Missing / Highway of Tears

 

The highway refers to a short stretch of Highway 16 between Prince Rupert and Prince George, where 18 girls, almost all Aboriginal,  were murdered.  On the piece of highway from Vancouver  to Edmonton RCMP records show that over 200 people have disappeared on this route. 

The Highway of Tears is an installation of individual portraits alternating with flower paintings, and was inspired by two poems of the Pulitzer Prize winning American poet Mary Oliver, entitled “Goldenrod” and “Peonies”.  These nature poems form a potent metaphor for the young lives lost.

The estimated 120 women who have disappeared and/or been murdered, from a two city block radius within Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside is beyond comprehension. That these women were involved in the sex trade (part of society’s most disenfranchised) and a disproportionate number of them Aboriginal, is an indictment to all of us – it happened under our watch, with very little public outcry. Although we are no Willie Pickton, as Canadians we find ourselves in the court of public opinion for our inaction.

As tragic as the deaths of these women are, united in their circumstances, their legacy is a powerful and collective voice and this is the intended empowerment I bring to the paintings in the Missing Series.

Venter states, “I hope my paintings achieve some type of memorial, awareness and resolution in converting the subject into life affirming art.”

Domus

Mythos/Logos Series

Oil on linen

48” x 36”

Moving toward a vision that will endure long after the political event which engendered it, Venter’s art is a mode of history painting, without that tradition’s aim to either glorify or condemn.  The aim of Venter’s work is to encourage reassessment, to forcefully pose troubling questions at a time when easy answers and entrenched partisan positions are the norm.

Paradoxically, he is a hopeful artist, his hopefulness residing not in the images of loss and destruction he presents but in his belief in the power of art to transmute them into living myth.  There are no ‘right’ answers, and that is precisely the reason to keep asking the right questions.

Dr. Eva Seidner

Deon Venter’s acute empathy for the disenfranchised in society may stem from his South African background. His paintings continue to challenge historical and socio-political beliefs, but do so through the language of art.

While the subject matter is controversial, the intention and resolution these works achieve brings recognition and respect for the lives of the women from Vancouver Eastside and the victims of the Highway of Tears.

 

John K. Grande

Denial, not repression.  Everything in a Venter painting is available.  You just have to work at it, grapple with it.  In the end, it’s really a question of How Can Anything Be Said?  Tragedy will out, grief will be expended and cauterized.  But how?

Venter’s convulsiveness is one way, a powerful, ancient route, finally, to revelation and peace.  What, in sum, are Deon Venter’s paintings?  I’m going to plunder poet Frank O’Hara for the phrase – a phrase which, used anywhere close to Venter’s paintings, gains new resonance.  Venter’s paintings are Meditations in an Emergency.

 

Gary Michael Dault

Farm #2

Missing Series

Oil on linen

82” x 100”

Indeed, what “Farm” shows is the full-blown destruction of the Pastoral myth.  From earliest times a retreat to rural simplicity offered relief from the corruptions and complications of the city, and an opportunity to restore balance through physical and spiritual renewal.  The original myth embedded in this impulse to move from city to country is, of course, paradisal:  the dream of regaining the Garden of Eden, Venter’s “Farm”, is an ironic, dystopian projection of the Pastoral, its bloodstained landscape choked with nameless garbage and its gruesome secrets only partially unearthed.  Nor can we ever know what is ‘buried’ beneath the overlaid arrangement of vertical tabs.

 

Dr. Eva Seidner

Venter’s art, an art of grieving-at-large, is made from a swashbuckling, pro-active grieving which is not at all elegiac.  “Whatever you have to say”’ wrote poet Charles Olson, “leave the roots on, let them / dangle / Just to make clear / Where they come from” [These Days].  There is no wan, sentimental, ubi sunt? questioning in Venter’s work:  how can this monstrous thing have accessed the human adventure?  Rather, there is a stern, essentially tragic grappling with what is, with what has been, with the meaning of meaning.

