Last Friday night’s opening was packed, with visitors circulating around the gallery and looking at the work on display. Some were flirting, some were arguing, many were snacking on the Country Style Doughnuts that gallery owner Kirsten Gray had on hand, and everyone was looking at the wonders and surprises on display. The show’s title is apt: leaning in close, it was easy to pick up the smell of oil from some of the canvases, they’re so recent.
Van Auken returns to landscapes and the human figure again and again throughout the show, each executed with unstinting fidelity to the subject. This year I’ve been fortunate enough to take classes taught by the artist at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond, and I’ve heard him say multiple times that “observation is your best tool.” That’s clearly based on his own experience, as the shapes and colors on display here ring absolutely true, and most of them are—independent of seeing them in reality—nothing that the untrained observer would think to combine to make into a tree, or a rock, or an arm. Seeing these pieces come together in one painting, you realize that you are seeing an unerringly convincing depiction of someone else’s viewpoint.
The naked figures of Interior with Two Women are engaged with their instruments, reclining on and against a couch. The colors of the room and the fabrics around them are picked up by their skin, all of it optically mixing into a balanced, bright center of interest. The spare feel of the room lends their bodies more importance, and the way the colors from the surroundings interact with their own skin makes them into something more than subjects. They’re a focus for the room, both visually and as a means to understanding the picture.
Many kinds of shadow and darkness are on display in this show, not unlike some of his work from last year’s show, but here Van Auken has gone deeper, with increased variations in texture and shade. Tree (Varina) captures the particular kind of blue-black that you only see at night, cool like moonlight. Grocery Store is a thick mass of shadows and planes depicting a garbage can behind a grocery store at night, with patches of color here and there where night lights shine. This is an excellent picture to look at from several angles, to get the full depth of the impasto, and the contours he’s captured—all of it in a place where few of us ever pause, let alone stop and really look.
One of the most striking pieces in the show is Studio with Figures, which is an outstanding entry into the catalog of paintings of portraits of artists’ studios. Having stared at this large painting for some ten minutes with my own eyes, I can honestly say that I’d drive a long way to see work of this quality. The brushstrokes are confident, and all the interesting accumulations of a studio are there, but it’s the color that makes this painting shine. No living, breathing humans occupy the scene, but the skeletal torso and the pool of light around it are painted in warm hues that you simply have to see in person. The reproduction above is good, but I don’t know that any reproduction could do this painting justice. Ascribing motivations to artists is a chancy business, but I take the division of colors in this painting as a quiet comment on the enduring importance of the human form, and on the inherent possibilities of figurative art. Standing there looking at it, people chattering and eddying around the gallery, will surely have been one of the highlights of my 2012.
The pieces discussed above are truly just a few snapshots from a show with range and interest on every wall, from the succinct charm of Ghost Trees to the light and air of Manchester Bridge. “Thomas Van Auken: Recent Work” ends May 11th, so you have time to make your way over to Eric Schindler Gallery and take a look. 2305 East Broad Street, Richmond, VA 23223. Call 644-5005 or visit www.ericschindlergallery.com for gallery hours.