Incorporating both accidental fragments of memory and favourite masterpieces, this visual layer of humus forms the basis of new images. That is why it makes sense for artists to display images or works of art for which they feel an affinity. Presentations such as these have a double impact; the connections enable us to see the work of the artist with new eyes and by the same token, the works that have been selected also take on a slightly different meaning: we see them through the eyes of the artist.
Elly Strik (1961) has never made a secret of her affinity for other artists’ work. ‘Gorillas, Girls and Brides’, her new catalogue (Museum De Pont, Tilburg, 2006), includes countless pictures of works by others. In so doing, Strik acts as a go-between between us and the other and/or older paintings by Lucas Cranach or Francesco de Goya. In this publication, Elly Strik also addresses her interest in the work of the Belgian symbolists around 1900. William Degouve de Nuncques’ and Fernand Khnopff’s tranquil landscapes, Leon Spilliaert’s intense self-portraits and James Ensor’s sarcastic masquerades provide her with a meaningful frame of reference.
But as it turns out, her greatest love is Fra Angelico. She saw this quattrocento painter’s frescos in Florence and his grave in Rome. She shares with Fra Angelico a combination of graphic clarity and muted monumentality. The outsize shapes of Strik’s ‘painted’ drawings, the evenness in her use of materials and the static pose of her characters can indeed conjure up associations with old murals. Intimacy exudes from their graphic sensitivity. The reciprocity between monumentality and intimacy typifies Elly Strik’s work. Both literally and figuratively, the effect of drawing is that she takes a ‘sensitive’ approach to her subject and to the paper support, carefully feeling them out while she draws. There is no question of expressionism or gestural bravado.
Human characters have been the focal point of Strik’s work since her debut in the late 1980s. Full-face portraits, hidden glances, and, lately, gorilla masks, play a key role. Generally speaking, eyes in works of art have a strange effect, capturing our attention and directing our eyes. We look for eye contact. But the eyes in ‘Hijgende kraai’ (Panting Crow) from 1992, ‘Psychotic’ (1999) and ‘The Same’ (2005) do not call forth any familiar response. The crow’s eye is glassy and cold, the face behind the grinning gorilla masks is tucked away behind black hair, and the only visible woman’s eye looks wide open and filled with blind panic. It shows a remarkable likeness to Marcel Broodthaers’ made-up women’s eyes in glass paint pots (‘Bâtiment’, 1966). The small collection of eyes on the wall contrasts with Strik’s large drawings, invoking the sense of a scale model of a surrealist building. At the same time, however, this early three-dimensional collage forms a macabre still life. Alternatively, because of the height at which it is displayed, you can read it as if it were a kind of head. With his pop art interpretation of the surrealist Magritte, Broodthaers can be regarded as a roundabout, art-historical link to Belgian symbolism.
The two works by René Daniëls that Elly Strik has chosen are not large, colourful canvases but instead modest sketches and drawings from the painter’s workshop. The beaming lighthouse and the composition of abstracted gallery walls are indicative of a poetic affinity with the draughtsman’s sensitive touch and with images of the absurd. These works are mere suggestions. Daniëls presents a visual proposal that we are to augment. The same can actually be said of Henk Visch’s iron sculpture (‘Not for you’, 1988). With its open shape and hard, orange protuberances, this visually unpretentious figure that calls up associations with an eye is like an elegant drawing in space.
Elly Strik’s singular choice of Marcel Broodthaers, René Daniëls and Henk Visch is not so much to be understood as showing us concrete sources of inspiration but rather as affinities that are more difficult to read. They are, in a sense, artistic ‘ancestors’. In the same way, Strik attributes a kind of ancestral role to her panting crow and the figure with the gorilla masks. Enterprising visitors can go in search of other links or disparities, points of contact or spheres of influence. The more ‘graphic’ and ‘reserved’ character of the works in this gallery is ¬– literally –eye-catching. Elly Strik has not opted for video works or media installations, and in that sense this Plug in is more than anything unplugged.