 

Gary Michael Dault

Missing #3

Missing Series

Oil on linen

80” x 136”

The seemingly turgid stew of chemical flux at the artist’s command provides a means of capturing a mighty, ponderous slowness in his imagery:  it allows his subjects to reveal themselves as the result of a sort of titanic, two-way struggle between the viewer’s overwhelmed visuality and the painting’s protean, quicksand surfaces and depths.  Often, he overlays the vistas of his paintings with a rhythmically applied grid of palpable, physically-attached interferences.  His paintings, from the viewer’s point of view, then lie beneath a system of stoppages, hesitations, prohibitions, visual rebuffs.  All of Venter’s paintings – which are not pretty, but which are beautiful – trade on this miasmic struggle between our yearning to know, this desire for privileged understanding, and a certain swaggering, macho sense of denial.

 

Gary Michael Dault

Video:  Deon Venter discusses the influence of Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper" on the structure of his painting "Missing #3". 

Venter’s paintings capture something of the tactile world, the textural visceral, but they juxtapose this with lines that act as grids, a way of distancing us from the subject, and that builds a tension into the composition by establishing a diachronic dimensionality. The presentation as painting thus has two levels of reading….. The visuality of the painterly subject and the cage-like screens that become a standard, a constant that accompanies the painting… Structure and image.

 

John K. Grande

Flower Memorial

Missing Series

Oil on linen

80” x 136”

And we read these as paintings that are experiences in and of themselves. Structure and image exist in tandem, and are deconstructed visually as well. Structures operate as a framing device, a monitor for reading the visual subject. Structure is the compass. We sense this act of obstruction, of removal, through presentation. This act of presentation and of synchronous removal is endemic to Deon Venter’s new painting. The structures are individuated and the people isolated, isolated through a collective and repetitive grouping. There is a strange disjunctive effect, a tension that draws us in, only to expel us – as with Francis Bacon’s Popes who sit in a non-space, and are contained in diaphanous cubes. The cube is a vestigial icon, and the surface scraping and removal of structure in and of itself that acts as an experiential marking or record of these vanished women. The same can be seen in Venter’s Flower paintings, which read less as flowers, or offerings from a tragedy, than as a simulated rendition of the co-existence of chaos, and order.

 

John K. Grande 

Part of the agon of Venter’s paintings lies in their proscriptive distancing, physically speaking, from the events they memorialize.  In this sense, the paintings are compassionate.  Mankind cannot bear too much reality.  This distancing is the product of an almost operatic studio procedure in which the artist’s dribbling and heaving and splashing of the pigment not only serves, as the artist notes [in an email to the writer] a means of energizing the painting, of allowing the paint to take on “the qualities of patina rather than paint – as in ritual objects”, but also as a way of substituting materiality for time:  events get stuck in history and grow muffled and distorted by cogitation – just as Venter’s images flail and groan through the prodigious engulfment within the artist’s encounter with them.

 

Gary Michael Dault

Courtroom #3

Missing Series

Oil on linen

73” x 39”

The Courtroom paintings from the Missing series are equally and potentially benign. Again there is an emphasis on structure, for the design of the seating, panelings. Lighting and desks are defensive, and hieratic. What seems quite innocent is absent of any potentially human characteristic. It is this inhumane atmosphere and the dramatic violent colours of the carpet, as well as the architectonic structures that we can interpret to be a dialogue on the diachronic way courtrooms and the legal system function. Who does the system actually serve? The answer, like the lives of these women victims, rests perpetually in a suspended animation. Another Courtroom image has white grid lines that block out most of the actual scene. Like bars in a prison, the grid lines obstruct our depth of vision and the details that might be visually pertinent. What we cannot see becomes as relevant as what we can see. Though we build the scene in our mind’s eye from the visual evidence being presented. It is the duality of visible and invisible elements that builds a tension. The double entendre of structure/obstruction, and subject/reduction causes us to ask questions. First we question the nature of the painterly process and what realism and representation, really mean in a broader interpretive context. What is being represented becomes a device to express less tangible truths, and on a more universal level – the very nature of truth.

 

John K. Grande

Farm #3

Missing Series

Oil on linen

73” x 39”

I have never thought of Robert Pickton’s farm as grist for the artist’s mill.

Perhaps it is time to think again.

South African-born artist Deon Venter, who now lives on Salt Spring Island, has turned the grisliest of settings into a panorama on canvas.  As the artist himself says, he likes to spin gold out of straw.

But Venter does not believe in leaving it up to journalists to chronicle the cataclysms of our day.  Headlines are ephemeral.  Paintings endure forever.  They invite reflection in a way that daily newspaper articles often do not.

