Friday, April 1, 2011

The Loves Of Thomas Van Auken, Part Two

An old friend of mine was telling me how Athol Fugard directed his own plays by means of a psychological trick whereby he could gain distance from them and thereby free himself up to operate as an objective interpreter rather than a worried dad.  What did he do?  He put 'em aside for a six-month period and thought about something else.  When it was time for him to go get the plays, their contours were fuzzy, their characters not as well-loved, and their core values forgotten.  Following that six-month period, Fugard became a director.  Before it, he was an anxious playwright with a chip on his shoulder.
By the same token, I'm glad I let a month elapse between parts one and two of this article.  The interval between them has allowed such thoughts as I have had to assume an attractively fuzzy aura - which can always sharpen up on the page.

Thomas Van Auken has been a painter of the figure.  (I loathe the word "figurative" as arts professionals apply it to the genre of figure painting.  It has always struck me as heavy-handed - a way to extend a word that is perfectly all right the way it is.)  In any case, he still is.  But painters are painters and, if they're worthy of the name, they're always seeking ways to adapt their vision to fresh - or at least adaptable - subject matter.  Even Lucien Freud - who doesn't seem to change very much - likes to find a new model and screw him or her into positions heretofore unexplored.  Change isn't always Upper Case.  Nor is it necessarily conscious.  When a new direction is actually pursued, it can be the result of interior motivations.  Perhaps Van Auken has always wanted to do landscapes.  Perhaps a personal experience dragged him away from the studio and onto the sidewalk.  Perhaps he saw an image that inspired him and. . . he was off.
The decision-making process doesn't ultimately matter.  All we, the viewers, see is that this artist has something new to show us.

I'll have to say that Van Auken's "new" direction didn't startle me - in part because I expected him to draw something uniquely personal from the landscape and was not, in this regard, disappointed.  What did surprise me was his mastery of a space that must have seemed virtually infinite - by which I mean the outdoor space which all of us claim in one way or the other.  The studio can be claustrophobic.  Spend enough time in one and your vision can shrink to its dimensions.  Once outside of it, however, Van Auken found a way to be as big as it is.  And the result, while somewhat mixed, is fascinating. 

I'm willing to give talented artists the benefit of the doubt - which some of them don't need at all.  Van Auken is one of these.  If I found bits of his paintings to be spotty - which I did - I found his overall treatment masterful.  Breadth of vision isn't suddenly found.  In Van Auken's case, it was there already.  Once he stepped outside, he knew what to do with what he saw there.

I'd rather not cite individual paintings because of the overall unity of this series.  To isolate a few would mininize an effect that may not have been planned, but has happened anyway.  In the best of them, Van Auken has summoned up the terror and excitement of a startled visitor.  They are essays in edge and value.  They evoke the strong emotions that occur at the intersection of the familiar and fantastic.  He seems to be telling us that, if we could only see it, there are are spatial nuances after sunset.  There are stories to tell about gas pumps and lotto tickets.  He wants us to know that we can immerse ourselves in the midnight hour and get as much out of it as we dare.

A great many artists have taken on the urban landscape.  A photographic approach - which alienates viewer and subject - snags so many of them.  That this is deliberate does not excuse anybody.  Some rely on the signifiers of the "open road" and result in bathos.  Some are cannily allusive and want us to check into another Bates Motel.  Very few paintings, of night or day, have the quality of something one might see for the first time.  Yet for whatever reason, Van Auken achieves this first-time response.  He finds his subject, he gives it a fair appraisal, and he walks away.  It is "interpreted", but authentic as well.  It has sophistication, but it is also surprising.  It can only be a painting and, as such, it is a carefully improvised thing with attendant perils and satisfactions.   

On a formal level, Van Auken teases us with designs that capture just a bit of something - though "what's outside" is palpably present.  He'll come up to an architectural shoebox and throw foliage behind it.  It's a rather disconcerting view that forces our attention, first to the interior of the building, then to a terrifyingly abbreviated sky.  But it works because we've walked into a such a place and felt its strangeness.  He'll park his easel at the edge of a pumping station and show us that asphalt reflects as well as it absorbs.  He'll pass along an ordinary street and make a chilling pronouncement about the condition of man.  His color is true to his electric sources, which bathe his subjects - or leave them in the dark.  Lesser painters use black to describe the absence of color.  Van Auken remembers that light permeates even the darkest corners of a subject and doesn't necessarily "black them out."  To encounter the absence of light or color is extremely rare and he knows it.  Van Auken's "darkness visible" is colorized.  Even when it's subliminal, color isn't
 thrown away.  You don't notice all the choices he's made, but you are affected by them.  A duller palette would relax the tension - without which it is impossible to communicate visually.  Finally, Van Auken's confidence allows him to press one heady volume into another.  He knows what to emphasize and what to leave alone.  His paintings have protagonists - though it is up to us to decide what they are. 

A Kind of Epilogue

Richmond collectors gravitate - as they do in other places - toward such trophies as give them bragging-rights.  As they accumulate their wall decorations, they consider who their friends are and what parties they might be giving.  And, as in most places, collectors in Richmond are rarely willing to venture out on the limb that would stretch their capacities and gratify them the most.  By this yardstick, Van Auken is undesirable.  He is showing us something familiar, as transmitted through a fresh and original sensibility.  That's very bad for your average collector, who must make a self-made decision about Van Auken's quality.  If his or her friends aren't buying, how can he?  There just isn't precedent enough.  Or vision.  Or guts.  Or anything.    

An art collection is, like the objects in it, a work-in-progress.  If you buy a lemon, trade it in.  If you're not sure of yourself, go home and think about it.  If you're in a state about an objectionable choice, take heart.  Good paintings will not kill you.  In the long run, they'll tell you a story worth talking about.

In Thomas Van Auken's work, as well as some of the other Schindler artists, collectors have a unique opportunity to choose an original vision fortified by years of practice.  That strikes me as about the safest thing one can do.  Why, then, are so few people doing it? 

That's not to say he isn't selling.  But given Richmond's collecting spirit - which never hesitates to promote itself - the exhibit should have sold out.

Whoever ends up collecting him, Thomas Van Auken will keep up the good work - in spite of going farther afield than the rich folk might want.

For images from this series, go to:

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