Contributed by James J.A. Mercer / The main works in “Inside Out, Outside In,” Dylan Vandenhoeck’s bravura solo show at Jack Barrett gallery, are large, vertically oriented oil paintings, approximately human scale. Two are on interlocking irregular canvases, and there are three smaller horizontal pieces. Some are on unusual fabrics, or contain objects such as candy wrappers and string that could be related to the scenes painted on them. Big gestural swirls and streaks of color frame plein air landscapes and interiors. Certain zones are masterfully illusionistic, such as the wintry parking lot through dirty glass in Of the Corner. Other areas are daringly loose, collapsing into stray marks and spectral debris.
The paths across these works are eccentric and particular, with scenes warped along arcs, unwinding around the periphery, flipping upside down, shrinking, disappearing. Though the result is far more complex than a comic book, the concept is similar, involving different aspects arranged along paths, moments in a contorted diary entry. The places Vandenhoeck paints are emphatically everyday. A sidewalk in Chelsea. A Yonkers Whole Foods. Some trees by a river. The front door. That said, the paintings are incredibly loud, bursting with fiery color and movement. I was immediately reminded that yes, even the ordinary world is too much to process.
Look longer and abstractions reveal themselves as optical phenomena: the spots you see when – staring into the sun, glare, nothingness, or – what color becomes outside of your vision. These are not only pictures of observed scenes, but attempts to grasp the seeing organs themselves, clawing at the Wittgensteinian impossibility of observing yourself in the same moment you’re observing yourself. The most intangible parts – the blurry transitions, the fades, the abstracted beams of shifting color – are paradoxically the most sculptural and grotesquely physical, waging war on the brain’s habit of filtering out the unnamable.
This feedback between sensation and image is so intense that the painted outcome is unstable, brutally fragmented. Not only are there more details than can be absorbed, but there are more types of rendering than can be reconciled with one another. In To the Dunkin Donuts and Back Wearing my Baseball Cap, a sidewalk in the distance starts innocently with tan streaks, then is clouded with grainy patches, then flattens, then shrinks, then gets sliced with blue, then with orange, until finally the foreground curls into cells and abruptly falls off a diagonal cliff into the upside-down sky. Fascinated and dumbfounded, I ran through dozens of painting vocabularies, different parts of each piece snapping into focus before suddenly falling apart.
Real-life circularity shapes Vandenhoeck’s imagery. Plein air paintings of forests are a byproduct of the landscape’s effect on people, while the inclusion of a big box store in a forest highlights the way people affect the landscape. There is a similar looping structure in the details of the painting process that the work reflects. Palettes, easels, blobs of paint, paintings of paintings, and paintings of the same paintings that they are paintings of are pervasive in this exhibition, a delightfully unglamorous residue of rigorous observation. Those of us exposed to art education will recognize a familiar and noble dorkiness.
The observational foundation of these works is clear, because they’re just too weird to be made up. Was anyone asking for a tower of Classico tomato sauce sliding into oblivion at a psychedelic Costco? Are you ready for revelation and rapture in the parking lot of Bed, Bath and Beyond? This unfiltered approach to subject matter is a crucial strength of this work, a comedy all the more hilarious because it’s hard to tell whether Vandenhoeck is trying to be funny.
Mainly, he celebrates all the difficulties of capturing encounters between a living world and a living self. Physical traces from the scene, a Starburst wrapper, an iPhone photo, and bits of string, indicate that Vandenhoeck’s practice is not merely generic painting from observation, but rather an embrace of the very things most artists want to erase. The instability of the place in time, the distortions in your eyes, the difficulty in negotiating the canvas, stray thoughts, the distractions and debased consumerism of public space: these become the center of the work. We witness the process of observation turned inside out, beautifully deformed by all the contingencies stuck to its surface.
One consequence of this inversion is that the longer I looked, the more I found myself curious about Vandenhoeck himself. Tantalizing hints of domestic life – kitchens, couches, receipts, and solitary moments staring out the window – suggest an inner world while withholding its interpersonal dimensions and dramas. His intensity of observation, as well as his preoccupation with tangiblity, forces a comparison between ourselves and Vandenhoeck. We are asked in every piece to see through his eyes, and yet his way of seeing is singular. While there are visual similarities to Charles Burchfield or Rackstraw Downes, Vandenhoeck manifests an almost ecstatic joy in the artmaking process, an impulsiveness and even hyperactivity unique in its deep embodiment. From this perspective, the best works are the most dramatic, the biggest and harshest. Vandenhoeck’s techniques are less suited to small scale and modesty; they need space for strange geometry to unfold. Dissonance, not preciousness, is the guiding star.
An ungenerous viewer could see a formula, a set of procedures for dazzling reflexivity. There’s no denying that the premise of each painting is basically the same: sameness of approach eclipses differences in subject matter. But given that these works are about seeing itself, and that the artist aims to explore the boundaries of his subjective vision, they are a gimmick only in the sense that being yourself is a gimmick. There is just a little hint of a nightmare here. It’s not the nightmare of unstable vision, but the opposite: that of discovering the edges of yourself, the horror that your body could be a prison. The saving grace of Vandenhoeck’s paintings is their devotion to the outside, their fixation on a window through which an infinite world shines.
“Dylan Vandenhoeck: Inside Out, Outside In,” Jack Barrett Gallery, 89 Franklin Street, New York, NY. Through December 17, 2022.
Painter James J.A. Mercer graduated from the Columbia MFA Program in 2021.
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