HEADLINES – Buschlen Mowatt Gallery, Vancouver, 2004

Vancouver Sun, October 30, 2004

Yvonne Zacharias

I have never thought of Robert Pickton’s farm as grist for the artist’s mill.

Perhaps it is time to think again.

South African-born artist Deon Venter, who now lives on Salt Spring Island, has turned the grisliest of settings into a panorama on canvas.  As the artist himself says, he likes to spin gold out of straw.

Pickton, you will recall, has been charged with murdering 15 of the 69 prostitutes who have disappeared from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.  He could face more murder charges before he goes to trial some time next year.  Not a pretty subject for a painting.

But Venter does not believe in leaving it up to journalists to chronicle the cataclysms of our day.  Headlines are ephemeral.  Paintings endure forever.  They invite reflection in a way that daily newspaper articles often do not.

As with Venter’s other paintings documenting modern civilization’s horrors, this one presents the scene almost as an archaeological dig.  One is left to sift through the layers to find meaning in the whole.  The painting is made touching by the artist’s technique of embedding broken bits of miniature children’s toys into the canvas, hinting at the destruction of innocence and the fragility of all things beautiful.

On exhibition at the Buschlen Mowatt galleries in Vancouver, this canvas grieves with dripping paint.  It poses troubling questions.

So does the artist in an interview.

The story of women vanishing from mean city streets without a trace was starting to surface around the time that Venter emigrated to Canada in 1989.

“I thought in a contemporary developed country such as this, it’s quite bizarre that the sex trade is not legalized so there is some protection for people who are already very marginalized.”  He added, “If 65 lawyers had vanished in Vancouver, (by the time) the third one had vanished, they would (have been saying) this is a serial thing happening and we have to stop it.  And most of the public don’t like lawyers much as it is.”

The farm isn’t the only work of art in the exhibition that turns modern tragedy into modern art.  Venter gives similar treatment to a painting called Ground Zero which examines the scene left by the terrorist attack on New York City.  Another looks at the Columbia space shuttle crash.

His paintings are not judgmental or lugubrious.  They simply make you think.

There is nothing delicate about his art.  He uses bitumen, alkyd, oil, fired clay, salts, plaster of paris, silicone, lead and shellac.  The materials are layered so thickly, they heave off the canvas and have a sculptured, tactile quality to them, betraying the artist’s roots as a sculptor.  “I find it boring to paint with oil paints, to be limited to what you can do just with standard oil, linseed oil and turpentine.  I embed things into it, blow ash and dust into it, slowly building up a surface which is a bit more interesting.”

His subject matter is as gritty as the materials.  Not for him the flowers in the vase.

“ For too long, artists seem to dwell on esthetics, artistic language,” he explained.  “For me, I am not saying that is wrong.  I just find it difficult to paint flowers in vases and believe there is still meaning in that other than doing it for other artists.  I think artists should be involving themselves in what is happening around them day to day.”

Venter has this curious way of superimposing a grid on top of his paintings.  Sometimes that grid is composed of tiny white ceramic tile embedded in the canvas.  Sometimes, it is downward facing red arrows or strips of grey metal bolted onto the painting.  It is as if there is so much to grapple with, he wants to break it down for the viewer.

Venter explains the superimposed grid this way:  “It’s a hindrance, an irritant.  You don’t immediately enter into the painting.  You break it up into smaller grids, smaller paintings in themselves so that you are not taking in the whole picture at once.”

The artist shares with his audience his process of sketching in charcoal on a full canvas before producing the final painted works.  These preliminary works of art are also on display.  The final products are so large, it is perhaps the only way he can get a sense of scale.

“I have always tended to start with drawings.  It’s very ancient, very normal way of doing it…..I have always tended to work in black and white, then go from there.  I have to be clear of the form before I can really work out my problems there in terms of composition.”

How could so much turmoil come frothing from an artist’s studio on quiet Salt Spring Island where he lives with his sculptor wife, Kathy Venter?

He laughs when asked about this.

Eschewing all forms of nationalism, he likes to see himself not so much as a Canadian or South African of Salt Spring Islander but as a citizen of the world.

He finds the island is great place to live, but he has an eye on a much larger world out there.

“I don’t feel tied down to what is immediately around me.  I think I can do art anywhere.”

And, it seems, of anything.  Even of a pig farm turned crime scene.