A long-faced dog holds a revolver to its temple; the caption beneath reads, ‘Schritte ins Reich der Kunst – praktische Anleitung’ (Stepping into the realm of art – practical instructions). This untitled 2009 drawing opened Marcel van Eeden’s eponymous exhibition at Kunstmuseum St. Gallen, the artist’s largest show to date. ‘Stepping into the realm of art’ comprised 13 discrete series of the artist’s characteristic pencil drawings, which are frequently complemented by explanatory captions. The drawings were mostly laid out in regular grids like frames of a film, accompanied by occasional sculptures.
‘The Occultist (1920)’ (2011), the artist’s most recent series, was displayed in the darkness of the chilly central exhibition hall. Each drawing, along with a set of tarot cards, was illuminated by a spotlight. Here, as is customary of his work, Van Eeden intertwined appropriated elements from historical documents and his personal history (specifically, that of his wife’s family). The series begins in a factual tone, documenting a house in St. Gallen in 1920; the later drawings reverentially record ectoplasm and other manifestations of ghosts brought forth by the titular spiritualist. From a sceptic’s point of view, the potentially factual takes an abrupt fictional turn.
For each of his series of drawings, Van Eeden works from found material printed before his birth in 1965, including archival photographs and illustrations from Life and Paris Match. These sources account for the documentary appearance of some of his drawings, though there are equally frequent allusions to film noir, cartoons, commercial logos and pulp fiction. Text is also borrowed, sometimes wholesale from one source for a series, sometimes line by line. The captions seem to add authority, and the storyboard-like layouts in St. Gallen compounded this effect. But the narratives that develop over several drawings can stop abruptly or unexpectedly take off on a tangent, while words and image can seem divorced from one another, as in the sugary bun and lump of steak that appear above the caption ‘Der Tod des Matheus Boryna’ (The Death of Matheus Boryna) in the series ‘The Zurich Trial, Part 1: Witness for the Prosecution (1955)’ (2008–9). Individual characters recur in numerous scenarios, including one series devoted to ‘K.M. Wiegand. Life and Work (1895–1964)’ (2005–6), whose multiple guises encompass criminality, motor racing, critical writing, manufacturing and more. In this and other series the galloping pace of the images keeps us engaged while the stated facts stretch the bounds of credibility; Wiegand, for example, is a white supremacist leader in South Africa and a US Military Commander in the Pacific, not to mention the husband of Elizabeth Taylor. On the other hand, when a text reaches its end after building up over a number of panels, Van Eeden’s concluding image can confound, breaking from the prevailing graphic vernacular or inserting a seemingly random visual quotation from another artist, such as Georgia O’Keefe or Paul Gaugin.
In this show, Van Eeden’s work bewildered more than ever. The ever-increasing volume and complexity of his narratives became apparent, along with the encyclopaedic intertwining of characters and the push and pull of the familiar and the foreign, chronology and chaos. Different registers of tone were also exposed: ‘De Cornelia Maersk (1943-44)’ (2009), about the steam ship bombed in World War II, is strikingly grave, even while simultaneously nonsensical. Van Eeden’s continual visual and textual citations allow him to indulge in romance, melancholia and the absurd with impunity. By using material that pre-dates his experience, he deliberately distances himself from his subjects, hiding behind the mask of appropriation. His monumental exquisite corpse reassures and destabilizes in equal measure – perhaps this is as close to an authentic experience of history as drawing can offer.