Thursday, 26 June 2014

Andrew Verhoeckx: Transcending Tradition and the Search for a New Visual Language

Andrew Verhoeckx
In order for art to be more than the product of a cathartic exercise, an artist must consider the audience.  Be it in music, writing, painting, or any other art form, an artist must be familiar with the social context of their work.  There is a cultural nomenclature of signifiers, and when an artist chooses to incorporate a piece iconography into their work, they must consider how that symbol functions within the nomenclature of signs.  For artists who are Christian specifically, there is a temptation and desire to draw upon the iconography of their faith.  The inclusion of such iconography can serve to alienate audiences who do not prescribe to Christianity and lock the work into a closed reading.  The challenge for an artist who is Christian is to develop a personal iconography that reflects their beliefs, but also allows their art to engage in a dialogue with people from all walks of life.  Such was the challenge faced by Andrew Verhoeckx as a young painter.  Eventually, though, Verhoeckx managed to find what he calls a “visual language” that allowed him to express his faith in a manner that allowed people from all walks of life to engage with his work and find their own meaning in it.

A section of Touch of Gold.
Verhoeckx recalls that as “a young artist trying to find [his] voice or visual language, [he] went for what came naturally.”  This involved paintings with an iconography rooted firmly in his faith.  The result was “a lively debate in [an undergraduate] class regarding [his] work”.  Verhoeckx notes that “the straight forward visual language of Christian themes was too much” for some.  This was a frustrating process because other artists were able to express themselves by using overt signifiers and others did not take issue with this.  In a world not far removed from the Civil Rights era, and firmly rooted in a time where misogyny, homophobia and Islamaphobia impede social progress, members of marginalized groups often draw on overt iconography to make a political statement.  For Christians whose faith is associated with the dominant culture, an overt expression of faith is not read as a political statement, or simply an expression of one’s faith, but instead is often seen as an extension of the dominant culture and thereby read as an endorsement of oppression.  Such is the manner in which the contemporary nomenclature frames iconography related to the dominant culture.

Rear End
Verhoeckx has some guidance in this respect.  A professor spoke to him about the visual language Verhoeckx had been using.  The professor encouraged Verhoeckx to draw on his passions for cars to develop his visual language.  Verhoeckx, whose father had worked at the local Chrysler plant for almost his entire adult life, had developed a love of cars in his youth, a love that carried into his adulthood.  At the age of 12, Verhoeckx prayed for what many 12-year-old boys might pray for: a sports car.  By the time Verhoeckx was 17, his prayer had “miraculously arrived as a neglected, abused and rotting Plymouth” Barracuda.  God did not deliver a brand new sports car to Verhoeckx; Verhoeckx had bought a dilapidated wreck of a car that was over twenty years old.  It would take several years of reconditioning, but the car would eventually be restored.  This process was a spiritual one for Verhoeckx.  The restoration of the car mirrored Verhoeckx’s own spiritual restoration which he achieved through his faith.  His professor had encouraged Verhoeckx to dig deeper, and it was at this time that Verhoeckx chose to speak of his faith through his love of cars in a series of paintings he titled Street Spirit.

In The Middle
The beauty of the Street Spirit series is that it uses a visual language that speaks to a multiplicity of people.  The automotive industry has been associated with the working class since Henry Ford introduced his first assembly line, so for a person from the working class, the paintings serve as a representation of their life experience.  Likewise, automobiles are closely linked with Americana iconography.  The automobile has become synonymous with American culture, and so serves as a democratic signifier that gives an entry point into the paintings for many.  By placing overt Christian iconography to the side, and channeling his faith through an experience shared by many, Verhoeckx found a way to communicate his faith in a manner with did not alienate viewers and instead invited them to engage with his work.

