Fast and bulbous

Don Van Vliet, ‘Luxury Rack’, via

A new year and new sights needed. On a beautiful cold day I went to two commercial galleries London to see two small shows that I thought might reveal a connection.

Firstly to the Michael Werner Gallery in Upper Brook Street to see Don Van Vliet, ‘One Hand Standing’. The artist’s name is one that means nothing to most, little to followers of art, and everything to the dedicated few followers of Captain Beefheart, the bewildering genius of modern music. Born in 1941 as Don Glen Vliet, with an avant garde mind that first found an outlet in sculpture, he turned to rock music leavened with a heavy dose of blues and experimental jazz, overlain with progressively surreal lyrics. Adopting the name Captain Beefheart, accompanied by the brilliant but beleaguered Magic Band, he reached his apotheosis with the 1969 album Trout Mask Replica. How do describe it? Imagine Howling Wolf, Ornette Coleman and some madman muttering to himself who you have just crossed the road to avoid, mashed together in a tumble dryer. It is fearsome, liberating stuff.

He tried for a more conventional sound thereafter, which didn’t suit him, made some fine late albums in a moderately radical style, then quit music for painting in 1982. It seemed a peculiar form of retirement at the time, the man retreating into the California desert to produce daubs because they would sell better than his records. Seeing his paintings only occasionally on websites I never felt particularly drawn to them, but coming face to face with them in the incongruous setting of a gallery in a Mayfair grand house my eyes were opened. Here was a real painter.

Don Van Vliet, ‘Ibex’, © The Estate of the Artist. Michael Werner Gallery, via The Guardian

It is impactful art. The works’ true scale brings out the colour, the shaping, the command of the canvas, the enticing quality of the thick brushstrokes, the sheer excitement of an artistic mind thinking freely. Looking for parallels or the influence of other artists seems a pointless exercise. ‘Ibex’, an immediate favourite, might suggest a floating Chagall figure to the left and Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi to the right, while other works might be loosely linked with Abstract Impressionism, but the clearer sense is of one man’s dreamworld realised on the canvas precisely as he experienced it.

Nor do correlations with the music help that much. For sure, ‘Crow Dance a Panther’, on one the paintings on show, is a line from Beefheart’s ‘Ice Cream for Crow’, and ‘China Pig’ is a the name of a track on Trout Mask Replica. Van Vliet (who died in 2010) still had his back catalogue in mind, but the linking point is, to my mind, not so much the music as the words. Beefheart/Van Vliet was fundamentally a wordsmith, who tried to manage the strange language in his head by turning it first into music, then painting. In the gallery guest book I wrote the words of praise ‘Fast and bulbous’. I’ve no idea what it means, at least as Beefheart understood it to mean, but he was entranced by the words. The phrase is repeated several times in Trout Mask Replica, notably before the song ‘Pena’, in a surreal exchange between Beefheart and his cousin Victor ‘The Mascara Snake’ Hayden:

Fast and bulbous!
That’s right, The Mascara Snake, fast and bulbous!
Also, a tin teardrop!
Bulbous also tapered?
That’s right

What more is there to say? ‘Red Cloud Monkey’, ‘Ant Man Bee’, ‘Aunt Cigar’s Baby’, ‘The Dust Blows Forward ‘n the Dust Blows Back’, ‘Dream Sloth’, ‘Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish’. It is the words that have made the art, whether lyrics, titles, or mental language translated as images. They are the key to the freeform mind of the artist.

Marc Chagall, ‘La Joie du Village’, via Alon Zakaim

A short stroll then to Cork Street, home of London’s fanciest commercial galleries, to see Marc Chagall: Love and Luminosity at the Alon Zakaim gallery, billed as “an exhibition of one of the finest collections of privately owned Chagall works in the United Kingdom”.

Here was another artist who turned to art because it enabled him to realise his dreamworlds. In Marc Chagall‘s case he found in art a way to realise deep feelings for his Jewish heritage, Belarus upbringing, and – the subject of this exhibition – the intensity of love. His is a mind that floats free, just as figures in his paintings have broken free from the chains of the Earth and range rhapsodically over his skies. His recurrent themes and images were all on display even in a small exhibition such as this: ecstatic couples, cockerels, donkeys, fiddlers (all present in ‘La Joie du Village’).

I had thought to find connections between Van Vliet and Chagall, but aside from floating figures such as that in ‘Ibex’, or indeed a cockerel or two in Van Vliet’s ‘Father Times a Feather’, the two occupy different though parallel worlds. Of course Chagall is the greater artist, at least on canvas, because he is greatly recognised. But the difference is elsewhere. Chagall had the stronger connection with music. The regular figure of the fiddler indicates that in Chagall’s paintings everyone is taking part in a dance. In Don Van Vliet and Captain Beefheart’s art, it is the babble of language that I see, with one man’s efforts to try and gain some control of it.



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3 thoughts on “Fast and bulbous

  1. Don Van Vliet’s art has some similarity to Dylan’s to my eye. I tried so hard to like Trout Mask Replica, but I stopped somewhat short at Dr John’s Desitively Bonnaroo, which I tried to use as a gateway drug. It was the same with Frank Zappa; I ached to be cool enough to dig it, but it remained resolutely undug.
    Perhaps more to my credit is that, now I’m in my sad decline, I am belatedly developing an appreciation of the music of Carla Bley, which has its challenging moments amongst her readily accessible compositions such as ‘Lawns’.
    Thanks as always for a thoughtful and thought provoking piece Luke.

    1. Thank you, as always. I have to admit that I admire Trout Mask Replica more than I love it, but I keep coming back to it and finding more to admire each time. Lick My Decals Off Baby has a similar approach but is a little more coherent. Ice Cream for Crow I do love. Frank Zappa remains resolutely undug by me too.

      There is some similarity between Dylan’s earlier paintings and Van Vliet, but I’ve seen both in a gallery and Van Vliet is another league entirely.

      Congratulations on the discovery of Carla Bley. I started off with Escalator Over the Hill, which has its weirdnesses but remains a huge favourite. For something more approachable I recommend Life Goes On or Carla’s Christmas Carols.

      1. I started off with ‘Escalator…’ too but I’m now exploring more of her catalogue and her process via YouTube. I appreciate the recommendations and will follow up on them.

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