The story of women vanishing from mean city streets without a trace was starting to surface around the time that Venter emigrated to Canada in 1989.

His paintings are not judgmental or lugubrious.  They simply make you think.

 

Yvonne Zacharias

When we read an overview such as the painting of the Willie Picton pig farm, we are distanced from the event, and the tragedy is built upon this topography being presented to us. This suggests a narrative tragedy, but one that cannot be changed, touched, sequenced, like visual pornography, it relies on what is not real. This duality of presentational visualization – its very ambiguity – is what established a value in the media-based image. The continuity of experience is ripped apart. Consecutive thought and action are ripped apart but strictly codified. In the process our ability to act with a conscience, to see a continuity of cause and effect, is largely erased, and the images are partially erased in Venter’s paintings, but act on the surface, present these ambiguities. The ambiguity as expressed in the Picton murder trial generates a fear, and unconscious association(s) is developed by the surface presentation and subsequent reading of event.

Its defacement of direct experience is actually part of the sickness. The distortion is ultimate in that it involves recognition of the dualities of attraction and repulsion.

 

John K. Grande

Pyramid #2 / Missing #9

Missing Series

Oil on linen

108” x 170”

There is a stern nobility about Deon Venter’s paintings, the origin of which may well lie in the epic grieving that informs them.  It’s as if each of these big tortured pictures – pictures that are distressed both literally and metaphorically – can be said to bear witness to a specific node or crises event in recent world history, some extreme fallout from the human condition that qualifies his art as both political and, in the long run, historical, albeit in a very special sense:  Venter’s paintings do not, for example, document.  Rather, they memorialize, contextualize, and, in the end, provide something like benediction;  a palm of understanding proffered at the end of the mind’s bitter journeying through experience.

His paintings, which are almost of necessity big, raw, brawny, caustic and convulsive – all qualities which lie somewhere quite beyond their being merely “expressive” or “expressionistic” – are quite clearly dedicated to the galvanizing of understanding, and perhaps to some subsequent transformative and cathartic effect generated, in the viewer, by upon the dark scale of the events which are his subject.

 

Gary Michael Dault

“These paintings are soulful in their expressive and very painterly transfer and reframing of a tragedy from one idiom into another.

What we cannot see becomes as relevant as what we can see. Though we build the scene in our mind’s eye from the visual evidence being presented, it is the duality of visible and invisible elements that builds a tension. The double entendre of structure/obstruction, and subject/reduction causes us to ask questions. We question the nature of the painterly process and what realism and representation really mean in a broader interpretive context. What is being represented becomes a device to express less tangible truths, and on a more universal level – the very nature of truth.

The act of erasure, the defacement of direct experience – the distortion – involves recognition of the dualities of attractions and repulsion. Venter presents the implicit violence through painterly effects analogous to that unlikely spiritual icon in the history of art, Rembrandt’s Carcass of Beef: Flayed Ox (1655).

While the subject matter is controversial, the intention and resolution these works achieve brings recognition and respect for the lives of the women from Vancouver Eastside and the victims who perished in the Air India disaster.”

 

John K. Grande

Missing #5

Missing Series

Oil on linen

73” x 65”

The movement of all cataclysm is centrifugal, energy through memory and meditation [events recollected in tranquility, all passion spent] may doggedly set one’s footsteps moving back again into history.

This is the space in which Venter’s paintings seem to come into being:  in the highly-charged gap between a wrenching, disorienting, destabilizing historical event, and the formation of the artist’s epic essay in painterly inquiry into what has befallen us.

 

Gary Michael Dault

Courtroom #2

Missing Series

Oil on linen

73” x 65”

The Courtroom paintings put the emphasis on structure, as we see the geometric design of the courtroom seats. The glaring lighting further depersonalizes the scene. There are no people. It all seems to be about emptiness. Where is the human scale? In Courtroom, No. 1, the dramatic, violent color of the carpet and obstructive architecture become a comment on the way courtrooms and the legal system function. Another Courtroom image has white grid lines that all but obscure the actual scene, and obstruct any depth; a metaphor for what the legal system is doing to those who do not have the resources to defend themselves? The visual double entendre Venter builds with the courtroom structure, and the way it acts as a very physical and inflexible obstruction, is also a metaphor for the very nature of truth in society represented by a courtroom scene.

