Critics’ Picks

Philip Van Aver, Two Women in an Overgrown Garden, 2020, gouache and ink, 9 x 11".

Philip Van Aver, Two Women in an Overgrown Garden, 2020, gouache and ink, 9 x 11".

New York

Philip Van Aver

White Columns
91 Horatio St
March 14–April 29, 2023

Showcasing almost fifty paintings and drawings created over forty-three years—rendered in ink, watercolor, and gouache—this retrospective of Philip Van Aver’s art presents works that act as subtle yet powerful poetic talismans. Serene landscapes, dreamlike tableaux, and refined still lifes whisper visions of imaginary worlds: Van Aver’s own Arcadia.

The exhibition reveals a striking consistency: The most recent work on view, made in 2021, is similar in style and subject matter to pieces made during the late 1970s. Van Aver’s delicate images are usually the size of a handkerchief or a postcard—the artist is an avid collector of the latter—but seem even smaller within their extremely elaborate, illustrated frames. They often feature mythological or fantasized scenes intertwined with mundane happenings, which are sometimes backdrops to erotic, exotic, or mysterious encounters. A magnificent cavalcade of beings, objects, and settings appear in Van Aver’s paintings, including statues, gardens, grottoes, and groves; fully dressed women and naked men; posing salamanders, a parrot, and a turtle; flowers, pearls, and decorated boxes; and fabled creatures such as the goddess Ariadne, the god Pan, and a dancing pearl-bodied dwarf.

Perhaps the works function as personal Stations of the Cross to the artist’s own mythology. These wistful scenes are also reminiscent of illuminated manuscripts, with their stylized perspectives and jewellike palette. They prompt us to fill in the chapters and make our own narrative underlying these bucolic and palatial pictures—somewhere between a Shakespearean play and a gay cruise. Van Aver’s meticulous techniques are reminiscent of those used by monks during the Middle Ages, when rigorous, delicate, and painstaking practice carved a path to spiritual revelation. Is Van Aver the sender or the recipient of these imaginary postcards? Probably both—only we get to intercept them.