The Art Of Don Van Vliet by Fred Hoffman

This piece introduced the 1990 Paintings and Drawings exhibition catalogue.

After having followed Don Van Vliet’s work for sometime, it is now appropriate to salute the artist on his arrival as a significant force in the arena of picture making. What initially drew me to his work and what I continue to find compelling, is the artist’s intense personal exploration of the deeper, non-material realms of individual and collective consciousness. How rare such a vision is in today’s world.

Don Van Vliet’s art separates itself from the conditions guiding today’s art world in which too many of today’s creators are aligned with the world of communication, promotion and distribution. The content of their art making makes reference to the post-studio life of the work of art; and the meaning of the art is reduced to little more than a heralding of those systems of communication existing in our everyday world.

In contrast, the work of Don Van Vliet emphasizes the individual, and the attempt of the individual to link his own inner life to his comings and goings in the exterior world. It is not coincidental that such art making would be the product of this artist’s offering. As an acclaimed musician, songwriter and singer, Don Van Vliet a.k.a. Captain Beefheart explored the outer limits of music in order to liberate himself from the plight of the world in which he found himself immersed. He knew that music was the art traditionally devoted to the expression of the artist’s soul, not to the reproduction of natural phenomena; and when Van Vliet refocused his creative expression on the medium of painting, he did so with the same goal and determination that he applied to music.

Having realized the subtle ebb and flow of less tangible realities in the spoken word of poetry, as well as through the musical instrument, Van Vliet has sought in the medium of painting to uncover a personalized language which captures hints and speculations about psychological states of consciousness as well as the emotional life of man. As such, the work of Van Vliet beckons back to an earlier moment in American art when artists, both individually and collectively, asserted that the only art making of interest was that which evoked the tragic and timeless.

Painting isn’t just the visual thing that reaches your retina – it’s what is behind it and in it. I’m not interested in “abstracting” or taking things out or reducing painting to design, form, line and color. I paint this way because I can keep putting more and more things in it -drama, anger, pain, love, a figure, a hone, my ideas about space. Through your eyes it again becomes an emotion or an idea. It doesn’t matter if it’s different from mine as long as it comes from the painting which has its own integrity and intensity.

-Wilhelm DeKooning

Reference to the Abstract Expressionist era is neither casual nor gratuitous. On the contrary, it is made deliberately, with the full knowledge that it is a heavy burden for an emerging artist to bare the cross of such highly revered figures as Pollock, DeKooning, Tobey or their precursors such as Dove, Hartley or Ryder. Nonetheless, Van Vliet’s paintings and drawings warrant the association because of their shared artistic intentions and subsequent approaches to picture making. As with these historical figures, so with the emerging Van Vliet, the artist begins with at least the recognition that behind one’s objective and analytic perceptions lay sublimated and even unconscious attitudes and feelings. To the degree that this perception is identified, the artist is driven to bring its contents into his own creative process; and this, in turn drives the artist to discover devices of handling, and methods of pictorial operation which are both consistent with his new found discovery, and better yet, become the real-life enactment of these experiences. In other words, what the Abstract Expressionists recognized, and what motivates Van Vliet, is the belief that pictorial form, resulting from a specific approach to picture making can become the reality of the inner life previously only alluded to by symbolic expression. For Van Vliet this is most immediately experienced in the importance he gives to the mark, the stroke, the brush, the drip, the quality of the substance of the paint itself and the surface of the canvas as a texture and field of operation – all signs of the artist’s active presence. In the end we are left with a well-defined iconography, applied to modernist pictorial methods which neither resolve themselves as design nor illustrate a commonly held reality or experience. We feel as if we have stumbled into a world in the process of being made; and a feeling of being confronted by something not quite known looms up in our conscious mind. It is as if we are privy to the cusp of consciousness – that moment prior to recognition, understanding, conviction and comfort.

A.R. Penck points out another essential aspect of the artist’s pursuit when he notes:

Deep from the sphere of subconsciousness appear images of the demonic animality of man. They oscillate between classical seriousness and a detached ironic view of the egos dependence upon instincts.

