Whether abstract or representational, art can be heroically expressive. It can stand up for something, be a champion. Delos Van Earl’s energetic new paintings achieve this by harnessing the pure chance and ultimate triumph of nature.
The paintings in the Viscus series also punctuate a bright new direction for Van Earl, the Palm Springs artist whose distressed, painted bronze and steel works put his career on autopilot for longer than a decade. Those sculptures and wall pieces — each protruding a colorful angularity — bear the aged appearance of a long-past time.
The Viscus paintings, on the other hand, hold the promise of the future — nature’s continuum and cycles of life — and signal a mature and emotional response to the angst-infused, shock-and-awe images that permeate our lives and some contemporary art.
“These paintings are just the opposite,” Van Earl says. “Using nature as the reference point forces you to work at a higher level. Nature is more sophisticated than are humans. Everything’s perfect: The veins in a leaf are organized chaos, but also where they need to be. There’s a sense of grace.”
In Van Earl’s large paintings, grace comes at a tremendous physical cost: the process. He applies up to 20 layers of oil enamel paint on museum-quality wood panels — many as large as 6-foot squares or paired in dynamic diptychs. Within each thick coat, he embeds seeds, dried flowers, twigs, pine needles, grass, bird feathers, and other items from nature. This transmutation of detritus into art — in addition to tape, rope, and foam he buries into the layers — gives way to the physical and aesthetic challenge of unearthing the final picture. This time-consuming and exhausting process (waiting for one coat to dry before applying the next and sanding through the layers) ultimately gives each painting the appearance of a deeply textured surface. However, his finishing process — sanding, waxing, and buffing — makes for wonderful irony: The final pictures, chock full of the stuff of nature, are impossibly smooth to the touch and a gutsy departure from the rough, often chemically corroded edges of his earlier work.
“This is an evolution,” he says. “This work has a relation to the human condition. Everything you do in life counts; that’s what these paintings are about. Everything matters.”
Everything matters, too, in these biomorphic paintings. Van Earl hides items in each painting, only to rediscover them from a different perspective. “It’s like creating memories,” he says. “They’re sometimes hard to remember; but when we find them, we treasure them as they should be.”
The transition to these paintings manifested during an emotionally wrenching period during which Van Earl doubled as caretaker and medical champion for his wife, Jena, who was suffering from a debilitating condition. “I don’t know if I’d have been able to get here without Jena,” Van Earl says, emphasizing how she continued to push him creatively through this challenging period. “Life has to push you to a level to see a deeper truth — a simplicity, a resentment of the superficial, an attempt to reach some level of purity.”
We’re born with only our environment and free will and choice, he says, but we process decisions, however impulsive, through various filters. “No single aspect of life is so essentially important. Life is fragmented with different variables.”
The artist’s understanding of these variables leads him to resolutions that reflect calculated risks and sound choices. He leaves us with supercharged images — sometimes tranquil, sometimes violent — that seldom come easily.
Moreover, Van Earl’s resolution of discord feels natural. In his first group of single-panel Viscus paintings, the monikers are meaningful to artist and viewer: Wag of a Labrador’s Tail is genuinely playful; Fusion of Scarlet Rhythm has a flirtatious quality, a convergence of energy that could be a metaphor for sexual intercourse; and Echoes in the Mind has transfixing powers. As the series progressed, Van Earl often named paintings to refer to natural gestures, such as the chaotic perfection of a bird’s nest, a spinning tornado, or hypnotic raindrops.
He has searched his soul and emerged with fresh vision. The result comes in the form of paintings that could be his most powerful yet.
Delos Van Earl shows at Eleonore Austerer Gallery, 73-660 El Paseo, Palm Desert; 346-3695.