THIRTY THREE YEARS - TWENTY SEVEN PAINTINGS
Introduction to the work of Robert Vanderhorst
by George A. Romero (1940 – 2017)
I’m always looking for a story. It’s my job, I guess.
I had seen a handful of Robert Vanderhorst’s paintings over the years.
That is, I had seen reproductions of them hanging in the homes of acquaintances who coincidentally happened to be acquainted with the artist.
I had never looked carefully at the pictures. There had always been a cocktail or a conversation or a romance to distract me... (on a few memorable occasions, all three).
When I attended his 2005 exhibition at the St. Lawrence Hall in Toronto, I was astonished to discover that he knew who I was, while I, to my embarrassment, knew diddly-squat about him.
“Honoured to meet you,” said he. “Night of the Living Dead.” (I had made that film.) “Thanks for coming to the show.”
I had spent years, since college at Carnegie Mellon, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I had made the first 12 of my 15 films there (the last three have been made in Toronto).
Rob apparently knew my old Pittsburgh connection.
The butterfly in my tummy stopped flicking its wings. Rob’s warm smile, and his willingness to talk trivia, instantly disarmed me and made me feel as if I was chatting with an old pal. I went on to say something stupid, like, “So . . . you, er . . . you’re a painter.”
He replied with something unpretentious like, “Yeah, yeah.”
“I haven’t walked around the gallery yet,” I said. “Looking forward to it.”
I went on to walk the rooms of St. Lawrence Hall, which were hung with dozens of Vanderhorsts. I didn’t see half . . . I didn’t see a quarter . . . of what I should have seen. From the buzz in the crowd, I realized for the first time that Rob was considered, and in fact was, a surrealist. So I started to look for unnatural, quirky, oddball elements in his paintings.
Yet I walked right past the original canvas of The Americanisation of Gustave’s Paris, the original painting Paris Street: A Rainy Day created by French Impressionist, Gustave Caillebotte (1848 -1894) so familiar to me that I felt sure I could find nothing new in it . . . and I still didn’t notice the football players.
What I did notice, what was confirmed in my mind as I walked the rooms, was that this man, Robert Vanderhorst, was a real, honest-to-God, one-of-a-kind, owe-nothing-to-nobody artist in the finest sense of the word.
Check your copy of Roget’s Thesaurus. Check the synonyms for the word “artist”: “visual creator,” “virtuoso,” “master,” “maestro,” “academician,” “craftsman.” Rob is all of these, I believe. This comes from knowing him but even more from having been introduced to his works.
I think of observations from observers far greater than I.
“The artist,” said Flaubert, “must be in his work as God is in creation, invisible and all-powerful.”
Coomaraswami: “The artist is not a special kind of man, but every man is a special kind of artist.”
Ezra Pound: “Artists are the antennae of the race.”
Let me add words from Stephen Sondheim, from Sunday in the Park with George, sung by Georges Seurat, a French painter (1859-91). In the musical, while working on that painting, Seurat is focused on a hat that one of the characters in the picture is wearing. Dot, his live-in lover, wants to go to the Folies Bergère.
He has promised to take her, but is preoccupied with the task of finishing the hat. He sings,
Finishing the hat,
How you have to finish the hat.
How you watch the rest of the world from a window
While you finish the hat.
Mapping out a sky.
What you feel like, planning a sky.
What you feel when voices that come
Through the window
Until they distance and die,
Until there’s nothing but sky.
And how you’re always turning back too late
From the grass or the stick
Or the dog or the light.
How the kind of woman willing to wait’s
Not the one who you want to find waiting
To return you to the night,
Dizzy from the height
Coming from the hat.
Studying the hat.
Entering the world of the hat.
Reaching through the world of the hat
Like a window,
Back to this one from that.
Studying a face.
Stepping back to look at a face
Leaves a little space in the way, like a window,
But to see —
It’s the only way to see.
And when the woman that you wanted goes,
You can say to yourself, ‘Well, I give what I give.’
