The imposing steel screens greeting visitors to Johannes VanDerBeek’s exhibition initiated impressions of a dystopic playground or institutional holding pen. Five 9-by-8-foot welded steel frames holding diamond-pleated metal mesh were joined to transect the front gallery into open rooms—viewing spaces that were both constraining and porous. Viewers could see through these “walls,” hung with paintinglike objects (both fronts and backs visible), to observe sculptures of freestanding silhouettes and wall-propped schematic figures.
Upon the birth of his daughter, VanDerBeek became fascinated with “imagining how she was seeing the world without the pre-associations that language provides,” according to press material. The objects (all 2014) in “Early Hand,” VanDerBeek’s fourth solo at Feuer, did invoke children’s art, but it was parenthood that really animated this exhibition. A parent’s privileged observations and responsibilities to both protect and educate can liberate consciousness as well as restrict freedom.
The 9-foot-tall stick-figure-like sculptures made of metal rods evoke first drawings as well as an adult seen from a child’s perspective. While their titles, such as Hurrying, Running and Throwing, describe action, they lean statically against walls. The human-size silhouettes, from a series titled “Early Outline,” suggest filled-out versions of the stick figures; however, their bent-rod armatures were actually made and applied after puddles of CelluClay, Aqua-Resin and paint had been shaped but had not hardened.
The real highlights here were the “cast wall objects,” the gallery’s term for what looked like paintings. Seductive yet puzzling, they were the apotheosis in conceptual development of the other objects, as they added pictorial structure to sculptural presence.
Constructed by an unusual, reverse—painting method of casting, these works were emphatically not paint on canvas. Drawing with clay, silicone and paint on a piece of framed acetate, VanDerBeek then filled the frame with colored Aqua-Resin, a liquid, water-based sculpting material. After hardening, the object was removed from the acetate, and the former work area, now covered and opaque, became the back. Reversed as in a print, the new surface was worked further, by wholly or partially peeling off the clay or silicone, and sometimes filling the resulting grooves and gouges with more paint or clay.
The results are dense and richly textured works, morphing from slate smooth to crackled and grooved. Colors range from muted to phosphorescent. Ironically, given their weight and convoluted process, the objects have an easygoing, spontaneous, expressionistic quality. Their pictorial nature spans the ambiguously biomorphic, abstract and cubist (as with Wild Plants and Electric Adolescence) to the more obviously figural (such as the big, primitive head in Blue Tantrum and the female torso in Running in Grass).
Dubuffet is the obvious referent. But installation is paramount for VanDerBeek, who employs the French artist’s Art Brut aesthetic in order to examine his relationship to childhood rather than to create more childlike things. Despite their pictorial ideas, these “cast wall objects” are more meta-painting than painting, made by an artist who is more sculptor than painter.
A mixture of primitivism, historicism and wry humor has enlivened all of VanDerBeek’s exhibitions. Growing up in a world increasingly driven by an electronic simulacrum of reality, VanDerBeek, at 31, investigates the handmade process. He is compelling as an artist because of his effort to understand his own place in the history of making objects. And he assumes responsibility for protecting, from the digital threat to make them obsolete, important ideas inherent in the making of things—ideas about how consciousness, through the body, can be visualized in its interaction with the physical world, changing it and being changed by it.