The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2014

All Issues
OCT 2014 Issue


On View
American Folk Art Museum
September 5 – December 1, 2014
New York

Willem van Genk: Mind Traffic, the American Folk Art Museum’s current exhibition of 43 works by the Dutch artist, which range from large-scale paintings and collages, to an installation of the artist’s prized raincoats, is an historical victory, a correction of a curious oversight in the art historical annals of U.S. institutions. To pronounce an exhibition “historical” is usually an abuse of hyperbole (and a pledge that exhibitions rarely honor). Mind Traffic, however, delivers on its promises.

Willem van Genk, "Untitled (Köln or Cologne)," n.d. Mixed media on paper, Unframed: 53 1/8 x 37". Collection Foundation Willem van Genk, Museum Dr. Guislain, Ghent. Photo: Guido Suykens, Ghent.

Van Genk (1927 – 2005), an autistic schizophrenic widely considered one of the most important 20th-century artists in the Art Brut pantheon, is recognized internationally. That recognition has not, however, reached the United States—until now. But more is at stake in Mind Traffic than correction of an undeserved asymmetry between international fame and unaccountable anonymity. Van Genk’s works also offer an admonition about the dangers of reducing Art Brut to raw acts of radical subjectivity. The warning is difficult to heed, particularly in the instance of van Genk, whose imagery continually ravishes bald particularities with wild personal associations. The focal point of “Untitled (Köln or Cologne)” (n.d.), for instance, is a rendering of a Gothic church crowned with twin spires executed with exquisite care. Beneath the architectural structure, however, is strewn a disorderly netherworld of images: a bust of Beethoven collides with a jewel-studded Byzantine chalice placed adjacent to suggestions of modern militarism, in the shape of marching legs.

Van Genk’s compositions are uncommonly taut, stretched between logic and madness. Such elegant, rational mastery of realism and the bewildering dialogues brokered between images, joined by the dubious justifications of propinquity are united only in the lost crucible of a fevered mind comfortable in the disturbing conviction that the world is an immense network of connections, a quasi-sinister code calling to be deciphered. The witchery of lines, for example, that lend van Genk’s drawings and paintings their frenzied beauty conjure placid landscapes and distant locales pieced together with the vicarious association of collage with equal facility. Indeed, it feels as if nobody has ever beguiled the same emotion from crosshatching. The lines with which van Genk makes visible the dignity only cities built in distant centuries possess is embodied in “Untitled (Reiesland Italien or Travels in Italy)”(1964), where a dome, rendered like a perfect victory over Albertian perspective, can also capture the mindless kinesis of planes tacking course urgently into an elsewhere. The continuity of painstakingly detailed scenes such as these is interrupted with the imposition of smaller drawings of sights typical of the tired exoticism of modernity—pouty lenocinant girls, unapologetically garish signs, and advertisements for aspirin. Nearly every work is a collision of images that are a synecdoche for discursive clusters, all making promises. The tendency recurs in every composition, as if by compulsion.

Willem van Genk, "Untitled (Brooklyn Bridge)," 1960. Mixed media on paper, 38 1/2 x 70". Collection De Stadshof, Museum Dr. Guislain, Ghent. Photo: Guido Suykens, Ghent.

But “deciphering” van Genk is not unlike courting a coy tide, tempting if futile. “Untitled (Brooklyn Bridge)” (1960), a mixed media work stretching nearly six feet in width, exemplifies how the works seem to obey an order while simultaneously refusing it. The composition is arranged in three frieze-like strips, each bearing conceptual weight. The lowest contains a detailed rendering of the Brooklyn Bridge. The scene teems with ships and oil rigs, commerce, and movement. A discreetly imperious mountain presides over the upper realm. In the center, chaos reigns in the form of advertisements, lines of text, and postcards with pretty promises of faraway places.

To focalize van Genk’s art through his psychosis is to lionize what marks the artist as an “outsider” at the cost of critically evaluating his artistic production. It is too easy to wade into the shallows of what an abnormal subjectivity looks like, particularly when it is expressed not at the granular visual level, through an overt distortion of forms, but instead at a less tangible conceptual one. The appeal of van Genk’s works resides quite overtly in the prospect of the artist’s struggle to establish sense in his world. But it reveals something that outstrips autobiography and psychosis. It also contains a photonegative, one that exposes the irrationality that beats the time of our rhythms, that is so much a part of it we forget it is there at all.

Willem van Genk, "Untitled (Great Railroads of the World)," c. 1970. Mixed media on assembled millboards, 26 3/4 x 52 1/2". Collection De Stadshof, Museum Dr. Guislain, Ghent. Photo: Guido Suykens, Ghent.

Van Genk’s canvases are more than networks of curious connections wrought by a troubled mind. They also lay bare part of the inevitable, mundane incoherence sanity makes it easy to ignore. We might embrace the myth of experiential linearity, but experience is not linear; it is simultaneity hemorrhaging as violently as van Genk’s collages, which register disorientation to their very millboards. This futility haunting van Gank’s vast schemes of mysterious order are not just thematized; they are incorporated into the works at a formal level. His collages often feature circles, as well as fragments of other drawings superimposed onto scenes. Their outline is precise; they are often arrayed in an orderly fashion within the composition. That order belies their effect, confounding the possibility of a unified subject. The millboards frequently express discontinuity with texture: the impression of a coherent message that has been sundered and tenuously, imperfectly, stitched together again.

Van Genk’s works are often construed as associational grids, created in a bid for order. Significantly, the element that acts as synecdoche for that quixotic search for order is also the ensign of inescapable disorder: The line. It is the most distinctive formal element in van Genk’s œuvre and one he wields with supreme mastery. But lines cannot enforce order, not even van Genk’s. They prove infinitely corruptible. They thicken, twist and become unruly when conveying deep emotion. Elsewhere, they clot into sinister spider webs that lurk in the corners of drawings like baited traps.

Those webs register more than paranoia. They are a visual admission that van Genk’s orderly systems and intricate connections did not bequeath mastery upon their maker; they only registered the battle to find it, a campaign never quite won. Sometimes the battle against delusion is more compelling than artificial victories.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2014

All Issues