There are monsters in Henk Pander’s new exhibition of paintings and drawings, and spirits and skeletons and the detritus of terrible deeds. There is history, painted large by this artist instilled in the history-painting traditions of his native Netherlands. And there is here and now — history, if not repeating itself, echoing down the chambers of time. “The whole exhibition,” Pander says, “is about these times we’re living in.”
And what times they are, built on the bones of past disasters, traumas, mistakes, and atrocities — on the never-ending ability of humans to create chaos and mayhem, all too often for the sheer deviltry of it. It’s little wonder, taking in these eight large paintings and six pen-and-ink drawings at Clackamas Community College’s Alexander Gallery, that the show is titled “The Ordeal.”
Pander, who arrived in Oregon as a young man, is 85 now, and has been exploring the ordeals of war and catastrophe throughout his long and fruitful career. If his monsters show up literally in his work — in this show, portraits of a minotaur and a harpy, the first of which he calls “a mythical fantasy creature with a troublesome spirit moving across the land,” the second “a mythological fantasy of a malicious spirit moving in the civilized world” — it’s little wonder. He was a child throughout World War II, trapped in Nazi-occupied Haarlem, near Amsterdam, living on the edges of fear, famine, and the ever-lurking threat of death. One does not trip lightly and easily out of such formative circumstances.
And living through such traumatic times attunes one, or so it seems in Pander’s case, to the echoes and repetitions and advances of cruelty that lap like brusque and battering waves against the fragile beach of civilization. Beyond the war-torn Europe of his childhood Pander has seen (the list is abbreviated) Korea, Vietnam, the surge of holy wars, Iraq, Iran, the rise of international terrorism including 9/11, Afghanistan, territorial battles from the Balkans to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. He’s seen the resurgence of resentful strongmen willing to lead their nations into chaos and disorder. In such lights, the monsters that mingle with “ordinary” people in his pictures don’t seem so fantastical, after all: The true fantasy might be to pretend they don’t exist.
His 2017 painting “Dawn,” Pander says, is a contemporary reinterpretation of Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch,” and you can see the similarities in the painting’s structure and its military subject matter, although Pander ups the ante from the clubby sense of Rembrandt’s gathering of military men: “Dawn” is an image of ill-uniformed soldiers on patrol, moving through a war-torn landscape to the drumbeat of two men (perhaps they’re men) with flaming monster-heads. War breeds beasts, and mere men follow, timorously.
Ah, yes: international terrorism. “The Ordeal” includes two large paintings touching on the subject. “Don’t Look” is a magnificently proportioned portrait of carnage in a desert landscape — the massive remains of a cylindrical section of the Boeing 777 that on July 17, 2014 was flying 283 passengers and 15 crew members on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it was shot down over Ukraine by pro-Russian separatists. All 298 people aboard were killed. Almost lost in the painting’s right foreground are a man and a woman, dwarfed by the wreckage, simultaneously shrinking away and gazing in horror. (“Don’t Look” shares a structural affinity with another painting in the exhibition, “Native Soil,” a portrait of an Indigenous skull with an arrow wound, found in the bed of the Umatilla River and later ceremonially buried by Native people.)
The second painting, “Abyss,” is an evocation of the mysterious disappearance scant months earlier, on March 8, 2014, of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which simply vanished en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, and which almost certainly took the lives of its 227 passengers and 12 crew members. Long and expensive searches proved fruitless, although bits of wreckage eventually washed ashore. Terrorism? Attempted hijacking? Mechanical failure? Theories abound, but to this day, no one knows for sure. In Pander’s painting the plane is underwater on the sea bed, and a spectral figure — perhaps a woman, perhaps the collective soul of the plane’s victims, perhaps a goddess of the deep — is rising toward the surface, or perhaps greeting the passengers and crew as they join the Underworld.
“The Skipper’s Wife” is a little different from the other paintings in “The Ordeal,” but linked by its themes of war and human cruelty, and in a way a foundation piece for the others in the exhibit. It’s an autobiographical painting, a memory from the Netherlands’ Hongerwinter famine of 1944. “My father brought my sister Gesa and I to a distant family member’s large ship to take us to the countryside where there was food,” Pander explains in a wall panel accompanying the painting. “The skipper’s wife took a good look at my little sister and me. She discovered that we had scurvy and were covered in lice. She refused us passage and we spent the remainder of the war in the city of Haarlem.” A related pen-and-ink drawing shows the skipper’s wife again, brusquely examining Gesa, while a gaunt and frail Henk looks on. The wife’s refusal might have been, but was not, a death sentence. In the painting she chases the children and their father from the boat, pointing like a wrathful angel banishing Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.
The exhibit’s largest painting — “Rising Water,” an apocalyptic dreamscape stretching almost 12 feet wide — is a nightmare vision of death and destruction rampaging through the land. A skeleton marauder rides a galloping skeleton steed. They are trampling through a ruin over a scatter of other bones, books strewn among the carnage and tumbling to the ground. Echoing the ghostlike figure in “Abyss,” spectral figures are falling headfirst from the sky toward the rocks and sea in the background: I found myself thinking of Icarus, and of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s famous landscape painting of him splashing unnoticed into the water.
The painting is, Pander says, “an echo of 17th century Dutch vanitas paintings, a reflection on the demise of the animal kingdom.” And like most of the other paintings in the exhibit it is massive, bright, and almost garish — both disturbing and compelling. Pander chooses his colors with a careful abandon, slapping hard bright tone against hard bright tone in a kind of clash of wills. They don’t go together, and yet, somehow they do: Their very resistance to one another is a source of their power. And he covers his linens with thick rough smears of paint, creating an almost terrestrial texture at odds with itself and yet also, somehow, creating a unity of vision.
What to make of these “Ordeals”? They’re not pretty pictures. But they’re vivid, compelling, truthful pictures, and they have a seductive and almost terrifying beauty. As Shelley might have observed, Look on these Works, ye Mighty, and despair.
- “The Ordeal” continues through Jan. 31 in the Alexander Gallery, Niemeyer Center, Clackamas Community College, Oregon City. Normal hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, except on campus holidays. Admission is free.
- Artist Henk Pander will give a free talk about his work on Thursday, Jan. 19. An artist reception will run from noon to 1 p.m., and Pander will speak beginning at 1 p.m.
- Also see “Henk Pander — The Ordeal,” Friderike Heuer’s illuminating essay on Pander and this show, at YDP — Your Daily Picture.