John K. Grande
Like Gustave Courbet’s breakthrough painting The Burial at Ornans, Deon Venter’s Missing Series are presentational, and draw on a history of realism, but so as to move a real and socially demanding subject like the Picton murders and subsequent trials into the language of our times. Venter draws on a long standing history of art, just as altarpieces or retableaux once presented universally understood themes in our churches, so Venter presents images from the media – a place where the imagery of our era – a visual iconology every bit as understood as icons were in the past – rephrasing its imagery with new techniques and presentational forms. Media images are the altarpieces of our era, and Venter’s paintings draw from the controversy of the Picton media circus to draw our attention to the true tragedy beneath all this. These paintings are soulful in their expressive and very painterly transfer and reframing of this tragedy from one idiom into another – painting as paintings they have a very visceral, painterly character. Just as the media (whether print, digital, televisual, or radio) are the sources for everybody’s common knowledge, these bits and bytes of visual, auditory and print information are codified and standardized for the common person. It is not the content but the technological triggers and machines of communication that are significant to the process.
As the writer John Berger has commented, “Original paintings are silent and still in a sense that information never is.” In capturing an historic moment just as Deon Venter does with the Missing series, Vermeer, or Rembrandt, worked within a tradition that was of their era, but equally drew from the well that is the history of art that existed in the times they lived. A language of images is now so dense on the ground, it literally covers the world, and extends globally. How images are used is as significant as the imagery itself in our times. Do images democratize, or distract? Optical data of the media age has its own laws of presentation, a certain distancing in some cases, or direct data release in the case of mug shots, or photo documents. Indeed it is the removal of context often that determines the non-site of media imagery. The media cage is a non-space, as readily neutral as an untouchable in India. The hagiography is sublime, and each and every one of us finds some restitution in the codes of representation that accompany the media. Hence the choice of subject for these works.
Venter’s paintings capture something of the tactile world, the textural visceral, but they juxtapose this with lines that act as grids, a way of distancing us from the subject, and that builds a tension into the composition by establishing a diachronic dimensionality. The presentation as painting thus has two levels of reading….. The visuality of the painterly subject and the cage-like screens that become a standard, a constant that accompanies the painting… Structure and image.
And we read these as paintings that are experiences in and of themselves. Structure and image exist in tandem, and are deconstructed visually as well. Structures operate as a framing device, a monitor for reading the visual subject. Structure is the compass. We sense this act of obstruction, of removal, through presentation. This act of presentation and of synchronous removal is endemic to Deon Venter’s new painting. The structures are individuated and the people isolated, isolated through a collective and repetitive grouping. There is a strange disjunctive effect, a tension that draws us in, only to expel us – as with Francis Bacon’s Popes who sit in a non-space, and are contained in diaphanous cubes. The cube is a vestigial icon, and the surface scraping and removal of structure in and of itself that acts as an experiential marking or record of these vanished women. The same can be seen in Venter’s Flower paintings, which read less as flowers, or offerings from a tragedy, than as a simulated rendition of the co-existence of chaos, and order.
Deon Venter’s paintings take what are images of the sex workers or prostitutes of the lower east side and the events surrounding the Picton murders and subsequent trial. The Missing series of paintings bring the subject to another level as art. Just as Theodore Gericault’s controversial Raft of the Medusa (1819), depicted the French frigate ship Medusa’s survivors after they shipwrecked on the Bank of Arquin off the coast of Mauritania in 1816, so Deon Venter has extended the matrices of an event that is universally known to a broad public, a great tragedy, but the mass murders by Picton are at once less tangible tragedy than a historic event such as The Raft of the Medusa was, we can even read the grid lines on the surface of these paintings, as analogous to social structures, a tenuous concept, and one that cannot ultimately function without real first hand community participation.
Images from the media are our source for common points, for a language of the everyday, even if these events are strangely distant, cannot be seized in their entirety, and they add to our anxiety, and unnamable anxiety, often immeasurable. Like frozen cartoons of the media age, these paintings present and map the documents and images related to acts of violence, in this case against women of the lower east side of Vancouver, British Columbia.
The phenomena of violence against women, particularly sex workers, is not unique to the West Coast or Vancouver. In the Missing series, we see the faces of Picton’s victims. Each of these women who vanished from the Vancouver East Side, is contained and separated from the others. They exist contained within the grid, individuated. While most of these women were sex trade workers, and many were drug addicted, and as a result extremely vulnerable, disenfranchised, and unprotected from society, the brief sequence of one life is divided and segregated from all the others by the visual devices Venter uses. Venter’s painterly act of presentation suggests that our systems – whether informational or social or economic – largely act to obstruct the overall communication between the constituent parts, in this case actual women whose lives have been exploited, extenuated, dislocated, abused, used. This happens precisely because of the objectification of desire, and the objectification of the individual, and the media plays a role in this as a visual, mimetic and informational process. It is precisely because desire is intangible, and social and cultural matrices are dislocated by imagery, by the data of experience, that tragedies are extended and continue, without direct actions being taken.
Deon Venter communicates something of this in the visceral, textured painterly images of the women victims. His paintings carry something of that sensual, sublime textural ever moving style to however, we see in De Kooning, or Oskar Kokoschka, or Chaim Soutine whose Side of Beef, painted in 1925, is as iconic as Andy Warhol’s media derived Car Crash and Electric Chair (1965) series. Warhol repeated images, developed sequences with the electric chair, to suggest the same repetitive tragedy as does Venter with the successive images of these prostitute victims.
