American primitive on Madison Avenue

This article was written and sent to me by Neato following a visit to Don Van Vliet’s November / December 1998 New York exhibition.

As unlikely as it may once have seemed, Don Van Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart) has a one man show of his recent paintings at the Knoedler & Company gallery on New York’s fashionable upper eastside. The show opened on November 11, 1998 (Veterans Day, for those that still believe in cosmic coincidence… see Capt. Beefheart’s tune-veterans day poppy) and will run until December 5, 1998. The 27 works date from 1993 through (as recently as) October 1998, with the majority being done in the last two years.

The exhibition can be broken down as follows:
12 large oil on canvas
4 smaller oil on canvas
8 drawings from small sketchbooks
10 works on paper.

The first thing one feels upon entering the three room gallery is a feeling of space… leaving the busy thoroughfares of Manhattan behind and entering a world of shadows and serenity. The oil works have an American Indian vibe that recalls some primitive cave dwelling paintings. Animals, birds and abstracted nature scenes exist in earth tones heavily applied over a thick white plaster adobe like canvas. It is obvious that the dessert where Van Vliet lived for years, has seeped deep into his psyche. Titles were typically “Beefheartian” ala – “Bat day in the night”, “Ten thousand pistols, no bumblebees”, “Dirty champagne”, “Is it a tree? So why does it fly?” and “Full grown Babel”. The centerpiece is a three painting variation on the same theme (abstract animals) titled “The drazy hoops 1, 2 and 3”.

The ten untitled works on paper were less overtly “naturalistic”, but maintained the same splashes and squiggles of color and form. Perhaps the most telling pieces (especially in lieu of the rumors concerning Van Vliet’s ill health) appear in the series of sketchbook pages – 8 small upturned pages displayed from intact books, all done within the last 3 months. They are incredibly simplistic and childlike scribble drawings of pencil, crayon, and scratching (as in an empty ball point pen). A staff member described it as “reminiscent of the works of John Cage”. Coupled with Van Vliet’s own dictum “I try to turn what is going on in me into a still life of that moment”, the display really becomes that much more moving.

On a return visit to the gallery a few days later I witnessed a purchase of one of Van Vliet’s paintings by a middle aged woman who seemed more concerned that the frame matched her home decor than the actual painting itself. I’m sure she had never heard of Captain Beefheart either… and so it goes.

© 1998 – neato

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