Tim Vermeulen

at Wood Street Gallery, through June 15

By Fred Camper

One can almost sense the excitement with which Northern Renaissance masters from Van Eyck to Fouquet to Dürer were discovering two new tools, oil paint and perspective. Their extreme precision of line coupled with an almost preternatural luminosity resulted in jewellike paintings that were also testimonies to Christian faith. These images’ intense, almost trompe l’oeil realism seemed to celebrate the very existence of the physical world, and man’s mastery over it through representation.

Unfortunately I haven’t yet found a 20th-century painter equal to Van Eyck or his successors in sheer technique. This is no accident. The facility of even minor masters followed years of apprenticeship starting in childhood, and what kid today of 10 or 11 would submit, even if parents consented, to round-the-clock service to a master? And what “master” could provide such training? Nonetheless a few painters continue to try to work in the tradition of the Northern Renaissance; among them are Eteri Chkadua, now showing at Maya Polsky Gallery, and Riva Lehrer, at Lyons-Wier + Ginsberg. And Tim Vermeulen is showing 31 pictures at Wood Street–12 oils, 18 gouaches, and a drawing–that are perhaps more cartoonish than Chkadua’s work but whose complex, almost surreal subject matter gives them a peculiar strength.

Vermeulen, a 36-year-old Chicagoan who teaches at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, traces his interest in art to his senior year in high school. A jock, he realized when he was cut from the basketball team “that that was just a dead end. I threw all my energy into art. This also coincided with a time in my life where I was starting to question a lot of things”–including his Calvinist upbringing. Church was twice every Sunday (“If you missed it, you felt you had done something wrong”), drinking was “questionable,” dancing “pretty much prohibited.” But his training was hardly geared to learning to paint like Van Eyck. His high school art teacher was an abstract painter, and the art department at Calvin College also stressed abstraction. “They really didn’t put much emphasis on any kind of traditional skills. I never was taught how to draw the figure. I still don’t know much about perspective.” When Vermeulen became interested in early Flemish oil painting, before he went to grad school, he had to learn what he could on his own, through trips to Europe and years of practice.

The results, not surprisingly, lack the subtle color and carved precision of Van Eyck. Vermeulen’s pictures are a bit rough edged, the perspectives are often contradictory, and the figures hardly exemplify Renaissance ideals. Vermeulen accepts this: “I didn’t want to have an academic look to my paintings–they’re kind of quirky. There can be little areas that are highly realistic to me, and others that are disjointed.” In fact these lacks and contradictions serve Vermeulen’s ends well, for his theme is not the triumph of faith but uncertainties, torments, and doubts–some particular to the artist, many common to our culture.

Vermeulen has learned enough to make pictures that are confidently composed, and whose sensual yet crisp lines and colors–even in the gouaches–create a bit of the “look at this” precision of Renaissance paintings. But he puts these techniques at the service of unusual subjects. In Inquiry (all works cited are gouache unless otherwise noted), a nude man (as in many other pictures, a self-portrait) has cut open his belly and is examining his intestines, while on a table in front of him a book displays medical drawings of the digestive system. Attracted to the precise delineations of skin, table, and floorboards, the viewer also sees perhaps more guts than he had wished to. Vermeulen thus plays on the natural pleasure of looking, while the anatomy book reminds us that what we’re seeing is less “gory” than it is the simple truth of what lies under our skin. We realize that the man’s act of opening himself is an inquiry not unrelated to the way earlier painters used cadavers to learn to render the figure.

One cannot call Inquiry merely a metaphor for curiosity, however: scissors and thread lying next to the book suggest that this is a literal representation, and that the man will soon have to try to sew himself back up. One of Vermeulen’s strongest and most movingly expressed themes is failure–his own failure, as an artist and as the subject in some work, to make himself and the world whole again. In Building a House, a man has just broken a hammer while building a birdhouse–presumably to help birds through the snowy winter that can be seen through the window behind him. The vividly painted broken wood of the handle and the complex expression on the man’s face give this ordinary incident a mysterious metaphysical dimension: the broken hammer becomes a failure to protect.

One source of Vermeulen’s art is his family history. He recalls that his father was the head of the household and that he regarded his mother as “sort of less of a person. A lot of things were governed by what was biblical, what was specified in the Bible.” Vermeulen hated their frequent moves due to his father’s religious work, but “that was one of the things that was presented as God’s will.” Vermeulen’s father had been brutally beaten well into his adolescence by Vermeulen’s grandfather; this inspired Father & Son, in which a shirtless man is descending the stairs to a basement, sledgehammer on his shoulder, while a boy cowers downstairs with his back to him. The green, oddly textured walls give the basement a claustrophobic vividness.

