New York

Don Van Vliet

Set off by the front gallery’s Biedermeier proportions, bathed by the softly filtered southern light, Don Van Vliet’s semi-automatic abstractions looked beautiful, neurasthenic, old-fashioned, and European. Here and there, the artist’s organic palette and willfully skittish, stubbily fingered surfaces reminded me of Georg Baselitz’s “Hero” paintings from the ’60s, which were seen in this very space two seasons ago. Cactus Blanch and Wrought Iron Cactus, both 1991, with their veggie-juice-bar colors and implied metamorphoses, are both cases in point. I got the feeling that Van Vliet jabbed paint around with the alert industriousness of a prospector who wants neither to miss a vein of ore, nor to risk damaging one. This native Californian was known primarily as the musician Captain Beefheart until he became a painter. He strikes me as an artist who believes in the ideal of a “pure” eye and a free hand, and who likens intelligence to intuition rather than to thought. This manifests itself in his ability to resist the urge to “finish.” These paintings are full of air.

Some of these works appear anecdotal, derived from stream-of-consciousness, sometimes cryptic occurrences. The sunny and calligraphic Day Barrette, 1989, for instance, with its dribbling red doodle, various ejaculatory forms, and a clearly rendered gray boner, is redolent of sex—morning sex, I suppose, when items lost in bed, such as barrettes, are most likely to turn up. The painting also recalls work by the late Jean-Michel Basquiat, as well as by Julian Schnabel, Van Vliet’s big supporter in recent years. Other paintings in this show suggest landscapes recalling the American West. In Cholla, 1989, a masterly painting, the shape of what might be a wild boar, dead stiff on its back, occupies the foreground, while entwined snakes fight over the kill. A pair of paintings titled Circles Don’t Fly, They Float #1 and #2, both 1990, also invites dramatic interpretation, and here again Van Vliet’s vision suggests a sort of cheerful El Topo as creatures—a palomino and its attackers? Plains Indian war dancers?—battle it out under a noonday sun. Ghost Lemon, 1991, with its cavalry of dynamic black blotches and its threatening zucchini-green claw, might be another good-natured spaghetti western. Van Vliet’s more static imagery, however, tends to be emotively weak. (Puzzleloaf, 1990, for instance, an abstract image in tones of parchment, brown, and black, is all too aptly titled.) Like Henri Michaux, the French Surrealist writer to whom he is compared in a catalogue essay by John Yau, Van Vliet has taken to his second career like a fish to water. These are engaging, elegant paintings—free of guile, free of bile.

Lisa Liebmann