Someday, if it hasn’t been done already, someone will produce a definitive study on the relationship between the ’60s counterculture and the early-20th-century avant garde. If so, space will have to be devoted to Don Van Vliet (1941–2010), who, as Captain Beefheart, channeled Dada and Surrealism with discordant music and lyrics that would have done Tristan Tzara and André Breton proud. Van Vliet was no slouch when it came to painting, either, though it wasn’t until later in life that he devoted himself to the practice. This selection of works on paper shows his febrile imagination in overdrive.
After the release of his last album of new music in 1982, Van Vliet emerged as a full-time artist during the Neo-Expressionist wave of the 1980s. His eccentric compositions shared Neo-Ex’s blend of highly subjective figuration and gestural abstraction, but his idiosyncratic approach was more akin to outsider art than to the style’s usual bombastic clamor.
It is hard to pin down exactly what Van Vliet was up to, but it’s possible to divine within his work hints of hoodoo (the magical folkways associated with the blues) and the visions of a biblical prophet wandering the desert (his boyhood home was near the Mojave). In these drawings, pure brushwork bumps up against atavistic beings and animistic spirits rendered in ink, pencil, gouache and crayon. Van Vliet titled his penultimate LP Doc at the Radar Station, and indeed, the imagery here seems to have been pulled in like signals from the inchoate ether of his subconscious.