Review by Emily Sack, a candidate for the MA in Art History at Richmond the American International University in London.
Paper and pencil are typically supplies associated with schoolwork like arithmetic or a preliminary phase of an artistic work; however, Dutch artist Marcel van Eeden utilizes the ordinary pencil on sketchbook quality paper to create the pieces in the current exhibition November 22, 1948.
Now in the year 2011, 1948 seems awfully long ago, 62 (almost 63) years ago to be precise. The artist’s birth falls exactly 17 years after the date named in the title, meaning that van Eeden clearly has no personal memories of the chosen day, enjoying a voyeuristic perspective on the historically imagined events as they unfold.
Each of the dozens of work on display was produced in 2011 and bear the title Untitled. The first room contains several excerpts from the series entitled November 22, 1948 that chronicle the adventures of three of van Eeden’s predominant characters in three diverse locations. The series begins in Zurich, travelling next to Seychelles and lastly to London. As the viewer attempts to understand the unfolding narratives, they move from wall to wall of the gallery space. Significantly, in the middle of the London narrative, the wall ends but instead of simply turning a corner, the viewer must pass by a window with vistas of Piccadilly before resuming the narrative on the centre wall. This break from the fictional event from the past to gaze upon the same location in reality, in the present comes as a shock and temporarily disorients the viewer who previously had been so immersed in the work.
The works have the appearance of black and white comic strips calling immediately to mind the work of Roy Lichtenstein, but despite the shared affinity for frames of comics, the two men work quite differently. Whereas Lichtenstein dramatically increased the scale and isolated the image from the narrative context, van Eeden works on a smaller scale where the aesthetics and story line are integral to the final product. Another point of contrast is the style of rendering – Lichtenstein’s work has the appearance of being machine made based on its precision, but van Eeden’s work is clearly made by hand – a skilled hand albeit, but by hand nonetheless. Each line is visible so that the viewer can actually witness the process of creation from the directionality and pressure of the pencil strokes.
To return to the concept of narrative, though it is an element quite important to the artist, it is not portrayed or developed as in a children’s comic book. Each frame in the series is clearly related to the others, but often the events become jumbled when only one image is meant to represent an entire series of actions. Often the text cuts off, presumably to begin again in the next frame, but then there is not a next frame. The viewer is left with snippets of an exciting adventure tale – as though reading through remnants of a torn graphic novel. This disjointed and at times frustrating jumping narrative reflects the way in which people recall events from their own lives or piecing together memories from other sources. A narrative isn’t always clear, facts don’t always remain correct and generally the mood and feeling of an event pervades over the details.
The second gallery space contains works from three other series by the artist called Category 7: Architecture, Category 3: Art and Category 4: Occultism. The architecture series contains several floor plans and perspective drawings of buildings, though interspersed these relatively commonplace images are rather jarring epitaphs such as “architecture is always serious.” The series based on occultism seems slightly incongruous based on the artist’s predilection for history and events, but on the other hand reflects van Eeden’s interest in the fantastical, not necessarily the supernatural, but rather viewing ordinary circumstances and events through a mystical perspective. Lastly, the art category contains the greatest diversity in style of each of the groupings in the exhibition. Some of the works are signed by characters from the November 22, 1948 series or sought after by those characters. Others represent the small handful of works that use colour. Mysterious orbs seem to hover over multicolour strokes of watercolour.
Marcel van Eeden’s work is impressive and his immensely productive career, with an output of one drawing a day since 1993, demonstrates his versatility, even within a relatively simple medium. The viewer to this exhibition will feel as though they are perhaps detectives attempting to piece together the mysterious events of November 22, 1948 in an adventure seeming to emerge from a combination of historical fiction and graphic novel. Comics are not just for children, and comics are not low-brow entertainment – van Eeden demonstrates the potential of cartoons to merge with fine art.
November 22, 1948 continues at Sprüth Magers London until 13 August.
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Photography Marcel van Eeden