But the woman who won’t wait for you knows
That however you live,
There’s a part of you always standing by,
Mapping out a sky,
Finishing a hat,
Starting on a hat…
Finishing a hat.
Look, I made a hat...
Where there never was a hat.
You will also find, in your copy of Roget’s, an artist defined as one who will “let his wife starve, his mother drudge for his living at 70 sooner than work at anything but his art” (this by G. B. Shaw). Well, as nearly as I can tell, Robert Vanderhorst has neither let his wife starve nor his mother drudge. Yet I know that he stands by his principles, unwilling to compromise his work. He dedicates himself to that work as profoundly as we believe did Seurat. But not to the exclusion of the world, or of those closest to him.
Art, only art…not discourse or diplomacy or debt…will bring us together in the end. Despite the fact that our history seems to be nothing but a long list of tragedies and disappointments, hope can be found by those who want to find it, need to find it, crave it. There is a reason for optimism.
I look to that one single source that never disappoints . . . art, in one form or another: words, music, images, the swirling movements of a dance, the soaring high Cs at an opera house. They all provide us with hope. And in that sense, they are invaluable.
Here’s to art!
And here’s to a very good man whom I am proud to know . . . even prouder that he lets me know him.
He’s a great guy. And he tells stories. God knows where they come from.
From somewhere inside his head, I guess. If Stephen King blows me away with his imagination and craftsmanship, so does my other (apparently he is a close friend) new buddy, Rob.
Like we used to say in the ’60s, “Both them cats is a gas, man!”
Because they lift me out of the ordinary . . . into some sort of Eden.
That’s gonna sound pretty corny to you. And, not wanting to hide it any more, I admit that I am a corny guy.
My first film, Night of the Living Dead, is in MOMA’s permanent collection. It doesn’t deserve to be. When I made that film, I had one eye on the artistic while the other was on commercial potential.
Over the years, I’ve tried to do better as a filmmaker, and I’ve been drawn to artists.
I respect and honor them. I include myself among them, even though I feel that I have, here and there, dropped the banner of purity.
In my life, I have known three people who I believe to be utterly dedicated to the ideal that art is the key that opens all gates . . . gates that stand between races, religions, friends, indeed even brothers and sisters. Without some expression of . . . lord . . . what is an artist trying to express?
His own understanding of how things are.
What else can he express? Other than his own feelings.
His own feelings. Not the feelings of others . . . feelings that are expected and accepted.
Well those expected and accepted feelings aren’t the feelings that any of us really feel . . . when we’re alone . . . in the dark . . . facing the Creator, if there is a Creator . . .
When we’re alone, in the dark, facing ourselves. Who in the world is what he or she wants to be? Only the artist, who so wants to “finish the hat” that not much else matters.
Rob Vanderhorst tells stories of what might be . . . if only he can prompt the viewer to see things differently. It’s an illusive talent that he has. I’ve spent months now within a few yards of one of his paintings (seeing it at a friend’s home) and still I never saw the football players. In his heart, soul, I am sure Rob doesn’t care whether you or I or the next guy ever notices the football players. Forgive my French, but I don’t think he gives a flying fuck. He’s too busy to notice, man. Just like I didn’t notice those football players, he hasn’t noticed that I didn’t notice. He’s too busy trying to tell a story. A story that’s buried somewhere deep inside his subconscious . . . like all those oddball stories that come out of Stephen King’s subconscious.
Rob Vanderhorst is a purely dedicated man. I like him as a person. I respect and admire his work.
If and when you come upon one of his pictures, don’t think you have seen the picture just because you’ve looked at it. I’m telling you, it was nearly a full year before the light dawned . . . that you can look at a thing for months and never see it . . . until you’ve looked squarely into its eye . . . and it might not be looking back at ya. It might be looking off to the left . . . or to the right . . . or out from under an umbrella . . . somewhere in Paris . . . somewhere in the universe.
George A. Romero