HEADLINES – Buschlen Mowatt Gallery, Vancouver, 2004

Outrider: Recent Paintings by Deon Venter Gary Michael Dault

Essay for Catalogue

I employ the perhaps over-romantic term Outrider [the word is from a poem called The Structure of Rime IV by Robert Duncan] as a compact way of characterizing artist Deon Venter, especially in the way his sensibility seems invariably present at the epicenter of societal misfortune, cultural callousness, human cruelty, injustice, disaster and, like the shock waves that roll out from the centre of any impact, the way he then chooses, as an artist, to ride out their implications.

The movement of all cataclysm is centrifugal, energy through memory and meditation [events recollected in tranquility, all passion spent] may doggedly set one’s footsteps moving back again into history.

This is the space in which Venter’s paintings seem to come into being:  in the highly-charged gap between a wrenching, disorienting, destabilizing historical event, and the formation of the artist’s epic essay in painterly inquiry into what has befallen us.

Venter acts in the slightly hysterical space between enormity [the Columbia space shuttle’s disintegration, the discovery of accumulating female corpses at Willie Pickton’s Port Coquitlam pig farm, the subsequent desecration by a couple of Tate Modern art-tourists of English artist Tracey Emin’s highly controversial 1999 sculpture, My Bed [a work in a sense already pre-desecrated by the artist herself in the normal course of her chaotic life], the wanton destruction of priceless objects of Mesopotamian art and artifacts in the ransacking by the Taliban of the Museum of Antiquities in Dar-Ul-Aman in Afghanistan, the guerilla felling of the Twin Towers and denouement.

His paintings, which are almost of necessity big, raw, brawny, caustic and convulsive – all qualities which lie somewhere quite beyond their being merely “expressive” or “expressionistic” – are quite clearly dedicated to the galvanizing of understanding, and perhaps to some subsequent transformative and cathartic effect generated, in the viewer, by upon the dark scale of the events which are his subject.

There is a stern nobility about Deon Venter’s paintings, the origin of which may well lie in the epic grieving that informs them.  It’s as if each of these big tortured pictures – pictures that are distressed both literally and metaphorically – can be said to bear witness to a specific node or crises event in recent world history, some extreme fallout from the human condition that qualifies his art as both political and, in the long run, historical, albeit in a very special sense:  Venter’s paintings do not, for example, document.  Rather, they memorialize, contextualize, and, in the end, provide something like benediction;  a palm of understanding proffered at the end of the mind’s bitter journeying through experience.

Venter’s art, an art of grieving-at-large, is made from a swashbuckling, pro-active grieving which is not at all elegiac.  “Whatever you have to say”’ wrote poet Charles Olson, “leave the roots on, let them / dangle / Just to make clear / Where they come from” [These Days].  There is no wan, sentimental, ubi sunt? questioning in Venter’s work:  how can this monstrous thing have accessed the human adventure?  Rather, there is a stern, essentially tragic grappling with what is, with what has been, with the meaning of meaning.

The sites that form the ostensible content of Deon Venter’s paintings – the mauled museum, the terminal farm, the ghostly, harvested outlines of a reconstructed Columbia spacecraft [22,000 pieces scattered over six states], ground zero at 9/11 – are transformed, in the paintings, into painfully eloquent and ambitious utterances, pictorial phonemes making up an overwhelmingly dense and mute narrative within some vast, ancient, ongoing language of giants.  History scrolls by, impassive, relentless, silent.  I have foresuffered all, cries T.S. Elliot’s weary visionary Tiresias.  I suppose all of us have.

Part of the agon of Venter’s paintings lies in their proscriptive distancing, physically speaking, from the events they memorialize.  In this sense, the paintings are compassionate.  Mankind cannot bear too much reality.  This distancing is the product of an almost operatic studio procedure in which the artist’s dribbling and heaving and splashing of the pigment not only serves, as the artist notes [in an email to the writer] a means of energizing the painting, of allowing the paint to take on “the qualities of patina rather than paint – as in ritual objects”, but also as a way of substituting materiality for time:  events get stuck in history and grow muffled and distorted by cogitation – just as Venter’s images flail and groan through the prodigious engulfment within the artist’s encounter with them.

At one point Venter listed his materials for me.  It’s an anti-aestheticized, [al]chemical muster:  “bitumen, alkyd, oil, fired clay, shamotte, salts, plaster of paris, silicone, gold leaf, lead and shellac”.  These sometimes unlovely materials are in turn “built up and extruded in layers to pucker or stretch in their drying process, to symbolize the decay in history”.  The binding and magmic taming of the painting materials is the result of Venter’s mixing them with “water and strong solvents of turpentine, shellacs and acids, as well as salts”, which allows him to access a “wide range of possible applications of very basic industrial and ceramic materials.”

The seemingly turgid stew of chemical flux at the artist’s command provides a means of capturing a mighty, ponderous slowness in his imagery:  it allows his subjects to reveal themselves as the result of a sort of titanic, two-way struggle between the viewer’s overwhelmed visuality and the painting’s protean, quicksand surfaces and depths.  Often, he overlays the vistas of his paintings with a rhythmically applied grid of palpable, physically-attached interferences.  His paintings, from the viewer’s point of view, then lie beneath a system of stoppages, hesitations, prohibitions, visual rebuffs.  All of Venter’s paintings – which are not pretty, but which are beautiful – trade on this miasmic struggle between our yearning to know, this desire for privileged understanding, and a certain swaggering, macho sense of denial.

Denial, not repression.  Everything in a Venter painting is available.  You just have to work at it, grapple with it.  In the end, it’s really a question of How Can Anything Be Said?  Tragedy will out, grief will be expended and cauterized.  But how?

Venter’s convulsiveness is one way, a powerful, ancient route, finally, to revelation and peace.  What, in sum, are Deon Venter’s paintings?  I’m going to plunder poet Frank O’Hara for the phrase – a phrase which, used anywhere close to Venter’s paintings, gains new resonance.  Venter’s paintings are Meditations in an Emergency.