Things are not always what you expect them to be: Rinus Van de Velde’s “Donogoo Tonka”

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Much talked about exhibitions. You know how it goes: you’ve read all the articles and the interviews, you’ve seen the images and you wonder: should I really bother to go? Because you’re almost sure you’ve seen everything there is so see. Sort of what my feeling was about Donogoo Tonka, the successful solo exhibition by the adored Belgian visual artist Rinus Van de Velde at S.M.A.K. (through June 5). But then I happened to be in Ghent, and I decided to drop by.

“You have to rise to the occasion.” That’s the piece of good advice his Antwerp gallerist, Tim Van Laere, once gave him. It’s what Rinus Van de Velde told me when I interviewed him for the weekend supplement of the newspaper I work for. It’s that quote I had to think of, as I stood there, in that big hall, for Van de Velde’s first solo in a major Belgian museum. At first it’s the grandiosity of all things combined that strikes you. The huge format of his black and white charcoal drawings on the walls. The enormous props in the middle of the room: a gigantic blue wave, a boat, some palm trees and a car. Then, when you take a closer look, of course, you’re impressed by his craftmanship. But that’s not new. That is what has been making his work so appealing to a broader audience. It’s an aspect one can easily relate to.

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What I was most of all struck by, unexpectedly, was Van de Velde’s use of space. Due to the props, you sort of feel cramped in this huge hall (even without lots of visitors). You feel tiny and little, not just due to the props, but also by the weight of the fictions surrounding you. Another thing: the props make it impossible to take a step back and get an easy view on those huge drawings, as you would want to. You can’t take it all in, quickly. You háve to get close to these drawings. So, this is not only about drawing, this is also about using space, as an artist. (Van de Velde’s art school education was as a sculptor. Is this that part of his past popping up again?)

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Then, of course, if you take a closer look, there’s that dizzying aspect of his art: the continuous play between fiction and reality, between fantasy and truth. That’s, for instance, why Van de Velde wanted the props to be there. They are not put in the room for decorative purposes. They are a means to show the visitor that the drawings are fiction. “People tend to believe that what they see, when they look at a drawing, is some kind of reality”, Van de Velde told me. So, to prevent anyone from thinking that, he brings in a car and a boat. Props he uses to stage the scenes he takes pictures of in his atelier. Pictures he then later turns into drawings. But once again: the car is not a real car. The boat is not a real boat. “Reduced reality”, he calls it.

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Van de Velde’s new drawings are based on Donogoo Tonka Or The Miracles Of Science, a mock film scenario published in 1920 by French author Jules Romains he once found in a bookstore in New York. Van de Velde decided to make some of storyboard, based on it; with, as always in his work, he himself playing the lead character. That’s one part, this (double) fiction. But when you start reading the texts on the walls, you’ll find something else: a story about an artist and his friends preparing for an exhibition. A true story? It seems so, because, yes, Van de Velde did get pulled into the art world when he visited a fauvist exhibition in Paris when he was seventeen (“I felt surrounded by a force I could channel into a way of life“, he writes), and his girlfriend was actually carrying twins as he was preparing this exhibition.

So: a true (?) story combined with a piece of fiction (based on real settings meant to be fiction, based on a mock film scenario). If you think long enough about it all, you’ll get dizzy too.
And then one last intriguing thing… The final paragraph of that story: It’s almost six but it isn’t dark yet. I put out the lights. Hidden behind a drawing is another one, in colour. You never know, I say out loud as I close the studio door. Is he making an allusion to what’s coming next? Or is he once again pulling our leg, by playing around with that question everybody keeps asking him: when will he allow colour into his drawings?

Donogoo Tonka, S.M.A.K. (Ghent), through June 5.
Van de Velde’s site here.

You’ll find a short Art Tube clip (3:53) with an interview here ( with English subtitles).
Pdf’s with my Rinus Van de Velde interview (in Dutch) hereafter (from the weekend supplement of Het Nieuwsblad, March 5, 2016).

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“I Am Disappearing Slowly” (2016; courtesy Tim Van Laere Gallery). Click for larger image.

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“On Board Of The Conrad, Things Taking A Weird Turn” (2016, courtesy Tim Van Laere Gallery). Click for larger image.

 

 

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