On The Arts of Don Van Vliet

Books Reviews Don Van Vliet
On The Arts of Don Van Vliet

How does one capture lightening in a bottle? That’s the conundrum at the core of this handsomely appointed art box set. After all, the subject is Don Van Vliet, who once exploded blues and rock idioms as rock surrealist Captain Beefheart. Then in the early 1980s, tired of the music business, Van Vliet abandoned his alter ego and retreated to the California desert to dedicate his time to painting and writing. Unsurprisingly, that work— well represented here—was equally uncompromising in its defiance of “the norm.”

While the package itself—with its cloth-bound slipcase—is pleasing, the collection’s overall approach is its greatest virtue. Attempting to capture the different facets of Van Vliet’s vision, the set gathers two books, a DVD, a CD and a signed lithograph. One book, Splinters, is something of a scrapbook, featuring old snapshots, clippings and poetry manuscripts. The CD offers lo-fi recordings of Van Vliet reading the poetry, and the DVD boasts Some YoYo Stuff, a short film by photographer Anton Corbijn. This material, focusing as it does on Van Vliet’s oddball persona, is charming, but not particularly revelatory for fans of Beefheart,

His paintings, on the other hand, are the most surprising aspect of the set. Like his music, Van Vliet’s visual work weaves threads of the familiar with the unsettling. Where a Captain Beefheart song might unhinge the 12-bar blues with fever-dream imagery, Van Vliet’s paintings blend naive folk elements with grotesqueries one might associate with Francis Bacon or Edvard Munch. Case in point is the painting from which the entire set takes its name: Beside a pale form in languid repose, a blood red figure advances on the viewer, mixing the sensual with the menacing. It’s an image that pulls you in with almost morbid curiosity. Elsewhere Van Vliet delights in juxtaposing words or colors outside familiar orientation. Sadly, only an 88-page book and the signed lithograph represent this portion of his work. While vividly reproduced, the modest dimensions of the book don’t serve the original scale of the canvases (with many measuring over four feet). Ultimately, the box is a compelling effort to truly represent an artist’s oeuvre, but it only hints at Van Vliet’s unmatched imagination.

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