A rare window into a master artist’s work in process is being offered at Duthie Gallery this month, where a selection of Deon Venter’s studies in charcoal and oil called Midden are on exhibit.
The works include studies from some of his older and best known periods, such as the Missing and Last Supper series, as well as his newest work, including views of Ganges Harbour completed within the past few weeks.
During an interview before the show’s opening on Sunday, Venter explained that while these works sometimes focus on a particular landscape — such as the Tsawwassen ferry terminal dolphins, the Garry Oaks Vineyards or a stretch of flooded farmland — what he’s working toward is the expression of a more internal landscape or an emotional truth the viewer can connect with.
This can be a difficult task for those who have studied art, Venter explains, because the pure expression of childhood becomes structured into formulaic channels.
“You get schooled into a narrative and representation and you quickly lose the past that’s spiritual and impulsive and emotional,” he said.
Venter made a name in Canada partly for using tar as a medium, scraping away sections and using turpentine to create unique effects. He discovered the process while studying art in his native South Africa, when he made away with a canvas truck covering that had blown off. Venter cut the canvas sheeting, coated with tar on one side and painted white on the other, into smaller pieces and used those for his base.
While he gave up using tar and other toxic compounds in 2006, much of Venter’s work has included a build up of texture and then removal in some way. In his Last Supper Series, of which several studies are currently on display, he did this both in medium and in concept. The finished paintings (provoked by the USA invasion of Iraq) started with a representational work based on Da Vinci’s masterpieces, but were stripped down to resemble a much-faded fresco.
In Rubbed Out, the image is further obscured by a heavy grid with diagonal perspective lines. A study for Scrubbed Out, another painting in this series, has a tangle of uprooted trees at the forefront of this same grid, overlaying the implied dinner scene under the vaulted hall.
A number of examples from Venter’s Tapings series on display reveal the fascinating traces of his Missing works. The strips of thick oil paint that make up the images are what has been peeled off from large-scale group portraits of the missing women of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Originally they were meant to be displayed in trays, offering the traces of the victims like DNA samples. As Venter explained, his job as an artist is not to document, but to create some kind of emotional connection through the image.
The structure behind this connection is clearly revealed at the Duthie Gallery show. Charcoal drawings such as Dolphins and Landing reveal a firm grasp of line and composition that anchors expressive and layered final works. The complex lines of grape supports tracking through the Garry Oaks vineyards in winter will provide the visual strength underlying evocative depictions of the same space.
Venter’s latest work has focused on some very local scenery, based on the walk he and his artist wife Kathy Venter take from their Merchant Mews studio into town at the end of each day. Studies in oil on linen represent the changing quality of light in the sky and as reflected on water. As the studies progress, Venter’s practice of removal can be seen in terms of his brush strokes, which become more gestural and abstract. The retreat to the inner landscape is glimpsed.
“In Canada, landscape influences all of us. It’s one of the reasons we live here on the West Coast,” Venter said. “And when one observes something one starts to feel something. There’s an interaction.”
By Elizabeth Nolan, Driftwood May 3/ 2014