Non-lieux - Text by Marie Maertens

Solo show 01/12/2023 > 13/01/2024
Strouk Gallery - Paris (France)

ENG. For his second exhibition at Strouk Gallery, Valentin van der Meulen has chosen the title "Non-Lieux" (i.e. Non-places), in reference to Marc Augé’s book. The ethnologist and anthropologist associated this concept with "supermodernity", as the overabundance of events and space and the individualization of references. A rereading even more relevant when the artist shows previously unseen works, produced after choosing photos from the avalanche of images available on the Internet, staging a new form of showbiz society.

By dint of being reproduced, standardized, then stripped of its original context, do image acquire another status? If it has long since lost its sole function of representation, what has it acquired in exchange? The infinite space of projection, which sometimes renders it abstract even when an element appears in it, is a way for Valentin van der Meulen to extend his reflection on non-places. Its spatial dimension is growing, particularly with the advent of virtual reality and other artificial intelligences, even though he is exploring this subject further through drawing, which he gives a pictorial and sculptural status to. The work begins with the choice of an online subject, one of the themes of which could be summed up here as heroes missing out on history. For example, a flight attendant who saved over 350 passengers during a terrorist attack. But who remembers her name? Such Russian schoolteachers who criticized their country's current war have been discreetly mentioned in the news, before disappearing in the swell of information continually churned up online. Everyone then is drowned in algorithms, making random links to other images... Their names will sometimes be associated with other words or figures having nothing to do with their stories. The fabrication of true or false memories can begin. Without displaying a precise protocol, Valentin van der Meulen allows himself to be caught up in his research, then asserts deliberately unpredictable choices. An eye... a mouth... a head of hair... a subject... a feeling that arises in front of an image... will seduce him into reproducing what already exists.

Accentuating the tautology, he reconstructed these snatches of narrative in ten images of the same format, never rendering them quite the same from one sheet to the next. While creating them, he wonders about what drew him to them and the relationship between charcoal and photography. He searches for that point of tension between veracity and what he calls "image quality". He tests a form of resistance. He indulges in the pleasure of accentuating certain elements, diminishing others. To clarify or make it vaporous. To play with the definition of "identical". To distance himself from his subject, while displaying it in large format. The repetition of a gesture - and everyone can experience this - leads us into a form of automatism or active meditation. In Valentin van der Meulen's case, it makes his subject more dynamic, which is all the more apparent when he delivers an almost identical Men in the Cities inspired by Robert Longo. Evoking the posture of the perfect New Yorker flaunting his capitalist achievements, he rejoices in the 1980s, which never cease to fascinate us. For the artist, drawing is far more than a small-format medium produced in a corner of the studio. With gusto, he mixes pencil, black stone, eraser and charcoal to "sculpt the work". He works in successive layers. He "architects" to give depth, surface and space within the sheet, but also to allow the viewer's gaze to wander through the drawing. While one of his series consisted of charcoal strokes, enriched by flat tints of color, for this new exhibition he will be infusing an almost more lyrical gesture. It is also a reflection "on the inability to represent an image, itself a representation of reality...".

The real is the other key subject developed here, through extracts from images that are rather seductive, sweet, or attractive. Valentin van der Meulen points out that these tempting mouths are all taken from women's selfies. By including them, he questions his legitimacy as a male artist to reproduce these snapshots  and this reappropriation of the other's body. But also about those feminist demands born in the 1960s, which have taken on particularly sexual and sexy attitudes in recent years... Reproducing a subject allows us to dig deeper into it, like a conversation interrupted, then resumed. How can we bring other points of view to bear on the obvious? Do we like objectified women? Women claimants? Or both, depending on the moment? It's easy to understand why the artist initially admired the work of Gerhard Richter, who questioned the status of the image in the age of hyperrealism and the assertive pictorial gesture. That he has always been interested in Rudolf Stingel's critique of the medium. That he was fascinated by the movement of the Picture generation, which was particularly marked by the proliferation of advertising language in the 1970s and 1980s. From there, it's only a short step to Pop Art, Nouveau Réalisme, the Affichists and other forms of appropriation. Furthermore, behind these smooth or fluffy images and representations that are so familiar to us, there's more or less a political or societal message. The artist does not deny a desire to make a statement, which is accentuated by a display reminiscent of billboards. While expanding his medium towards the object and the installation, he takes the liberty of giving his work a more committed character. A bit like make-up or masking, which allows to conceal and then display true intentions. He activates his message. He enters into a form of fluidity of gesture and thought, drawing parallels with the uninterrupted flow of our computers. Although he has now completely freed himself from the influence of any potential masters, he always comes back to this fundamental question: “What does it mean to draw a subject?” So, in the end, after looking at these representations with their strong fictional power, whose primary use has been erased, a softened and, perhaps, sentimentalized reading of these forgotten and transformed stories emerges...

Marie Maertens
November 2023
Independent curator, art critic and journalist


© Copyright Valentin van der Meulen