Exhibition overview 'Ger van Elk' (photo: Marjon Gemmeke), with 'Monte Bianco', 1977 (back); 'Les Deux Mois', 1979 (right); 'Wizard Sculpture', 1979 (left)

Covering, Layering, Obscuring, Revealing: Ger van Elk at Kröller-Müller Museum

Issue no1
Feb - March 2020

Imagination and materiality go hand in hand in Ger van Elk at the Kröller-Müller Museum. Created on the occasion of the large scale donation of Adriaan van Ravensteijn (1938-2015), former owner of the prestigious Galerie Art & Project (1968-2001), to the museum in 2013, the exhibition consists of works from the donation as well as the museum’s own collection. Emerging from this blend is a profound glimpse towards Van Elk’s oscillation between the purely conceptual and the tangibly material.

The late 1960s – the heyday of conceptual art in the Netherlands – was marked by an impulse towards a rational, ideologically-rooted art form which rejected classical views on materiality, authorial indexicality, and originality. The oeuvre of Ger van Elk (1941-2014), however, oscillates between these stringent procedures of ‘pure’ conceptual art and a continued commitment to the immediacy of materiality and its manifested relationship to the real. Illustrated profoundly in the enlightening – though brief – exhibition at the Kröller-Müller Museum is Van Elk’s rejection of an unadulterated procedural technique and embrace of materiality as medium, invoking humor, fantasy, and medial fluctuation to oscillate between real and unreal with the prowess of one who understands the limits of pure concept.

Exhibition overview 'Ger van Elk' (photo: Marjon Gemmeke), with 'Parliament of the Mind', 1992

Prominently shown in the center of the first room is Van Elk’s sandwich sculpture Parliament of the Mind (1992), a pair of massive wooden panels between which splattered reproductions of portraits of historical figures are arranged and bolted. Depicting famous philosophers, film stars, chess players, writers, politicians and fashion models, the work betrays an archival urge in which histories read through past figures are arranged in a library-like fashion – the space between the panels an impractical shelving unit. Illustrated in this work is a layering of materials, as the images are each and all at the same time photographs, painted canvases and installation pieces.

Hanging on the walls surrounding the installation are several of Van Elk’s floral still lifes; photographs of 17th century Dutch still lifes energetically splattered with paint. Navigating here the layering of materials, these works transform the historical conception of the still-life as representation of real objects in space. In this case, the historical urge towards representation of reality is warped, manipulated, and illustrates an attempt towards a new unpacking of real space in an age of which reproductions, layered meanings, and materiality occupy a revolutionized position in the artistic continuum. The layering of materials refers to, in this case, an updated version of “the real”.

Exhibition overview 'Ger van Elk' (photo: Marjon Gemmeke), with 'Monte Bianco', 1977 (back); 'Les Deux Mois', 1979 (right); 'Wizard Sculpture', 1979 (left)

The following room features an installation of three separate works: Van Elk’s Monte Bianco (1977) (referencing the likewise named highest peak in Europe) flanked by his Les Deux-Mois (1979) and his Wizard Sculpture (1979). Displayed prominently on the back wall, Monte Bianco consists of an aluminum base upon which painted linen and a color photograph are tacked. Depicted in the right-hand side strip of the photograph, is a mountain landscape which seems to bleed into its neighboring linen as the black paint takes up the task of depicting the now-absent mountainside. The left-hand photograph stretches the scene down to the floor itself, rendering the assumption that the mountain depicted – should its representation become completely present – would stretch from the uppermost triangular tip to the floor below.

On either side of the Monte Bianco are Van Elk’s eccentric linen hangings, upon which colored photos and acrylic paint are applied. Portraying photos of the artist’s own head seemingly floating in the painted depiction of clouds, the hanging linens are undeniably humorous. Though perhaps able to be viewed as an exploration of identity through the doubled portraits, the self-portraiture could also be understood as a ludic critique of traditional notions of authorship. Particularly in portraying himself as integrated in a type of fantasy scene, referencing even in one title the word “wizard”, the works could be viewed as an ironic critique of the historical notion of the artist as transcendent creative genius.

Ger van Elk, 'It’s me twice as flat as I can be', 1973; 'Los Angeles Freeway Flyer', 1973, photo by Megan Mullarky

Across the hall from these first spaces, the exhibition continues, this time focusing largely on objecthood and its manipulations in Van Elk’s works of the early 1970s. Showing his It’s me Twice as Flat as I can Be (1973) and his Los Angeles Freeway Flyer of the same year, Van Elk’s exploration of layered materiality continues to be reinforced. In the latter work, a series of walking sticks are wrapped in colored contact sheets and decoratively arranged on the museum wall as a sprawling image. The photographic image takes the form of a utilitarian object, which in turn is transformed into a monumental image. This mechanism of “from here to there and back again” is not alien to Van Elk’s work, as such medial transience lends itself to his own continued investigation of material as investigative tool.

