The first United States exhibition of Dutch artist Willem van Genk’s work at the American Folk Art Museum (September 10–November 30) offers a comic counterpoint to the recent Futurist show at the Guggenheim. The Futurists idealized trains, planes, and automobiles as sleek exemplars of power and speed; they typically represented these vehicles in iconic fashion, removed from the real world of crowded stations, airports, and streets. Van Genk, a self-taught artist diagnosed with schizophrenia who died in 2005 at 78, was similarly fascinated by transportation.
The mixed media pieces and constructions included in this show, aptly titled Mind Traffic, depict an array of conveyances — buses, trolleys, trains, cars — presented in actual cityscapes. Traffic is pretty much the nemesis of speed and van Genk is decidedly attuned to the quotidian usefulness of wheeled things rather than any potential mythic dimension.
The most mundane vehicles on display are several trolleybuses constructed from odds and ends (tin cans, cardboard, metal scraps, paper, and plastic) that evidence a charming ramshackle feel — you can almost hear them whirring and clanking down some European city street. From the battered looks of them, most likely it’s their last ride to the junkyard. Crumbled as if having survived recent collision and plastered with advertisements, van Genk’s trolleys speak of transit as we experience it. The noise, dirt, and tedium of traffic jams, airports, and subway stations all adhere to these representative vehicles; they are more like their occupants (pummelled by the daily grind) than any Futurist’s gleaming, aerodynamic train.
Part of a larger installation — “The Arnhem Trolleybus Station” — that the artist kept in his living room, the trolleys call to mind the traditional train set underneath a Christmas tree. They are manifestly toys, albeit long past their day as presents. Yet these are playthings you might find in the basement or attic, relics of youth, their dents and dings reminiscent of those deliberate crashes that always follow the short period of play in which toy vehicles are merely “driven” about the carpet or sidewalk.
Van Genk’s trolleys invite that kind of handling — you want to pick them up, test out their weight, pry open the doors, and give them a good push across the floor. Don’t do that, though. Aside from the legal consequences, you would ruin these gimcrack constructions. Their fragility reminds us that the speed and power of machines are no less temporary than ours and that the junkyard is the destination of the rider and the ride.
Willem van Genk: Mind Traffic continues at the American Folk Art Museum (2 Lincoln Square, Upper West Side, Manhattan) through December 1.