Mirage - Text by Grégoire Prangé

Solo show 19/11/2021 > 18/12/2021
Strouk Gallery - Paris (France)

ENG. From images to memories

An almost medical drip on blotting paper comes crashing down. One by one they crash, the drops, and little by little the colour spreads, eats the surface, little by little alters it and with it the form that was presented, the drawing that was affixed to it. Drawing under infusion becomes automatic painting, the work perhaps ghostly. One has the impression that alteration destroys, on the contrary it builds, a side, a side step, an abnormal presence gives rise to another reality, and stimulates all imaginaries.


An almost medical drip on blotting paper comes crashing down, and as the colour distorts the design in its apparently representative function – here an eye, there an arm, and no doubt an ear – perhaps the work is enriched with a new symbolic charge: To diction prefers evocation, it becomes resolutely image.

Image and representation

There is often confusion in the tension between these two terms which is a matter of semantic drift.  On the one hand the image in its medieval meaning (imago) would induce a part of abstraction and would belong to the symbol, on the other the representation would dwell on appearances and would refer to a «naturalist» mimesis. Between these two conceptions a pendulum on which the arts oscillate, one day to the right one to the left, between avant-garde and academicism.

At first glance, the works of Valentin van der Meulen can refer to a mimetic research, it is not so. Truly, it focuses on representation, in the first sense of the term, that is to say a «presentification»: the incarnation of an image made present – and therefore sensitive – by plastic intervention, and passed through the filter of memory. Once shaped, it is entrusted to others and thus passes from memory to memory: it is alive!

These considerations are of great banality and could be used to define any work of art, of any form, but to recall them here is anything but trivial as they support the work of Valentin van der Meulen, are the intimate and deep base. Indeed, once his drawings are made, the artist tries to alter them, in various ways, between erasure, overlap and repetition, so that he blurs the subject: the performative action leaves indelible traces, so much evidence that the image has been digested before being spit out, that what we see is in fact the memory of an image, itself become image that will become memory again.

A car carcass on paper deposited. The front completely crushed is only tangled sheet metal. The rear didn’t seem to suffer, the door is open, the driver has more trace – no human presence in this almost documentary scene: the sequence of images, the framing, the tension are reminiscent of the cliché of a film. No element of context however, no clue even this is not the goal: the work is not anecdotal (perhaps it is metaphorical). The title also distances us from any attempt at identification: Composition, the subject is none other than the image itself.

Once built, the surface has been erased, with large irregular strokes large marks erase the image, cover it and also stretch it, alter it to give to see differently. We think of the brushstrokes of Joan Mitchell, the energy of a Pollock, a movement that traces, a trace that makes image, what Valentin van der Meulen calls his action clues: the memory of a creative destruction, who somehow replays the violence suffered by this crushed car.

A little further a woman, face face profile bust, shoulder folded eyes receding, on black background stands out and there also large traces of gums, from top to bottom almost aggressive. To some the image will no doubt say something, a vague idea of déjà vu – this face, to whom does it belong? After a few seconds of hesitation perhaps we will recognize Cindy Sherman and one of her most iconic shots, the number 3 of the Untitled Film Stills series (1977). But the idea is not to recognize the subject, and in the initial image its identity does not matter: it is a stereotype given to see so that the spectator can project an imaginary, invent stories, forge a character. The image is already constructed, then reconstructed by Valentin van der Meulen, partially erased and finally perceived by the viewer. In front of these large marks of gum we think of the phenomena of memory, the disappearance of stereotypes as others replace them, and their permanence, therefore, in other forms. We also think about how the memory manifests itself in us, about those images that partially disappear, slowly lose their sharpness while maintaining their sensitive charge – to the persistence of impressions, and emotions.

Sometimes erased, the drawing can also be covered with large traces of black paint, quickly applied with a brush or broom, in a single gesture very often – I can’t help but think of the post-war Soulages, the walnut brous on paper. A spontaneity – the gesture seems more ample and measured, the impression is perfectly replayed, the image is just as much.

Here the painting partially conceals a drawing that has become a pattern, and thereby reveals and orients the gaze, creates areas of shadows that imagination can fill – perhaps this is memory at another stage, memory that mixes with fantasy, and recomposition.

Another technique of covering is recently used by the artist, who on the drawing deposits a colored paper, plays transparency and superposition, a gap.

Here a close-up face occupies the entire frame. Two deep black eyes – two sheets of green paper, one next to the other in a slight shift, hide almost the entire drawing, which remains visible through. The leaves are glued directly to the face and on its surface draw light folds, so many wrinkles that give back to the paper all its physical reality, affirm its existence as an object, and its sculptural value. By gluing these two sheets almost side by side but with a shift, Valentin van der Meulen creates a tension in the image, an otherness, a colored vibration that directly influences the way we perceive the face that struggles to hide behind.

There is a diptych and two almost similar visuals: one hand carries a microphone to the mouth (out of field), the other palm stretched forward in a gesture of stopping. On top, a purple paper joins the two sides of the diptych, creates a unity in duality, a unity that works while proposing a sliding: the colored square is slightly bent, here again a tension, a dynamic in the image that suggests spontaneity in the setting of the cache. The gesture seems very intuitive, it is however measured, premeditated, last step of a long process of tests with different shapes, different colors, until the definitive association. These tests, the artist preserves in part: a gallery of works in power, of denied potentialities – memory also consists of what could have been, and never happened.

In his search for image alteration, Valentin van der Meulen has recently turned to another technique: repetition.

There is this face in close-up, a luscious mouth and that’s almost all, two huge lips that also refer to certain stereotypes this time much more contemporary – an imagery that saturates our visual daily life. The drawing is repeated four times, same framing and same dimensions, so many panels that seem in all respects similar and yet are not: it is a question of tiny shift and point of view.

The first point of view, which inevitably changes the perception we have of these images. I stand in front of these four panels aligned and my gaze is on each of them with a different angle, which inevitably changes the reading. This experience is not new and refers in particular to the teachings of minimal art – we can think of Donald Judd’s Stacks – which showed that the same repeated object could lead to an infinity of plastic experiments, all distinct from the simple fact of the position of the body in space. This is the same phenomenon we are experiencing here: even if these images were the same, they would appear to us differently.

But these images, drawn, are not completely similar. The hand is not machine and therefore imposes tiny variations from one realization to another. These almost imperceptible shifts, however, give rise to an impression of strangeness, a disturbance almost, a vague unease. This tiny gap, which lets the other see in the same, lets it grow until we see only him, brings from the stranger into the familiar. In a way, this experience of imperfect repetition refers to the disturbing strangeness that Freud described in 1919 – when the intimate, the familiar, appears as foreign. This is the impression that one can have by observing at length this series of Valentin van der Meulen, which here proposes another relationship to the image, by a repetition that is worth alteration.

It will be understood that the work of drawing and alteration carried out by Valentin van der Meulen is part of a research on our relationship to the image, on our relationship to memory – whether it is personal or shared (often a mixture) – and on the links that are forged, invisible and yet infinite, in between. It is then a question of evocation, perception, and interiorization.

This relationship between the image and time, memory, subjectivity and intimacy of the viewer is what the title chosen by the artist for his exhibition refers to:

Mirage, noun: Illusion, misleading appearance.

But can the image ever be extracted from this fatality?

Grégoire Prangé
Entre Lille et Paris
October 2021

© Copyright Valentin van der Meulen