Jeroen Witvliet, The Path (Wayfarer series), 2015
Jeroen Witvliet, The Path (Wayfarer series), 2015, oil on canvas, 98” x 75”
Jeroen Witvliet, Wayfarer, Kelowna Art Gallery, July 25, 2015 to Oct. 18, 2015
By Barbara Tyner
Jeroen Witvliet’s newest paintings at the Kelowna Art Gallery present impenetrable, unknowable scenes of seeming post-calamity. We sense aftermath, knowing this stillness follows a maelstrom that just happened. This is Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, unpeopled, but still devastating in shattered effigy.
Maybe. Witvliet’s clues – mute images of owls, toads, antlers and dogs, awkwardly applied and culturally shrouded in either Early Netherlandish painting or contemporary hipster symbolism (or both) – lead us nowhere. The artist works in a codified visual language only known to him. Despite this one-sidedness, there’s a delicious gothic tension, inviting and forbidding, and a compelling drama that needs no translation. Atmosphere and aesthetics dominate. Swept up by velvety darks, impossible colour and the hum of hushed but seething visual activity, we ignore cabalistic imagery, project our own psychology and wonder about the anonymous observer and transcriber of such things, the exhibition’s namesake: the wayfarer.
Jeroen Witvliet, Dancing Skeleton (Wayfarer series), 2015
Jeroen Witvliet, Toad (Wayfarer series), 2015
Jeroen Witvliet, Antlers (Wayfarer series), 2014
Dutch-born Witvliet’s use of Netherlandish tradition tropes – a nocturnal palette, vanitas nods, tenebristic tension and coded meanings – is natural. Now based in Victoria, he is heir to an art history – from Campin to Bruegel, Ruysch to Rembrandt – steeped in such things. He says his inspiration is Hieronymus Bosch’s The Wayfarer, circa 1500. Aha! Our clue. The wayfarer archetype trails centuries of interpretations, biblical and secular. He is a wanderer, passing through impassively, without comment or effect, a proxy for the artist, whose work comments on events, but impassively as well, in oblique and coded ways.
Witvliet’s Wayfarer series is the crowded exhibition’s most developed, interesting work, and signals new directions for the artist, with shifts in pictorial space (confined and tilted), and a delightfully tangled, all-over surface. And surprise! Colour appears, audacious aqua and orange, a welcome jarring burst of unnatural warmth in a career-long grey-scale repertoire.
These are big paintings we can’t ignore. Even if we don’t know the symbology, we can delight in combing the pictorial debris. Witvliet paints us calamity’s leftovers, the broken bones of buildings, ships and stories. Woodpiles, angular and pokey, say danger, keep out. We find accidental still lifes, vanitas references in the lacy archeology of layered sticks, boards and metaphorical bones: a tiny submarine half-sunk in a bowl of glimmering water, or a sketchy skeleton on a staircase leading nowhere. Each piece is dramatically staged, lit with rendered studio spotlight images (not candles), wryly riffing on vanitas notions of illumination. But illumination, ironically, is what Witvliet doesn’t supply. Unlike Bosch, whose meanings were clear to his contemporaries, Witvliet merely hints, leaving us to wander, wayfarers ourselves.