For many, form is as important as content, and to communicate this vision, Verhoeckx chose to embrace Photorealism.  This choice in form would generate an issue akin to the one Verhoeckx faced due to his faith.  In an art world that had been under the tyrannical rule of realism for centuries, many Modern and Post-Modern artists had sought to shed the shackles of realism.  Expressionists like Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollack and Wassily Kandinsky had rejected realism and all forms of traditional iconography.  Artists who embraced realism or a more democratic visual language were viewed a kitsch, and so the likes of Norman Rockwell have been excluded from the walls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other galleries in favour of Modern and Post-Modern artists.  Photorealism, though, which embraces traditional methods, is the only style which can communicate the message Verhoeckx envisions.  In his Artist’s Statement, Verhoeckx expresses his admiration for the “way paint embraces the cast or forged steel” and how “oil can transform steel from cold and dead to lusciously wet, warm and soft as a living being”.  He notes that the “parallel between cars and humans is remarkable in the way they functionally mimic each other.”  The engine, for instance, can be seen as the heart of the car: “it breathes, pumps and brings out the personality of the car.”  It is this insight that Verhoeckx wants to share with the audience.  He wants them “to feel the wet cast steel, to feel the warmth of the engine, to feel the rumble of the exhaust against their body.”  Verhoeckx wants to “generate life in [his] paintings”.  When one looks at a painting like Valley or In The Middle, one can see how the cold steel is transformed by the oil into something organic; something living.  There is no other style of painting that could present this vision to the viewer as effectively as Photorealism.

Under the Clouds
For many artists, once they have found a niche, many work within the restrictions of that niche.  Pollack did this with his ‘drip paintings’, Rothko did this with his ‘multiforms’, and even within Photorealism painters often trap themselves within a certain style: Will Cotton paints portraits/desserts, Chuck Close works exclusively on portraits, Robert Bechtle and John Salt focus on cars, Don Eddy has painted a variety of store-window displays, Charles Bell paints toy displays, and Robert Cottingham paints outdoor signs.  Verhoeckx, though, has branched outside of his comfort zones and has found different methods to both express his faith, and demonstrate the skill required to create Photorealist paintings.  A series Verhoeckx has titled East of Eden features a painting titled Under The Clouds.  It is a painting that expresses his first experience with God.  Verhoeckx recalls that as a child he looked up into the clouds one day and saw God and that God “reached down that day and [Verhoeckx’s] heart… was filled with unbelievable love and peace which has never been matched since.”  Verhoeckx describes this experience, not as “a one way interaction but mutual exchange of spirit beings.”  The painting depicts a building surrounded by trees as it rests beneath a clear blue sky with a few white clouds high above.  For Verhoeckx, this is a piece of deeply personal Christian iconography that expresses the way in which God first manifest himself to Verhoeckx, but for a viewer who looks upon the painting, there is no overt theological message.  The iconography of the painting, the trees, the building, the clouds, all speaks to a symbiotic relationship between humanity and nature.  The building is surrounded by trees, and covered by clouds, and exists in peace and harmony with the natural world.  Perhaps this can be a metaphor for how people with different beliefs can co-exist.  The painting can simply be admired for its technical skill and natural beauty, or it can speak to how humanity interacts with the natural realm.  There is no overt message to take, and so Verhoeckx successfully finds a way to speak of his faith in a manner that defuses the social stigma related to it.

Dominae Saecllum
Dominae Sacellum functions in a similar fashion, but allows Verhoeckx to share his faith with another artist at the same time.  The painting is based on a photo Verhoeckx took of St. Patrick Cathedral in New York.  The building is itself a piece of art.  Its architect used his skill to express and build a monument to his faith.  Verhoeckx’s photo frames a small portion of the building that excluded any pieces of religious iconography.  The viewer, then, can simply admire the architecture of the building without having framing it as a strictly ‘Christian’ work.  For Verhoeckx, the painting can be seen as a homage to another piece of work that expresses faith, and one that speaks to interdenominational dialogue given that Verhoeckx doesn't identify as Catholic.  Two artists of different denominations are featured in the same work, but the end product is devoid of any overt pieces of Christian iconography, allowing Verhoeckx to engage in a conversation with the architect’s expression of faith and share that conversation without force-feeding his faith to the viewer and allowing them to define how they want to see the work on their own terms.

New World
The beauty of Verhoeckx’s work is how inclusive it is.  Verhoeckx draws on universal iconography that gives all viewers an entry point into his work and allows them to admire the craftsmanship of his technique.  This is especially present the works featured in East of Eden.  The painting New World, for instance presents an evening cityscape that features no less than three languages on the city’s electric billboards.  This co-mingling of cultures and language demonstrates the inclusive nature of Verhoeckx’s work.  Regardless of faith, language, ethnicity, gender/sex, perceived race, or any other form of classification, viewers can engage with Verhoeckx’s work through a neutral iconography and discover their own meaning while simultaneously bearing witness to the strength of Verhoeckx’s faith.  Just as John Coltrane found a way to express his faith on his album A Love Supreme without overtly employing manifest Christian iconography or signifiers, Verhoeckx finds a way to express his faith in a manner that is inclusive to all who might view his work.