The Courtroom paintings from the Missing series are equally and potentially benign. Again there is an emphasis on structure, for the design of the seating, panelings. Lighting and desks are defensive, and hieratic. What seems quite innocent is absent of any potentially human characteristic. It is this inhumane atmosphere and the dramatic violent colours of the carpet, as well as the architectonic structures that we can interpret to be a dialogue on the diachronic way courtrooms and the legal system function. Who does the system actually serve? The answer, like the lives of these women victims, rests perpetually in a suspended animation. Another Courtroom image has white grid lines that block out most of the actual scene. Like bars in a prison, the grid lines obstruct our depth of vision and the details that might be visually pertinent. What we cannot see becomes as relevant as what we can see. Though we build the scene in our mind’s eye from the visual evidence being presented. It is the duality of visible and invisible elements that builds a tension. The double entendre of structure/obstruction, and subject/reduction causes us to ask questions. First we question the nature of the painterly process and what realism and representation, really mean in a broader interpretive context. What is being represented becomes a device to express less tangible truths, and on a more universal level – the very nature of truth.
Is truth visual, evidential, or does it exceed these surface concerns? How do we determine the root cause of such injustices? Isolated into visual bits and bytes of information, our social matrices are virtually non-existent or, at best, virtual just as this “historic or post-historic event is. What is really real when it comes to public perception in the media, and likewise to visual or aesthetic perception?” As Roland Barthes stated regarding photography, the image is a temporal record that captures event and takes it to the level of hallucination, “a false level of perception, true on the level of time, a temporal hallucination”. And this is where the tension exists in Deon Venter’s paintings, for they describe a system – both informational and socio-cultural – for the hallucination works both ways, as an embodiment of the creative process, and likewise as an expression of the pathological compulsive, for whom hallucination, dehallucination and subsequent denial of that hallucination, result in a memory that is distressed, caught in a moment of time, even frozen there. Venter alludes to this as process and with the visuals, the way he presents them, in the Missing series. An absence as much as a presence of information guides the media drift in our society. We are all implicated in these processes. The thin white painterly lines we see in Deon Venter’s paintings are symbolic barriers to any potential or deeper reading of the scene(s) being presented. Thus, they deepen the message by blocking it, and, like cartoons, cause paintings to be read partially in grids, sections, or captions like Japanese block prints once did. Venter places the events, personages into very tangible sequences that have a logic all their own. The inference is that by inducing fear, we limit the nature and context of what freedom potentially could be.
When we read an overview such as the painting of the Willie Picton pig farm, we are distanced from the event, and the tragedy is built upon this topography being presented to us. This suggests a narrative tragedy, but one that cannot be changed, touched, sequenced, like visual pornography, it relies on what is not real. This duality of presentational visualization – its very ambiguity – is what established a value in the media-based image. The continuity of experience is ripped apart. Consecutive thought and action are ripped apart but strictly codified. In the process our ability to act with a conscience, to see a continuity of cause and effect, is largely erased, and the images are partially erased in Venter’s paintings, but act on the surface, present these ambiguities. The ambiguity as expressed in the Picton murder trial generates a fear, and unconscious association(s) is developed by the surface presentation and subsequent reading of event.
Its and the defacement of direct experience is actually part of the sickness. The distortion is ultimate in that it involves recognition of the dualities of attraction and repulsion. Venter presents the implicit violence through painterly effects analogous to that unlikely spiritual icon in the history of art, Rembrandt’s Carcass of Beef: Flayed Ox (1655). A carcass of beef hanging, eviscerated and with rib bones exposed at the chest, is so visceral and immediate in its realization that the subject becomes the paint itself, and a potentially ugly rotting carcass of beef. For this animal’s body, once a structure, is now meat, sinews, lumps, clumpy details, with no head and hooves removed but compositionally and metaphorically Rembrandt’s Ox could likewise express Christ’s martyrdom and ultimate redemption, for there is something redemptive in the way the painted subject’s distancing is effected through the light effects. As Venter states, “this disappearance of women of the sex trade is by no means confined to Vancouver. It is happening world wide. As a painter my goal is not to memorialize, but in documenting these tragedies to attain beautiful paintings that will, in their very execution, bring some resolution, both emotionally and intellectually.”
As evidence of universally witnessed media events, these paintings bring us into the realm of cultural anthropology for they examine the political, social and cultural using the common space of a public mediatized event. The common space of the Picton murders, an ongoing phenomenon, is a psychic, individuated one, encapsulated, and it thrives on the disconnect, and fears, person by person, to build this into an “intangible angst”. This intangible anxiety is far from, yet connected to Edvard Munch’s The Scream first painted in the late 19th century, and even the contemporary painter Peter Doig’s recent works. The dislocation analogy is no longer to do with our own selves, the community of self, an even more destructive reality. The images/ideas represented cancel out the next image/idea representation, and they co-exist as mutually cancelled out images in the Missing portraits of these sex workers. Like Goya’s painting of Saturn Devouring his Son, a work that personifies the expendability of human life, and evil forces at work. Venter’s paintings cull imagery and images. Venter hangs them in a space of disorientation, no longer simply from other, but from our selves. These images are of dispossession; forlorn states, where people low down on the social and cultural totem pole have no defense except their own deaths. Deon Venter’s Missing series of paintings extend the language of contemporary art, in a way that deconstructs the subject. While the subject matter is controversial, and the artist could be accused of further exploiting their tragedy, the intention and resolution these works achieve bring a measure of recognition and respect for the women’s lives.