art value - Issue 14


art value 14
8. Jahrgang 2014


The Artist's Life
The work of Rinus van de Velde

One of the most wonderful things that can happen when you meet an artist in his or her studio is that the universe you enter is completely different from what you prepared yourself for. In the studio of an artist you find all sorts of clues and puzzle pieces that tell something about the person who works there and the work that is being made. You are immediately inclined to see it as an intimate space, one in which the artist seeks solitude and concentration to create. A place where he or she seeks the boundaries of what exists and can be imagined in order to self-consciously cross them. But that is the romantic view of the studio. At the same time a studio is a professional space, part workshop, part office and part stage on which the artist enacts ‘being an artist’. Think of Auguste Rodin for example, the first artist that successfully branded his own artistic persona. Rodin owned several studios, some of which he used for working, and others that he used to receive visitors and ‘play the artist role’. Thinking about this one could ask whether visiting an artist in his or her studio demystifies or rather adds to the artist myth?

I knew the artist well, before I first set foot into his studio to meet him in person. I had seen his portrait on many of his large charcoal drawings. In his artworks I had seen him depicted as an artist in the midst of creation: concentrated, contemplative, desperate at times, ecstatic at others. I had seen him absorbed in his reading between large piles of books, or make a confident move in a game of chess. He appeared absentminded, lazy, bored, or even completely hammered in a bar. That is how I had seen him in his drawings.
Through the texts that accompany the drawings I’ve come to know that this artist once dreamed of becoming a tennis-hero and that on ungodly hours he goes out with his friends that include Paul McCarthy, Marina Abramovic, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Bas-Jan Ader. I even knew that in some of the art works this artist had become the legendary chess master Bobby Fischer playing against a delegation of Russian opponents. And in other works he transformed into Ellsworth Kelly captivatedly working on his infinite series of plant studies. It is through his work that I got to know this anachronistic artist-icon who answered to all the romantic ideals that surround artisthood, an existentialist whose work and life seamlessly coincide and whose art is a direct reflection of his soul. But when I finally met the artist in person, and I guess this would not surprise anyone, everything was different.

Rinus van de Velde (Leuven, 1983) makes monumental drawings in which he himself becomes the protagonist of an invented artist life. The hyper realistic images are like micro-stories about the internal struggle of creation. When seen together the drawings read like a fake autobiography that schizophrenically jumps between events in the 1930s, 1960s and 2000s.
The texts are handwritten on the canvas underneath the drawing or accompany the work as a kind of extended title. They do not offer an explanation for the depicted scene, but rather provide them with a parallel narration. Together they shape a world that breathes the feverish attempt to overcome daily futility through artistic greatness. Yet the delicacy of irony cannot be overlooked here. Through his work Van de Velde conveys an idea of himself that is in fact the opposite of what he really is.
Van de Velde doesn’t work solitarily the way his drawings suggest. And more importantly Van de Velde does not seem to dwell on creation the way his alter ego does. Quite the contrary in fact, his way of working is incredibly elaborate, collaborative and hands-on. His drawings are based on carefully selected photographs. In his early work he would collect these images from magazines and travel books. For his later series he started building meticulous photosets in his studio that are almost like installation pieces in their own right. He builds them together with a group of close collaborators. Within this setting a storyline starts to unfold between Van de Velde and his company, almost as if they are living together in this constructed reality. A photographer makes staged photos of them. These photos are the preliminary sketches for his work. After this preparation he works quickly, usually not taking more than a few hours to finish a monumental drawing.

In his early works Van de Velde often placed himself in the shoes of people like Bobby Fischer, Ellsworth Kelly or the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. Historical figures that don’t seem to have much in common except that their early portraits show a remarkable ressemblance to Van de Velde himself. But why would a young artist blundly place himself within the biography of someone he admires, and thereby partially even reinvent the course of history?
According to Van de Velde reading many artist biographies fueled an adolescent dream of becoming a famous artist. Yet he also felt that he lacked the life experience to draw from for his own work. While one hand he feels attracted to notions of the ‘genius’ and the ‘masterpiece’, he also confirms the triviality of the daily work in the studio and the pleasure of making things in close collaboration with friends. His work converges these two aspects of artisthood in a sincere opposition, creating a humorous parody on the exalted and mythical image of the artist.

This becomes even more apparent in his later works in which Van de Velde seems to be coming closer to his own life. In one of latest series called The Story of Frederic, Conrad, Jim and Rinus we meet the artist again, this time surrounded by his galerist, a philosopher and a philosopher. They stay in a rustic village hidden in the woods. In this muted environment Van de Velde concentrates on finding the purest painterly gesture. The four of them sit around, play chess, drink and endure their hangovers. It is a primitive life secluded from most worldly inputs. The prose at the bottom of the canvas or on the walls of the exhibition space tells about their doubts and absorptions. And once again we see the same question appear, how to move from idleness to something that’s larger than life.     

In his book The Myth of Artisthood the art historian Camiel van Winkel suggests that art is always looked at through a constellation of believe systems. ‘Complete demystification, if that would even be possible’, he writes, ‘would also prelude the end of artisthood and thus the end of art’. Rinus van de Velde’s drawings are both as symbolic as 17th century genre paintings and ironic as cartoons, and it is within this ambiguity that he unveils to us the mysterious entanglement between the artist’s life and the art that is made.

by Rieke Vos