Under the Moon Leaf with
A genuine and complex connection with nature is not something an artist can fake. At Johannes VanDerBeek’s 2017 Marinaro Gallery show, Shaking Hour, a potent organic energy permeated the space, as though the paintings were growing out of the wall, the sculptures rising up from beneath the ground. This same energy carried over to his Red Hook studio, where we found him working in what was essentially an indoor forest of his own creation. It made sense, then, to commission him to craft a special piece to accompany the release of the exclusive Tactical Collection from Canada Goose, a brand whose heart has lived deep within the outdoors for over sixty years. The piece, a large-scale sculpture entitled Under the Moon Leaf, will sit alongside the collection launch in our New York and Seattle stores. With the work in progress before us, we sat down with the artist and began to talk.
Can you tell us a bit about the piece you created for our stores? How did your knowledge of the space and its brands affect your usual creative process?
I definitely wanted to make something that would play off the space by picking up on the patterns of the clothes and the granite walls of the building. Some of that is reflected in the materials I used, like the marbleized concrete and metal mesh that I paint on like an industrial fabric. But this project felt like a chance to make an alternate landscape within the store, one comprised of a series of objects with their own meandering visual references and tones.
I was thinking that both Canada Goose and Totokaelo have a footing in how clothes affect the way we navigate the outside world, so I wanted to play with that idea of being immersed in a landscape that is shifting and nebulous. We all move through so many different cultural and physical territories on a daily basis, and clothes become a way to stand out or blend in with those surroundings. I’m hoping the piece reflects a bit of that blurring between the outside and inner worlds that we navigate.
Whether you’re placing little plaster walls behind individual pieces of your art or filling galleries with chain link fencing and silver backdrops, you seem inclined to split the spaces you’re showing into more intimate sections. What techniques did you use to help guide the viewer through your piece on view at Totokaelo?
It’s true — I try to shape how a person encounters an object if I can. I think how a sculpture gets perceived and absorbed depends a lot on factors like the way it’s positioned in a room, what you see behind it, or the atmosphere of the space around it. The piece for Totokaelo is kind of like a stage set that uses a layering of different materials and scales to allude to something more expansive. The figure in the installation is like an apparition the viewer is meant to look through. It’s fully transparent and feels like a hovering metal cloud that’s barely there.
I’m drawn to the paradox that making something nearly invisible makes you see it more. I tried to play around with subtle shifts in surface qualities, line, and contours to compel people to look closer. I’d like to take advantage of the fact they aren’t planning to see art in a clothing store, and maybe there’s a chance to catch them off guard. I imagined the moment of someone looking at a dress being suddenly transported into the headspace of giant abstract marbleized leaves and metallic ghosts. That brief rupture in their day was fun to think about.
When I’m looking at your work, I can’t seem to decide if you are one of the great interpreters of the natural world or if you are actually a sci-fi visionary. Your 2017 sculpture Slanted Stare is the perfect example of that duality for me, which has been represented in my mind as both dilapidated tree and invasive alien vessel. I can totally understand how you may very well want to be perceived as both, but do you have one of those titles that you feel fits more completely?
I’m happy there is even a slight potential for a sci-fi/wild-eyed botanist vibe in my work. I would be happy with a merging of those titles, but if I had to choose, I would say I gravitate towards the natural world for inspiration more than anything. I take so many formal cues from things like flowers, leaves, or the sun as symbols. I just find there is always some new layer of meaning to uncover in their structures and color combinations. But because they are so elementary and broadly accepted as beautiful, I’ve always tried to challenge myself to transform their characteristics so they become something that’s more of my own. If I’m depicting a flower, I want it to be anxious or full of angst, basically to give it an identity that complicates how it’s read. That instinct to merge symbols like masks and leaves is so they can be a part of a more rambling visual vocabulary in my work that is multifaceted and elusive. I feel that allows the viewers to bring their own associations to the piece.
Although you graduated from Cooper Union and have an artist father who studied at famous schools like Black Mountain College and taught at well-known universities himself, your art seems more akin to Art Brut or ‘Raw Art’ than any traditional style taught in institutions. Do you actively try to cultivate the feeling of visceral unpredictability in your paintings or is it just a natural byproduct of how you work or think?
I think it’s hard to cultivate unpredictability, but you can be open to the divergent ways an object can come into existence. The longer I make art, I feel a big part of the process is accepting how you make things and fully delving into what feels natural to how you think. I’m interested in how the hand is there to trace the contours of your ideas and act as the vehicle for the transition from immaterial instincts to a stable form. I’m realizing over time that my mind is usually moving in a few different directions at once and I have several contradicting ideas about how pieces should be finished.
That flickering and waving arc of thoughts is guiding my hand to make certain types of marks or forms, and they usually end up a little manic and idiosyncratic. It’s just within my personality to change course in the middle of making a piece. However, I’m also aware the whole time that it potentially lands my work in a fruitful place between abstraction and representation.
The thought processes of children are undoubtedly very different than those of an adult. As a father, have you found that being around these differing types of thought has transformed how you yourself think about or make art?
When I had my first daughter, Talula, I was really fascinated with the idea that she was responding to all these textures and surfaces without the medium of language to translate them. They were fully experiential phenomena to her. She was into clear things like glass bottles and I just kept wondering, how was a ginger ale bottle shaping her perception of space and light?
That opportunity to project my own visions through her set of eyes allowed me to look at materials in a more pared-down manner. It pulled me into trying to make work that felt like it was in that pre-language brain that was soaking up all the fundamental qualities of matter and bubbling them into a sequenced understanding of the world. I made a whole series of these flat resin panels with that in mind. I don’t think I ever captured what I was looking for, but I credit my daughter for giving me something to chase.
You work in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook, which has some of the very rare blocks in this city where nature is still having its way with the concrete and chain link fences around it. Do you feel these particular surroundings play a role in how you work?
Red Hook feels practically remote compared to other parts of Brooklyn. There aren’t a lot of people walking around over here, so you can get a feeling of quietness and stillness. I’ve grown to appreciate how that provides a little extra head space in a crowded city.
Plus, since there aren’t a lot people to get distracted by, I pay more attention to all the faded marks on the sidewalks or the different textures of the sun-bleached building facades. I’m sure that finds its way into my work in a more subliminal manner.
Actually, I was on a walk when I was thinking about this piece for Totokaelo and Canada Goose and realized it would be nice if the concrete shapes looked like they were either cut out of the sidewalk or the surface of the moon. That melding between an urban surface and nature probably stems from the unique romanticism of our isolated corner over here.
What other projects do you have coming up?
I want to start working towards my next show in New York with my gallery, Marinaro. They just opened a great new space on the Lower East Side that has a ground floor space but also two different basements that go deep in the underbelly of the city. It’s one of the older areas of Manhattan, and the space has these beautiful stone walls. I’m excited to make a weird installation that plays off their medieval undertones — some kind of installation with a group of phantom totemic sculptures and crusty models of fictitious architecture that gives the whole space the feeling of a spiritual epicenter.
Tactical Collection Lookbook
Canada Goose Tactical Collection, previously only available to those in Canadian law enforcement, makes its worldwide commercial debut exclusively at Totokaelo. The line focuses on high-utility performance outerwear equally suited to protect from demanding conditions in both urban and remote environments.
The capsule collection of four iconic heritage pieces is complemented by a curated selection of Canada Goose Black Label coats and accessories.
Canada Goose is one of the world’s leading makers of performance luxury apparel, with a history stretching back over sixty years. Informed by the rugged demands of the Arctic, the brand honors its heritage through continuous technical innovation and centralized production at home in Canada.