Is truth visual, evidential, or does it exceed these surface concerns? How do we determine the root cause of such injustices? Isolated into visual bits and bytes of information, our social matrices are virtually non-existent or, at best, virtual just as this “historic or post-historic event is. What is really real when it comes to public perception in the media, and likewise to visual or aesthetic perception?” As Roland Barthes stated regarding photography, the image is a temporal record that captures event and takes it to the level of hallucination, “a false level of perception, true on the level of time, a temporal hallucination”. And this is where the tension exists in Deon Venter’s paintings, for they describe a system – both informational and socio-cultural – for the hallucination works both ways, as an embodiment of the creative process, and likewise as an expression of the pathological compulsive, for whom hallucination, dehallucination and subsequent denial of that hallucination, result in a memory that is distressed, caught in a moment of time, even frozen there. Venter alludes to this as process and with the visuals, the way he presents them, in the Missing series. An absence as much as a presence of information guides the media drift in our society. We are all implicated in these processes. The thin white painterly lines we see in Deon Venter’s paintings are symbolic barriers to any potential or deeper reading of the scene(s) being presented. Thus, they deepen the message by blocking it, and, like cartoons, cause paintings to be read partially in grids, sections, or captions like Japanese block prints once did. Venter places the events, personages into very tangible sequences that have a logic all their own. The inference is that by inducing fear, we limit the nature and context of what freedom potentially could be.

 

John K. Grande

Courtroom #4

Missing Series

Oil on linen

73" x 87"

The Courtroom paintings from the Missing series are equally and potentially benign.  Again there is an emphasis on structure, for the design of the seating, panelings. Lighting and desks are defensive, and hieratic.  What seems quite innocent is absent of any potentially human characteristic.  It is this inhumane atmosphere and the dramatic violent colors of the carpet, as well as the architectonic structures that we can interpret to be a dialogue on the diachronic way courtrooms and the legal system function.

Who does the system actually serve? They answer, like the lives of these women victims, rests perpetually in a suspended animation.  Another Courtroom image has white grid lines that block out most of the actual scene. Like bars in a prison, the grid lines obstruct our depth of vision and the details that might be visually pertinent. What we cannot see becomes as relevant as what we can see. Though we build the scene in our mind's eye from the visual evidence being presented. It is the duality of obstruction, and subject/reduction causes us to ask questions. First we questions the broader interpretive context.What is being represented becomes a device to express less tangible truths, and on a more universal level - the very nature of truth.

John K. Grande

Goldenrod/Peonies

Highway of Tears

Oil on linen

24 paintings of 20" x 20"

16 paintings on exhibit

"These paintings are soulful in their expressive and very painterly transfer and reframing of a tragedy from one idiom to another.

What we cannot see becomes as relevant as what we can see.  Though we build the scene in our mind's eye from the visual evidence being presented, it is the duality of visible and invisible elements that builds a tension.  The double entendre of structure / obstruction, and subject/reduction causes us to ask questions. We question the nature of the painterly process and what realism and representation really mean in a broader interpretive context.  What is being represented becomes a device to express less tangible truths, and on a more universal level - the very nature of truth.

John K. Grande

Tapings

Missing / Highway of Tears

72 paintings of 12" x 48"

16 metal prints from the original on exhibit

Venter’s paintings describe a system – partially erased and obscured in these paintings. Venter presents the implicit violence through painterly effects analogous to that unlikely spiritual icon in the history of art, Rembrandt’s Carcass of Beef: Flayed Ox (1655). A hanging beef carcass eviscerated and with rib bones exposed at the chest, is so visceral and immediate in its realization that the subject becomes the paint itself.

 

Tapings No. 3 (2008), with its vertical bands, narrow and then broader in the centre, seems to be about erasure, neglect, censure, and the invasion of freedom and privacy in society, all this done through the language of abstraction.

72 in all the Tapings paintings are derived after removal from the  Missing and Highway of Tears paintings taped areas then imbedded into gesso on canvas, becoming abstract paintings while still retaining bits of the imagery from the mother paintings.  (On show at SJIMA are metal prints taken from the originals)

 

As Venter comments, “This disappearance of women of the sex trade is by no means confined to Vancouver. It is happening worldwide. As a painter my goal is not to memorialize, but in documenting these tragedies, to attain beautiful paintings that will, in their very execution, bring some resolution, both emotionally and intellectually.”

 

John K. Grande

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