San Francisco

Don Van Vliet

In his previous guise as the musician Captain Beefheart, Don Van Vliet always invoked the powers of ceremonial delirium. His interventions along the byways of three-chord rock ’n’ roll floated funky, insistent, atonal guitar clusters around sublunar garglings in a strange amalgam of Howling Wolf and Tex Ritter. (With titles like “Woe Is a Me Bop” and “Lick My Decals Off Baby,” the songs are raucous nonsense of a high order.) It doesn’t necessarily follow that the same person who made that music would make Van Vliet’s paintings, but the congruent urge to extrapolate magic from mess is there.

Van Vliet’s pictures epitomize what might be called everyday expressionism, a species of normative, free-style painting that permits images to obtrude capriciously among swoops of color, like clouds billowing into the shapes of circus animals. In this, their mannerisms bear an odd resemblance to those of such California abstract expressionists as Frank Lobdell and James Budd Dixon, who in the ’50s went in for a brash, nominally direct attack on the void, the better to arrive at a firsthand, meaningful iconography. Van Vliet’s intentions may be much the same as theirs, but he is at his best as a modest improvisor of fantasy landscapes. Pulling flings and squiggles together into singular, animated motifs, his pictures sometimes recall the brilliant abstract renditions of hill towns by the Greek-American painter Aristodomes Kaldis.

Van Vliet has his nature two ways, both as paint-and-canvas and as loosely defined figuration. Large textures of bare canvas stand for a painter’s wilderness preserve. Similarly, a white-faced baboon suspended amid a rush of vertical splotches implies an imagination caught up in its own primal and compendious bestiary. As in children’s art, where nothing is particularly observed, the world appears stated as entirely mental, with each cursory sign fully lit within its environs. None of Van Vliet’s paintings has an overall, specific light, and the scale of each is simply commensurate with the general size of the handmade marks. Van Vliet uses a manageable array of basics—lathers of vanilla white that set the overall tone; a lot of straight tube colors (cerulean, cadmium orange light, vermilion, and the many ochers) modulated by another favorite, a pale peach. The recognizable figures include griffins, swans, roosters, suns, and moons,a truncated mastadon, a mountain, and a flat patch of knifed-on forest green that says “tree.” There are also corkscrew glyphs and much fussing at the corners. Most of the animal figures are black. Black is the color of automatist delirium, but the truly strange thing here is how insouciant and deflated Van Vliet’s visions seem.

Bill Berkson