The imposing steel screens greeting visitors to Johannes VanDerBeek’s exhibition initiated impressions of a dystopic playground or institutional holding pen. Five 9-by-8-foot welded steel frames holding diamond-pleated metal mesh were joined to transect the front gallery into open rooms—viewing spaces that were both constraining and porous. Viewers could see through these “walls,” hung with paintinglike objects (both fronts and backs visible), to observe sculptures of freestanding silhouettes and wall-propped schematic figures.
Upon the birth of his daughter, VanDerBeek became fascinated with “imagining how she was seeing the world without the pre-associations that language provides,” according to press material. The objects (all 2014) in “Early Hand,” VanDerBeek’s fourth solo at Feuer, did invoke children’s art, but it was parenthood that really animated this exhibition. A parent’s privileged observations and responsibilities to both protect and educate can liberate consciousness as well as restrict freedom.
The 9-foot-tall stick-figure-like sculptures made of metal rods evoke first drawings as well as an adult seen from a child’s perspective. While their titles, such as Hurrying, Running and Throwing, describe action, they lean statically against walls. The human-size silhouettes, from a series titled “Early Outline,” suggest filled-out versions of the stick figures; however, their bent-rod armatures were actually made and applied after puddles of CelluClay, Aqua-Resin and paint had been shaped but had not hardened.
The real highlights here were the “cast wall objects,” the gallery’s term for what looked like paintings. Seductive yet puzzling, they were the apotheosis in conceptual development of the other objects, as they added pictorial structure to sculptural presence.
Constructed by an unusual, reverse—painting method of casting, these works were emphatically not paint on canvas. Drawing with clay, silicone and paint on a piece of framed acetate, VanDerBeek then filled the frame with colored Aqua-Resin, a liquid, water-based sculpting material. After hardening, the object was removed from the acetate, and the former work area, now covered and opaque, became the back. Reversed as in a print, the new surface was worked further, by wholly or partially peeling off the clay or silicone, and sometimes filling the resulting grooves and gouges with more paint or clay.
The results are dense and richly textured works, morphing from slate smooth to crackled and grooved. Colors range from muted to phosphorescent. Ironically, given their weight and convoluted process, the objects have an easygoing, spontaneous, expressionistic quality. Their pictorial nature spans the ambiguously biomorphic, abstract and cubist (as with Wild Plants and Electric Adolescence) to the more obviously figural (such as the big, primitive head in Blue Tantrum and the female torso in Running in Grass).
Dubuffet is the obvious referent. But installation is paramount for VanDerBeek, who employs the French artist’s Art Brut aesthetic in order to examine his relationship to childhood rather than to create more childlike things. Despite their pictorial ideas, these “cast wall objects” are more meta-painting than painting, made by an artist who is more sculptor than painter.
A mixture of primitivism, historicism and wry humor has enlivened all of VanDerBeek’s exhibitions. Growing up in a world increasingly driven by an electronic simulacrum of reality, VanDerBeek, at 31, investigates the handmade process. He is compelling as an artist because of his effort to understand his own place in the history of making objects. And he assumes responsibility for protecting, from the digital threat to make them obsolete, important ideas inherent in the making of things—ideas about how consciousness, through the body, can be visualized in its interaction with the physical world, changing it and being changed by it.
For his second solo at Zach Feuer, titled “Another Time Man,” New York-based artist Johannes VanDerBeek divided the gallery into three sections, filling them with ad hoc, slightly manic assemblages that, according to the poetic (and lengthy) press release, are meant to reflect on “transformation, the passage of time, dreams, being broke but resilient, and searching for stories within holey pockets of thought” (all works 2009 and ’10). Whether or not VanDerBeek entirely succeeded in this, his works do indeed suggest resilience in the face of penury, perhaps in part because they conjure the backyard of a hyper-prolific Outsider artist.
Upon entering the gallery, viewers were confronted by three imposing pieces made of 8-foot-high, worn, gently warped boards leaning against overturned chairs, works that crowded the entrance like overeager hosts. Each board is stained with a faint wash of color and features one tiny, blank, roughly 2-by-3-inch swatch of canvas at eye level, which makes it feel as though the work is staring straight back at you. Hanging on the walls of the first room were 12 “Towel Tablets,” 4-foot-square grids of 16 paper towels painted with polka dots or batik patterns, which reinforced the general kooky vibe.
Standing nearby were perhaps the zaniest works in the show: four “ghosts” made of aluminum mesh. Transparent yet solid, each of these life-size figures has been spray-painted to fill out colors and details. Hippie Ghost seems right at home in his tie-dye T-shirt, shades and flip-flops. Indian Ghost sports an impressive feathered headdress, while Woman Ghost looks like the Wicked Witch of the West. A 10-foot-wide cardboard screen—one side painted black and white, the other hues of blue and gray, and carved with Louise Nevelson-esque shapes—divided the room(The Big Stone Flatscreen with Static). Just beyond a cylindrical, foil-covered barrier was a mini-exhibition of aluminum-can sculptures. The cans had been stripped of their labels and painted in monochromes, then stacked in various formations.
Two adjacent walls in the back room contained foil reliefs, eight altogether, resembling rusty car hoods, the surfaces scored with linear patterns and coated in pastel. Opposite were five found aluminum display boxes, each approximately 2 feet wide, mounted on pedestals. Within each is placed a photograph cut from a magazine and torn to create a kind of face, with eyes and a mouth. VanDerBeek’s interest in the fantastic is well served by his throwaway materials, which counteract the potentially twee tendencies that can result from indulging flights of fancy. (For his previous show, he included, for example, a medieval knight asleep on a tomb made out of old copies of Life magazine.) While perhaps not quite achieving the dreamlike quality alluded to in the press release, the exhibition demonstrated a strikingly original sensibility.
Photo: View of Johannes VanDerBeek’s exhibition “Another Time Man,” 2010; at Zach Feuer