Penck’s astute perception provides us with a guideline to better understand a seminal aspect of the artist’s work: the artist’s method of transforming objective, recognizable phenomena into the subjective realm of the fantastic, bizarre or other worldly. Van Vliet accomplishes this by utilizing several traditional means of picture making. For example, in Gorillacrow, the rudimentary form of a gorilla becomes abstracted from nature by the buildup of a rough, almost relief-like surface. The viscous sensuality of the figure becomes a haunting impression from the deeper recesses of the mind. In Flashlight in the Daytime, an impulsive use of pigment becomes the outline of a vaguely recognizable quadruped; and catapults the viewer’s consciousness back in time to primordial man s scrawlings on the walls of his dwellings. Thus Van Vliet’s references to nature cause the viewer to turn inward, reflecting on both history and myth. In so doing, they negate an objective interpretation of the way we think the world is or idealize it to be. The artist’s approach to figuration causes us to conclude that self-definition is the uncalculated result, not the intended outcome of one’s actions.

Van Vliet’s dialogue between thought and instinct is also conveyed by his non-representational works. In Day Barrette and Tint, Blush, Coo, one encounters a dynamically orchestrated arena in which the players constitute different methods of pictorial operation all harmoniously co-existing, pulsating to shared beats and rhythms. Within a single work one discovers a fascinating range of pictorial means, including the depiction of organically derived and simplified shapes, an almost traditional use of calligraphy, gestural painting, and even the scrawling of highly non-referential marks and lines. Many of the artist’s methods conjure up diametrically opposed meanings and associations. For example, if the broad, generalized shapes are less than recognizable, they nonetheless, are convincing as part of a corpus of known material. They speak of the organic and the living, and in their relationship to the unifying white ground they suggest the idyllic. They evoke a tame and compatible world. At the same time, however, they feel challenged by the immediacy of gesture, both painted and drawn. It is as if two societies have been invited or forced into co-habitation. In some of the paintings particular shapes are perceived as calligraphy. The historical-cultural association of calligraphy as symbol and language, becomes the arbitrator between the primordial and intellectual. In turn, the artist has successfully, albeit unconsciously, characterized the full process of socialization from the more chaotic world of instinct to a world of conditioned response regulated by intellect, law and order.

Finally, and by way of concluding, we need to acknowledge the truly visionary quality of Don Van Vliet’s work. For the artist, the visionary is expressed as apocalyptic, with all of its traditional references to doom and transcendence. Translated pictorially, this sensibility is directly conveyed by the dense black shapes in paintings such as Cross Poked a Shadow of a Crow #2 and Cinnamon Chops. Even though most of the artist’s new work is highly non-representational, these dense all consuming shapes function simultaneously as both flat surface and window into space. They recall in both their intensity and spirit, the last work of Van Gogh, especially his crows hovering over a wheat-field portending the end of an era and announcing a new epoch guided by the spirit and the soul. Van Vliet’s dark, ominous shapes occupy space much like a haunting tornado, sucking up objects and atmosphere as they move along their path; and in so doing become a disturbing counterpoint to the habitable space suggested by the pulsating tactile surfaces.

In looking for the meaning of this pictorial effect, it is valuable to reflect for a moment upon another aspect of the artist’s creative expression – his written words, especially those of his poetry. It is here that one senses the torment and search which directs this artist’s creative effort. And it is here that we can fully sense this man’s struggle for liberation from the pain and tragedies accompanying the pursuit of sensual pleasure and worldly gain. And it is also here that we perceive a man who has not lost hope, who ultimately proclaims the viability of the very physical plane which he seeks so much to renounce or transcend. Don Van Vliet, both in his words and imagery, speaks as the apocalyptic visionary who knows only the use of his creative acts as a vehicle to guide others through the current age of upheaval. Yet if this artist’s work speaks of our suffering, he, like the visionaries who have preceded him, knows that the man who comes to grips with death, finds substantially greater meaning in life.

-Fred Hoffman Los Angeles, 1990

1 Comment

  1. I do have an original ink sketch on a sheet of yellow legal paper. It is titled and signed. It is from 1972-73 I believe. Any input?

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