Does surrealism drip from Belgium’s beer taps? The territory of René Magritte and Marcel Broodthaers is characterized by a relish for the odd, the self-deprecating and pathetic. It’s a spirit that infuses Rinus Van de Velde’s fantastical exhibition ‘The Villagers’ at Tim Van Laere Gallery in Antwerp.
The titular beautiful, woebegone and comic film is at the heart of the exhibition and connects all the works displayed. Known for his large-scale charcoal drawings resembling comic strips, it’s surprising that Van de Velde’s first foray into moving image is not animation. The detailed scenes in his drawings range from suburban slackness to a plane crash in a tropical jungle. Mostly accompanied by enigmatic lines of text, they suggest a trajectory toward hand-animated storytelling in the style of William Kentridge.
Van de Velde’s 2D fictions often start in the 3D world: his drawings are based on complex cardboard sets that he constructs in his Antwerp studio and which now are presented in the gallery. The full sized ‘props’ are lovingly detailed – meticulous in their evocative use of space and light – but materially upfront. The naked eye sees the corrugated edges of a cardboard diner (Prop, Diner, all works 2017–19) and the papery surface of a hotel hallway (Prop, Hotel) that drawings of them would conceal.
This is the material backdrop of The Villagers: satisfyingly crafty sets brought into a live action world. Through beautifully observed cinematic lighting, Van de Velde’s drawings take on the allure of film stills. Here, this lighting builds plausible atmospheres in implausible settings: a computer nerd’s basement office, in which the on-screen information and printed sheets carry nothing more than painted lines, blocks and blobs; a man suffering a breakdown on a deserted road, the rear portion of a model car as his prop; a flood sequence in which the rescue boat is clearly propelled by the captain’s feet protruding from the base, like the family car in The Flintstones (1960–1966).
In The Villagers, our ears and eyes receive different stories. Equally important to the heroic pose of verité is a slick soundscape of standard Foley effects: computer keys click plastically, studio rain hits the ground like a tropical deluge, and the cardboard needle meets the surface of a cardboard LP on a cardboard turntable with the crackle of a mid-century jazz recording. In inviting us to believe in this evidently constructed world, Van de Velde reveals how our reading of reality has been altered by cinematic sound effects. We can no longer be sure what it is we’re hearing.
Unclarified by the spoken word, the vaguely familiar cinematic tropes of The Villagers unfold without apparent narrative structure. An isolated mountain community suffers a double murder, survives a flood, creates art and gathers data, but nothing evidently connects these events. The lines of text below the displayed drawings obfuscate rather than clarify.
As a beautifully observed cinematic homage, one could too easily pigeonhole this as winsome fantasy – David Lynch by way of Wes Anderson with a pinch of Scandi noir – but Van de Velde looks through fiction to the reality beyond. The Villagers explores the ridiculous sensation of imagining oneself so isolated in the world that one’s actions have no impact. How do we know what is important if we don’t have light and sound cues to direct us? In melding real life with the light and paint of illusion, it asks where art sits when everything seems unreal.
Main Image: Rinus Van de Velde, Prop, Diner, 2017 - 2019, cardboard, paint, wood and mixed media, 4.1 × 6.9 × 2.9 m. Courtesy: the artist and Tim Van Laere Gallery, Antwerp