In his best work Vermeulen unifies the composition by making one area resemble another visually. The result is that the human dramas he depicts seem less momentary incidents than examples of the general condition. The Critic feels intensely self-enclosed, heightening its accusatory quality. An older man, inspired by Vermeulen’s father, holding a Bible under one arm is pointing a finger toward a younger man (Vermeulen again) who’s ministering to a child lying on a table. One’s eye follows the father’s finger–perhaps suggesting that the boy’s injury is the result of sin–to Vermeulen and the boy, setting up a tension between the three that is not mitigated by the woman looking out a window, her back to us. Paradoxically, the two windows further enclose the space. One shade is pulled down almost all the way, and the mostly white landscape and clouds visible through the other echo the large white table on which the boy lies. Though a window traditionally opens up a room, here black birds against the barren sky bring the view forward, heightening the image’s claustrophobic feel.

By establishing formal visual links between objects that have no logical connection, such as the window and the table in The Critic, Vermeulen sets up a contradiction that’s at the crux of his art. Characters divided against each other, or a character divided against himself, suggest conflict and fragmentation; yet the composition connects birds, trees, or the walls of a room with the characters, suggesting–one might even say depicting–a world whose links transcend logic.

This contradiction is most explicit in the oil painting Two Selves. A nude Vermeulen, standing in profile in the center of a road, faces a clothed Vermeulen in the doorway of a house. Here, as in the other paintings, multiple thin layers–which Renaissance artists also used–give each area of color a rich resonance. The red of the house, the greens of the grass and trees, the black of the pavement sing out; they also have an odd depth, almost as if they could be entered. Just as the artist’s self is divided, the image is divided into areas of color, and Vermeulen’s clothed self is divided even further: he holds a somewhat happy mask in front of a somewhat angry face.

The two figures are also strangely separated by one of the details that are so often crucial to Vermeulen’s art: set into the gate in front of the house is a plate with a keyhole, lying directly on an imaginary line connecting the two men’s crotches. Given that the nude man looks calm, one suspects Vermeulen is depicting his fulfilled erotic self as cut off from his housed-and-suited civilized self. At the same time, curved tree trunks behind the nude Vermeulen echo the arch of his back, the shape of a tornado on the horizon, and the curved archway of the house. These curves unify the image, suggesting hidden connections between humans and plants, the animate and the inanimate.

Vermeulen gives decidedly quirky contemporary interpretations to traditional subjects in two series that make up half the show. In “The Ten Plagues” he makes Old Testament scourges modern events that could happen to anyone. Sixth Plague: The Boils depicts lesions on the back of a man’s neck, visible in a mirror he holds behind him so that the image of the boils is seen alongside his face: a kind of double for it. This mirror view–partly blocking the starry night seen through a window behind–also makes the image more closed, as in The Critic, and the stars echo not only the boils but the dots on the bedspread. In Seventh Plague: The Hail a man is slumped at a steering wheel, his car windows shattered by a hail of bullets; through these windows is a cityscape whose reddish brick colors and somewhat distorted perspective thrusts it forward, almost bringing it inside the car.

The many images of disease may reflect Vermeulen’s own undiagnosed illness. A few years ago he “just started to feel crummy,” he says. “I was tired all the time, my digestion was just awful. I had dizziness, exhaustion, aches, and it would not go away.” Doctors “seemed to make things worse.” A Jungian therapist he consulted suggested paying attention to his dreams, which have become a source of recent work. Illness and death were also an integral part of his early life. Before Vermeulen’s father took up religious work, he was a funeral director. “Part of the time we lived on the second floor of a funeral home,” says Vermeulen. “On the first floor they did all the funerals, down in the basement was the morgue. My dad made no attempt to hide any of that from us. The first naked people I ever saw, around age five, were 60-year-old corpses.” His father also regaled the family with “gruesome tales,” once showing them slides of his reconstruction of a face that had been crushed in a fall.

These factors combine with Vermeulen’s curious linking of animate and inanimate in the series “The Five Senses,” where the theme of failure takes form as an inability to connect sensually with the world. Touch is depicted as mouth-to-mouth resuscitation following a car crash–but can the unconscious person even feel it? In Hearing Vermeulen covers his ears while a woman is shot out of a cannon: a sound so loud it requires blotting out. The figure in Smell sniffs the stem of a flower, while a flower guide lying open on the ground is apparently needed to tell him how to identify each plant and which ones to smell.

All five of these pictures go beyond the personal, suggesting that cultural factors make it hard to experience pure sensation. The richest of the five is Sight, in which Vermeulen, his back to us, holds red curtains open in front of a window, giving the view outside a theatrical quality–suggesting the way modern media make every scene more an object on display than a piece of real life. What we see out the window is a road receding into the distance with city buildings on the right and a rural landscape on the left, the rectilinear buildings contrasting with the organic shapes of the trees. Here again a tiny detail–an electrical outlet on the wall below the city side–gives the image much of its meaning, heightening the nature/culture contrast by extending it ever so slightly into the room. The road reaches the horizon at a point just behind the man’s head, making the conflict seem internal as well, inside his brain. We understand that the strangeness in Vermeulen’s images comes not only from a strict father, childhood views of cadavers, and his current mysterious disease but from contradictions at the heart of our civilization.