Show after show, including this solo presentation of works by Ger van Elk, confirms the ongoing relevance of the artists Szeemann selected for the exhibition “Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form” (Kunsthalle Bern, 1969). Photographer, painter and filmmaker van Elk (b. Amsterdam, 1941) has enjoyed significant acclaim in Europe and the United States throughout his career, though he is less widely known than such peers as Richard Long and Lawrence Weiner. Titled “On Appearing and Disappearing,” this show, curated by Gijs van Tuyl, attempted to redress this imbalance by bringing together 16 of van Elk’s works from the 1970s and ’80s.
Van Elk was a young artist when Fluxus emerged, and abstraction and Arte Povera were also topical and highly influential during his early career. His approach to such shared currents is always humorous and personally engaged. In response to Barnett Newman’s “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue” series (1966-70), for example, he created Red, Yellow and Blue (1987), an overpainted photograph in which he appears to be physically struggling with splotches of color, trying to force them into a pristine white triangle that occupies the upper portion of the composition. A photographic diptych, The Discovery of the Sardines, Placerita Canyon, Newhall, California (1971), has surreal or even biblical overtones-fresh sardines emerge from cracks in a patch of highway, seemingly as a result of an earthquake. A miracle, albeit a staged one, is taking place in the West Coast sunlight. Yet a car, in the American driving tradition, speeds right past, its driver focused not here but on some destination.
Do van Elk’s photographs and films record or construct actions and images? The unresolved question brings a frisson to the show’s one film work, The Flattening of the Brook’s Surface (1972). Here the artist, in a rubber dinghy, floats across a canal, vainly attempting to smooth the water around him with a plastic trowel. Comparisons with his friend Bas Jan Ader’s various watery enterprises are inevitable. With van Elk, however, the stakes are lower, the comedy delicately pitched so that even if the risk is smaller the work remains poignant.
A modest exhibition like this one could never do justice to a career as long and varied as van Elk’s. Both his investigation of contemporary landscape inspired by the great Dutch tradition and his grappling with sexual politics were largely overlooked here. And there is doubtless much to learn about the period between his relatively early works and two new ones that, shown in office areas of the gallery, consist of photographs printed on canvas and painted white to the point of near erasure. A full-scale retrospective is surely overdue.
Photo: Ger van Elk: Red, Yellow and Blue, 1987, lacquer and varnish on color photograph on aluminum, 195⁄8 by 201⁄2 inches; at Bob van Orsouw.