connecting The Flattening and La Pièce was the 1996 video The Well-Shaven Cactus, in which van Elk methodically prepares the lather, loads the brush, and coats and shaves a small cactus. One of a number of “restaged” pieces, this was listed as a “version” of a 1970 project, which is not entirely accurate. The scene was originally staged at the London terminus of the “Attitudes” show, and videotaped at the time. Soon afterward, van Elk summarized and reformulated the piece in two photographs, before-and-after shots of cactus and shaving equipment (the artist once recounted the time as his “cleaning period,” inaugurated perhaps by a 1968 “action” at the Amalfi “Arte Povera” event in which he swept trash into a mound of glue poured on a public square). The various updatings lent the “Cadillac” show a certain private, retrospective quality, an exhibition-within-the-exhibition (the shadow of Duchamp’s Boîte-en-Valise falling at the edges of this thought).

A number of van Elk illusion machines were on display. Um den Fisch (Paul Klee, I hate it, that’s why I ate it), exhibited a year after its making at “Prospekt 71/Projektion,” shows in eight slides projected onto a tilted tablecloth-covered table the successive moments of a meal of fish, from intact whole to skeletal remains. The scenario is enacted by the artist, his hands and the edges of a dinner jacket and white shirt visible in the frame, in meticulous gesture. Reconstructing and literalizing elements of a 1926 Klee painting, a scene of multiply displaced oedipal cannibalism—from artist-forefather to his work to the appropriational reconstruction to the devouring to the slide-recording—is staged in highly civilized and refined constructions, as elegant dinner and art piece. In Plintje (Plinth), a 1999 “version” of a 1972 film, the tentative, exploratory horizontal movement of the artist’s foot along a filmed white baseboard is projected onto and aligned precisely with the gallery’s actual white baseboard, the foot finally moving partially behind a filmed white barrier directly in front of and at the level of both the filmed and actual baseboards. In Self-Portrait behind a Wooden Fence, 1969, a wooden fence is attached to the gallery wall. Projected onto the upper portion of this sculptural element is a film of the same fence, precisely aligned with the construction. From behind this—the merged fences—the artist rises to upper-chest height, stares out, looks over the fence, and sinks back out of view. Finally, Little Man behind the Door, 1999, the most recent piece in “Cadillac,” is also the exhibition’s most mechanically complicated device. Projected onto one side of a free-standing door is a film of the upper body of a little boy, viewed through an inset window, reaching up to the handle and finally “opening” a filmic door. On the other side of the actual door the boy is logically and “correctly” seen––though his corresponding motion is broken into discrete moments––by virtue of a slide projection, itself operated by a length of film physically extended from the projector, winding over the door top and back through a mailslot. The contraption seduces while occasioning disbelief.

In his catalogue essay for “The Horizon, a Mental Perspective,” critic Jacinto Lageira underscores van Elk’s abiding concerns with the traditional division of figurative painting into “genres,” in particular landscape, whose “principal characteristic is the horizon line . . . an imaginary dividing line, without which there can be no landscape. . . . The problematic of the landscape will then be to render visible an imaginary line which in reality is only a reconstruction of reality as perceived from a point of view: to make a concept appear on the canvas.” Though the exhibition was focused around a series of photo-assemblages from the mid- and late ’90s, a large array of pieces were displayed as precursors and instances of similar and parallel concerns. The artist’s canonical Hanging Wall, 1968, originally shown in “Op losse schroeven,” may be credibly viewed as an inverted landscape. A brick wall suspended just above a small table with chairs on either side effectively frustrates any attempt at face-to-face dialogue, and as such situates a heavy, impenetrable blockage in the position of open sky and traversable horizon. Both Touwsculptuur (Rope sculpture), 1968, and Concave-Convex, 1974, fairly explicitly partition the support ground of the exhibition into “earth” and “sky.” In Langs de Waver (Along the Waver River), 1979, more than 150 tiny, identical-size color photos of trees, shot against backgrounds of flat land and open sky, are set up side by side, precisely aligned at the horizon, and fixed to a brass shelf that is itself attached to the wall at a relatively low height. As such, the “natural” extension into length and depth, the diversity of “real” landscape, is insistently artificialized within and across small-scale, cut, repetitive photo-images, and displayed along a constructed horizon, which is ground and support. By virtue of this double horizon—in the pictures, and as the brass shelf—the gallery wall is transformed, optically, into blank paysage, and conceptually, into second-order metalandscape, the Art terrain.

Van Elk took up his “Lakes” series in the mid-’80s, but over the past few years the project has been elaborated in a quite concerted fashion. The construction process involves some variation of the following: The artist takes a photograph of a local Dutch lake, which is blown up and perhaps painted on, digitally manipulated, reshot as a transparency, perhaps retouched, and mounted between thick Plexiglas sheets. The resulting image is then split along the horizon line and misaligned to open a gap in the picture plane. Dramatic and monumental as images, they are also dramatic and monumental in a manifestly conventional way, a lexicon of resources and devices for manufacturing “gripping” landscape paintings: a vast expanse of sea and sky, broken waves, deep shadow, diffuse light, heavy weather. The artificiality, the “facts” of construction, are insisted on through heightened, “unnatural” coloration, the transparency of the media—Plexiglas and Cibachrome—and of course the “sculptural” horizon split. The last mimics, literalizes, and convolutes the perspectival illusion, bringing sea and sky forward and backward in real space. By this split, and this gap, the dividing horizon—organizing principle and structural ground of the landscape’s illusion—is made tangible, announcing its work and dividing the illusion and the object from one another and within themselves.

Ersatz paintings, with a resemblance to seaside-resort picture postcards, blown-up and melodramatized, the Lake pictures are in some measure both kitsch and imitation kitsch, compendia of “predigested effects” (to draw on Clement Greenberg’s fine formulation), and objects of real difficulty and complexity. Van Elk plays with his audience: Running simultaneously with his Van Abbe shows, the guest-curated Boijmans exhibition, “Quest for a Horizon,” comprised Dutch landscape paintings drawn from the museum’s collection. Hung on one wall of a narrow gallery space were about fifteen works from the seventeenth-century “Golden Age” (Ruisdael, van Goyen, de Koninck, Porcellis, Avercamp, and others). Side by side, frames touching, aligned exactly at the horizon, they faced on an opposite wall a row of nineteenth-century Netherlands landscapes, similarly hung and aligned, though here upside-down (I’ve heard that some people associated with the museum took issue with a hanging they felt mocked the works). Lesser pieces within the canon, the later paintings are displayed as inverted reflections of a tradition to which they belong, from which they are divided, and on which they look back. Through this ludic, subversive, and somewhat melancholy reflection, Ger van Elk gives form to the diversity, imaginative energy, and horizons—limits and grounds, systems, contexts, histories—of his own practice.

Robert Simon is a writer based in Amsterdam.