The Secret History of Marcel van Eeden

The Secret History of Marcel van Eeden

In 1993, the Dutch artist Marcel van Eeden drew up rules for his practice that he's followed ever since. He specified that he would produce at least one drawing a day, on sheets of paper all hand-cut to the same dimensions, and that the pictures would be based exclusively on found images and events predating his birth, on November 22, 1965. They thus involve happenings that he cannot possibly have experienced or influenced even remotely. Van Eeden equates the prenatal state of non-being with the time following death. "When you were not around, it did not affect anyone," he has said, "and when you will no longer be there, it will be the same."

 

This rule endows Van Eeden with a pseudo-scientific detachment in representing the past, as evidenced in the works exhibited at London's Sprüth Magers Gallery. But it doesn't mean that he sticks to known history or that no links exist between the artist and the subjects he represents; the very fact that he draws daily makes his oeuvre a de facto diary. His beguiling, mostly black-and-white figurative vignettes imply narratives, an aloof graphite stream of consciousness unraveling on the black walls without clear beginning or end.

 

The small pictures are unevenly dotted throughout the gallery, giving the impression of a comic strip divided into chapters — Zurich, London, Seychelles — with several frames missing. Most of the images include snippets of text. The caption "November 22, 1948, 6:30 a.m. - They were talking to one another in low, hurried tones. The woman" accompanies a drawing of guns laid on a table; the laconic "Seychelles, 3:15 p.m." accompanies a close-up of a punching fist. According to the exhibition press release, the vignettes feature three characters Van Eeden has been working with for some time — the boxer Karl M. Wiegand, the archaeologist/assassin Oswald Sollmann, and the artist/psychologist Matheus Boryna — who meet in Vienna shortly before one of them heads off to the Seychelles, where a murder is said to have taken place.

 

Had I not known this, I probably wouldn't have guessed, but it couldn't have mattered less. Van Eeden's art isn't about linear storytelling. With each picture, he tests the evocative potential of his drawn fragments; he experiments with the disjunction between text and image, minimal information and information overload. Some pieces, like one the mysteriously labeled "DLM," are redolent of early works by Tom Wesselmann or Richard Hamilton, collaging overblown details (a manicured hand, a singing face, an installation view of an art gallery) into caricatures of Debordian spectacle. Yet Van Eeden's most understated pictures are also the most suggestive. One consisting of the word Seychelles printed in white on a black background sends us back to our knowledge of the place, real or fantasized. Like most of Van Eeden's pictures, but on a magnified scale, this one encourages us to fill in the gaps and to turn his stories, at first so distant, into our own.