Don van Vliet: Parapliers the Willow Dipped, Paintings 1967-1997
January 31 - April 11, 2020
By JONATHAN GOODMAN, February 2020
The late Don van Vliet, better known as the gravel-voiced rock singer Captain Beefheart in the 1960s and ‘70s who worked with Frank Zappa, was also a roughly expressionist painter of more than small note. This show, the first in more than a decade of the artist at the gallery, makes it clear that there was a genuine connection between his output as a singer and offerings as an artist--both are drawn to edgy forms of expressiveness, in raw feeling come first. More than anything else, it is unmediated intensity, rather than calculated form, that emanates from these paintings (all from the Eighties), which are so consciously rough as to caricature cartoon imagery, perhaps the basis of the artist’s imagination. While the paintings may not be easily assimilated into the mainstream, it is fair to say that their charged, improvisatory aura, marginal posturing, and general air of revolt reflects the painter accurately, and his audience too, decades after the works were made.
Rock music is not concerned with subtlety, and neither is van Vliet’s art. In more than a few of his works, the imagery tends to connect with the rough work of the German expressionists made in the 1980s, people who rejected nuance for an emotional honesty still applicable to art today. Perhaps because of his music background, van Vliet looks for the immediacy people experience in a rock concert. His style is idiosyncratic and often crude--for example, in Brombeline Frenzy (1985), a naked man in red, with upraised hands, has his back set ;cose to an all white figure with slightly dejected, simian feature. The latter faces three white poles that make very little sense--are they trees? It is hard to say in the hallucinogenic environment. A streak of green paint narrowly separates the two figures, while black fills in the background. It is a wonderfully expressive painting, if at a good remove from easy comprehension. One must accept the image as it is.
Other paintings match that described. Meaty Blind People Danced at the End of the Hall Yellow and White (1986) consists of an ecstatic group of figures in white lying, sitting, or dancing, all with their hands raised, and surrounded by thin swirls of paint, mostly purple but also grayish-tan. It is clearly a moment of joy, at the point where the physical hedonism of the dance becomes ecstasy. Then, in Crepe and Black Lamp (1986), we see a demonic figure, with short raised hair and manaical eyes, stare nakedly at us, her body and dangling breasts intensified by their dark blue color. Set on the left are two full figures: a head above and a full head and body beneath. The picture is an amalgam of misfit identities beyond anyone’s recognition, but there is a dark humor to the contrasts as well as to the dangerous temptress clothed in dark-blue skin. Like most of van Vliet’s paintings, we may not fully comprehend their meaning, but the emotions cascade over us like a waterfall.
The final image, The Navy Blue Vicar (1987), is simple: a figure rendered in very dark blue with a hat faces left in the abstractions in the rest of the painting--on the right, a dark green mass supported by an abstract white form; and on the left, a series of smudges: pinkish tan above white above a porous read, top by angled purple line. Only the gods know where the inspiration for this strange, affecting image originated, but like the other paintings mentions, its very unevenness somehow becomes metaphorical--a life perception. Maybe Captain Beefheart was not a great painter, but he is one of considerable force, made authentic by the expressionist ferocity he communicated in art and music. WM
Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications.
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