A person is erased from a photograph, people are fused together in a sandwich-like form and the surface of a small stream is flattened with a plastering trowel. These are scenes typical of the work of Ger van Elk, recently on view at Kunstverein Munich in the first institutional exhibition of the Dutch artist’s work in Germany in over two decades. In his multidisciplinary work, which includes photography, painting, film, sculpture and installation, Van Elk explored the limits of image making and its relationship to reality, reconfiguring ordinary scenes and bringing them into the realm of the absurd with simple and efficient gestures as quotidian as the scenes themselves. For his show in Munich, Van Elk, who passed away shortly after the opening, included his own works from his private collection, as well as new works, all spanning from 1967 to 2013.
Many of the works shown were from the late ‘60s and ‘70s, the heyday of Conceptual art during which Van Elk studied art history and lived periodically in Los Angeles (at one point sharing a house with Bas Jan Ader). His experiences from this time are visible in his work’s bridging of the rational impulses of early US Conceptual art and an awareness of a European art tradition with strong Dutch influences. Though ‘concept’ plays a primary role, his practice is marked by sensitive, often poetic qualities, while the execution and form of the works never lack his involvement — as demonstrated by his frequent physical presence in photographs, such as in The Co-Founder of the Word O.K. – Marken (1971/99), The Symmetry of Diplomacy (Portrait) (1971) or The Haircut, Big Cut, Big Savings, Los Angeles (1971).
‘What I want is a realistic depiction of unrealistic situations’ Van Elk said in a 1977 interview. This approach is carried out convincingly in Study for conversation with missing person (1976) in which a group of formally-attired men in a parlour are transfixed by a bluish cloud floating above an empty lounge chair: presumably all that remains of a previous occupant. In The Haircut, Big Cut, Big Savings, Los Angeles, Van Elk placed two photographs next to each other as a before-and-after document. In one photograph the artist is seated next to a potted shrub, while in another, the top of his hair and the shrub have been chopped along the same horizontal line, a pair of hedge trimmers resting conspicuously on the artist’s knee. Van Elk maintains his previous bodily position, as if to deny any involvement in the off-camera action.
Van Elk’s obsession with the forces of pressing, pushing and pulling is traceable throughout his creative period. In the painting Sandwich Study‚ Tombe (C de X) (1994), three individuals are horizontally draped together sandwich-like, whereas in the sculpture Roman Pressure Piece (1993) – small monochromatic photographs are compressed with bolts behind uncoated fibreboard, their edges only peeking out around the perimeter. Coloured paint leaks out around the bolt-holes in the middle of the board, as if emanating from the photographic images themselves.
Often present in his earlier works, Van Elk progressively disappears in later ones, such as the series of coloured-in photographs titled The Adieu (1974–75), in which the artist literally waves good-bye to the viewer. Though there are certainly references to former work, one of which is the recurring theme of a horizontal line, the newer work becomes colder, distant and more technical.
The exhibition at Kunstverein Munich not only introduced Van Elk’s work from the personal view of the artist himself, but functioned as a minor retrospective. What was apparent is how uniquely direct and facile Van Elk was in achieving these ruptures, utilizing an almost mass-appeal attraction for magical possibility, and working with the representation of material as a material in and of itself. Potential transition into another material or object is always closer at hand than one suspects. The only question remaining was why it took more than 20 years for this exhibition in Germany to take place.