There’s a taste of Henk Pander at Nine Gallery right now. It is delicious. Just a taste because there are only nine drawings, but delicious because they are elegant, big (38” x 50”) pen and ink on paper drawings. And just a taste because Pander is a multifarious artist. He’s a painter’s painter with conventional oil on canvas (commissioned portraits of Oregon governors McCall and Kitzhaber, for example), and he also handles watercolor that dances at huge scale for that medium.
These drawings, all from 2014-2015, depict apocalyptic fantasies, typical of one vein of Pander’s work since he moved to Portland from The Netherlands fifty years ago. Vistas feel barren (Pander finds deserts to be “powerful landscapes”). Architecture is ruins. Humans are forlorn. Animals are feral. Three of the drawings include massive dinosaurish beasts with tyrannosaurus-like heads, dog-style bodies and long whip tails. The drawings are huge for “pen-and-ink.” As Pander says in his posted notes on the show (one of the very few “artist’s statements” that I’ve ever found worth reading), the drawings’ “larger formats…create a tension because of the contrasting fine lines.”
There are three striking things in this exhibition: concept, composition and technique. In his statement Pander says the process for the drawings is “nearly stream of consciousness.” Maybe there are some small sketches before these drawings begin, but Pander notes that there is no “preliminary pencil or underdrawing.” So how does a concept like Observation Post develop? Here we have a tightly composed landscape fragment containing some rocks on barren ground, a pock-marked concrete pillbox casemate, two hungry looking emaciated dogs snarling over some large bones, a naked human female entering the scene from the upper left, a vulture coming in for a central landing just above the dogs, a quizzical rat in waiting that blends in with the rocks, and an airplane exiting the scene, passing over behind the pillbox. And after you take all that in, you notice the four fingers jutting up from the ground at the lower left.
On his website (henkpander.com—well worth a visit) there is a biographical note that says in part, “His training provided him with skills that related to Dutch art extending back to the seventeenth century as well as to twentieth-century movements such as Expressionism and Surrealism.” Surrealism is evident here. The Comte de Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror was influential to the Surrealists. At one point de Lautréamont describes a young boy as “beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella.” In this drawing there are a lot of chance meetings. Pander (born 1937) was a young boy in Holland during World War II and that casemate relic might have something to do with that. He recalls a winter when there was no food or heat, and in this drawing we have a few bones under contention. The rat lurks, as small animals often do in conventional classic Dutch paintings of the 17th century. But over all of the drama in the scene, the plane flies away. It can be seen as a comment on how some are lucky enough to just be above it all.
Two of Pander’s compositions include his dino-creatures in doggy-style copulation. In Climax the creature behind throws his head back in ecstasy beneath a fractured fragment of an ancient Roman dome. (I was thinking about how ruin fragments in some of Pander’s drawings reminded me of Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s prints from the 18th century. Checking myself, I found the direct reference for this drawing: A view of the magnificent tomb near the remains of the factory in Torre de Schiavi outside Porta Maggiore.) The head of this dino fits elegantly within the arc of the dome, and its lighter aspect is set off by the shadow within the dome. Similarly the receiving-dino, crouched on all four legs, is composed with its head related to a ruined vaulted hall. The arc of the top of the head mimics the adjoining arch of the top of the vault, while the arching neck-jaw line below does the same with the arch of the far end of the hall. These aspects act like anchors, fitting the action into the architecture. Pander’s compositions utilize classic methods in assembling parts—but here well-known methods are worked through the mind of a virtuoso. Students could learn a lot here.
While the subject matter seems “dark,” Pander’s technique, for the most part, keeps the drawings feeling light. Only one drawing, The Convoy PQ-18 with Liberty Ship, has the familiar deep velvety black of dense cross-hatching. Otherwise we see apocalyptic scenes in bright overcast. There are thousands of ink lines in these drawings, and each line has a purpose. It could outline. It could cross-hatch with others to make a shadow. It could run in parallel with many others to define a sky. It might be a little stroke to define a surface. But what it will not be is an empty gesture “art-mark” flourish to claim that an “artist” is at work. In every work, if one asks, “Why is that (object, line, mark) there?”, the answer is, “because it is pictorially essential.”
On First Thursday evening, my ArtsWatch colleague Patrick Collier posted on Facebook: “Henk Pander at Nine Gallery is like walking into a temple.” I agree—a temple designed by Hieronymus Bosch perhaps.
If you happen to be in Salem, you can see a couple major Pander paintings at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art at Willamette University. The Burning of the New Carissa, 2000, (oil on linen, 63 x 81 in., collection of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Willamette University, Salem, Ore., Maribeth Collins Art Acquisition Fund, 2010.043) is being shown as part of the permanent collection. The New Carissa was a ship that wrecked on the Oregon coast in 1999 (finally totally removed in 2008). What Pander depicts is a view of the oil being burned off to avoid spillage, but in the context of the painting the focus is on a huge nighttime conflagration disaster contrasted with a quiet community—another odd (if real) juxtaposition. Flight, 2009, (oil on linen, 81 x 142 in., courtesy of the artist, Portland, Oregon) is in the exhibition Stilleven: Contemporary Still Life (September 12 – December 20, 2015). Here we have a big studio setup of skeletons rigged up with ropes. The looks and gestures of this group in this big (almost 12 feet long) painting are reminiscent of those dinosaurish animals in the big drawings at Nine.
Note: Paul Sutinen is a founding member of Nine Gallery. Henk Pander is not a member of Nine Gallery, but was invited to show his work by a current Nine Gallery member.