Stepping into Rinus Van de Velde’s installation in the Gemeentemuseum’s Project Gallery situates one in an outsized and totally absorbing graphic novel. His large and powerful charcoal on paper drawings tell of life at an artists’ colony led by the idiosyncratic, manipulative and fictional sculptor Isaac Weiss, just the latest in a string of stand-ins Van de Velde employs in his work.
Van de Velde adopts these alter egos to explore great works of art and the workings of the art world. Here he physically layers images to reference art’s evolution. Giant replicas of early modern paintings form the base layer. Painted on corrugated cardboard, these vibrant backgrounds depict works such as the museum’s Jawlensky’s Landscape at Obertsdorf (1912), which both frame the black and white drawn images and are fragmented by them. This process of overlaying works creates a host of incongruous juxtapositions – a Peter Doig-like composition of a canoe-carrying man dangles from the nose of Picasso’s Sybille (1921) – and brings together artists that never met. Willem de Kooning, for example, coordinates entertainment for the colony’s bar. Ultimately, Weiss cements his reputation by pulling a Michael Landy. He burns his studio to the ground.
I believe the richly discordant character and complexity of this scenario bears a ring of truth and would entertain many artists, as the cast of eccentric personalities, with their divergent approaches and agendas, indirectly mirrors numerous art school and artist retreat experiences. But one can also sidestep all the drama and get lost in Van de Velde’s draughtmanship. The drawings evince spontaneity and confidence, and bear witness to his undeniably deft sense of touch. Furthermore, he virtually converts a friable material into an aqueous medium. His drawings are very painterly and, though his deliberate decision to use a fringe medium was based on drawing’s narrative capabilities and its inherent preparative nature, it seems he wants to approach or even challenge the act of painting, confront its dominant role in history or go further, as Laura Stamps suggests in her interview with the artist, subvert that hierarchical structure.
The final layer of the installation – or call it the last twist in the story – comes in the form of two freestanding sculptures, which we assume are examples of Weiss’ work. They complete the panoptic survey and make us want to know more about the story, especially if they survived that studio fire. Surprisingly, they mark the artist’s first foray into the production of sculpture since training to be a sculptor at school.
Van de Velde’s multifarious ways of working cast him as a chameleon, which on a certain level deflects attention away from him. As one of the many, he is and is not responsible for this output. He also has an insatiable appetite to better understand art, but also knows that all its history cannot be rationally ordered. So by zigzagging through much of what has come before him, he elucidates fact through fiction. And what an exhilarating experience it is!