Ger van Elk, 'Paul Klee – Um den Fisch', 1970, photo by Megan Mullarky

Darkened by dimmed lights, the last space of the exhibition features digital projects and projections. In the back of the space is Van Elk’s canonical Paul Klee – Um den Fisch (1970), a photo series projected onto an upturned bedecked table depicting a fish gradually being eaten from a plate. Referring to Paul Klee’s 1926 painting of a fish on a plate, this work equally refers to the art historical tradition of the still life, ironizing the static nature of these paintings by humorously questioning commonplace objects in terms of their material realities. In physical reality, Van Elk points out, fish are eaten.

Flanking the projection work from Van Elk’s earlier career (1970), are two digital works from the past decades: Birds Flying Henri Cross (2006-07) and Birds over Seurat (2004). Two digital manipulations of the paintings of the pointillist masters. In both works, the image on the screen is disturbed by pixels cascading across the image like a wave. Important to recognize, in this case, is that Seurat and Cross emblemized the late 19th century investigation of color as technical property. Rhyming the historical investigation of material with a contemporary, digitalized approach, materiality of painting is explored layer by layer, history by history.

Ger van Elk, 'Tarn Sculpture', 1980, photo by Megan Mullarky

Outside of the main exhibition rooms are several of Van Elk’s works from the 1980s, including his triangular Tarn Sculpture, a familiar rendition of color photograph and acrylic stripes melded onto a single canvas, and his monumental painting Three Pets (1981), a comical combination of colored photographs on linen. Depicting photographs of the head of a dog, cat and child, the faces nearly disappear into the surrounding blackness. More importantly, their previously existing forms as photographic image are swallowed by the illusionistic space rendered in paint, using layers to obscure their forms while at the same time prominently revealing their intrusive presence.

Ger van Elk, 'Three Pets', 1981, photo by Megan Mullarky

What we do not see in the exhibition at the Kröller-Müller Museum, is the Op Losse Schroeven-Ger Van Elk, the recently somewhat over-determined version of the artist as cog in the high conceptualism-meets-Arte Povera schematic. In fact, this exhibition explores Van Elk specifically from a post-1969 gaze, when his increasingly imaginative and humorous investigation of material, marked his departure from the collective identity of the iconic group.

It is here where the presentation at Kröller-Müller departs from concurrent exhibitions of Van Elk. The works shown at Gallery Grimm in Amsterdam for the exhibition Ger van Elk: Bearable Lightness of Being, for instance, mark the start of Van Elk’s exhibition-worthy career as evidenced by his Op Losse Schroeven-era works, viewed in the small-scale career overview at Keizersgracht 241 containing works ranging from 1968-2004. Dominating the space in this show is Van Elk’s Rope Sculpture (1968), a spatial form whose biomorphic formation gives the sensation of it being almost alive, resulting in its common association with Arte Povera, and by default Op Losse Schroeven.

Although the year 1968 as a starting point presents an undoubtedly logical trajectory in the case of a career-homage, it is here where the contents of the Art & Project donation have organically determined an alternative character in the exhibition at Kröller-Müller, in which several of Van Elk’s key strategies since the 1970s – post-Op Losse Schroeven maneuvers, if you will – are pinpointed and set into dialogue with one another from a standpoint in which the viewer is charged with reconciling Van Elk’s early conceptual works with that which is on display. Indicating the ability to produce one of the fullest overviews of Van Elk’s post-1969 oeuvre in a Dutch collection, the periodized character of the donation gives way to the vacillation between what is known and unknown about Van Elk, stimulating the sensation of giving oneself to the juxtaposition of familiar and foreign.

In Kröller-Müller’s zoomed-in presentation, rationality meets absurdity, as Van Elk now and again filters the ‘pure’ conceptual through a humorous investigation of medium through continuous covering, layering, obscuring, and revealing. Oscillating back and forth between concept and material, the intangible and the immediate, we are caught in the middle. A space in which the pure concept is present yet limited, tested and transformed.

Ger van Elk, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, on view until 09-07-2017; Bearable Lightness of Being, Grimm Gallery, Keizersgracht 241, Amsterdam,on view until 27-05-2017

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 1 — 2020