- The artist depicted looking out beyond in "Standing the Mast-Head."
Artist Timothy Vermeulen and his wife share their Wicker Park home in Chicago, Ill., with a large number of foster dogs, including three of the bulldog variety. The pets have left their mark, so to speak, on his work. "Dogs show up in a lot of my paintings, actually," says Vermeulen, who volunteers 15 to 20 hours a week for Chicago English Bulldog Rescue.
But there's another subject close to home making frequent appearances in his oil on panel paintings: himself. In "Standing the Mast-Head," you see a portrayal of the artist (a thin bald man wearing jeans) atop a rooftop water tower, gazing over the skyline, which is blocked by a sterile row of mixed-use urban buildings.
This is one of fourteen paintings in a 2010 series entitled "Moby Dick," after Herman Melville's masterpiece. If you have the sense that your ship is doomed, so to speak, then trying to see what's coming over the horizon can be a deeply pessimistic enterprise.
Another painting that seems to reflect an entrenched defeatism is "Sisyphus." According to Greek mythology, Sisyphus was condemned to spend eternity rolling a boulder up a mountainside, only to have it fall down over and over again.
But in Vermeulen's painting, Sisyphus, looking a lot like Vermeulen himself, is pushing a wheelbarrow containing a tree sapling up a hill. It may be hopeless, Vermeulen seems to be saying here, but that's no reason not to continue to hope.
A strict Calvinist upbringing and a stint living in a funeral home from age five to nine (his dad was a funeral director) had its effect on Vermeulen, who was born in Patterson, N.J., in 1960.A mixture of "death and religion," he says, plays a large role in his work.
Vermeulen will be showing his work in Fountain Square this upcoming First Friday at Mt. Comfort (A Space for Champions), inside the Murphy Art Center. In a wide-ranging phone conversation I had with him recently, Vermeulen discussed literary influences, his art education and a love of English bulldogs.
NUVO: Tell me about your coming show at Mt. Comfort.
Vermeulen: Mostly it's going to be highlights from other series. I've got a couple of my "Moby Dick" paintings. And then I'll probably have a couple of diptychs from the "Time" series. And then I have one new painting that's never been seen. It's actually the largest painting that I've done since grad school. Usually my work is very small. Fifteen (inches) by 20" is probably about average size.
- Seemingly defeatist, Vermeulen's "Sisyphus" could also encourage hope in the face of challenges.
NUVO: Your paintings often touch on very large themes. Since you're choosing, for example, passages from Ecclesiastes as subject matter, couldn't your description of your work as "small autobiographical narratives" be read as somewhat ironic?
Vermeulen: I guess you could definitely read it that way. I like that idea of taking these big themes as you say and putting them down to this scale that makes it almost jewel-like. My name is a Flemish-Dutch name. That's always been my favorite period of art — those 15th-century Flemish and Dutch painters who worked in a similar kind of way doing oils on wooden panels and lots of layers of paint. There's also in the style a kind of quirkiness that I recognize. I was never really formally trained in painting. When I went through school, I think a lot of my teachers were abstract expressionists and the younger ones were sort of conceptual artists. If I took a drawing class, it tended to be more about how you felt than actually [learning] how to render.
NUVO: I don't see on your website any paintings from before 2000. What was your painting style like before then?
Vermeulen: I've been working with this kind of figurative, narrative or literary stuff since my senior year in Calvin College. It goes way back there. The style has changed a little and become more sophisticated as I learned more stuff about painting and color... But definitely when I was a senior in college, I just kind of came upon this attachment to doing this figurative, narrative work and finally felt like, Ah!... This is what I'm supposed to be doing. I think, prior to that, I was just all over the place. I just loved art and one week I was making ceramics... the next week I was making nonobjective sculpture... I was bouncing around a lot. I loved it but I never felt like something that was really coming from my heart until I started with that figurative and narrative work.
NUVO: You mentioned the fact that you have a love for Flemish and Dutch painting. That seems to fit in well stylistically with your choice of Dante as a literary reference in your work.
Vermeulen: That's interesting. I'd never read Dante's Inferno. I'd heard about it and had notions of what it was about... I'd had a few people say, 'You should do a series of paintings based on Dante.' One day I thought, Well, let's see what it's like. That's usually what I do, just sit down and really carefully read it. See if it spurs an interest in me. That definitely did.
NUVO: Do you consider yourself a Chicago artist?
Vermeulen: I think I have a pretty close tie to Chicago and there's a long tradition of figurative, narrative, quirky work... Probably the most famous of the Chicago imagists that were people like Jim Nutt... There's a long history of that kind of work here. And it goes even before that... It always seemed like Chicago had an openness toward that kind of work. Even at times when New York was not accepting of it.
NUVO: Some of the urban landscapes you have in your work, are they rooted in Chicago?
Vermeulen: It tends to be wherever I'm living. I ride around a lot on my bike or in my car and take pictures of things that would work well in my painting. Some days I go out specifically looking for certain stuff. And other days it's just sort of random. Although now, with Google Earth image search, I do a lot of working off that. But there are recognizable places in some of my paintings...
- The artist speaks to a sad, eerie coincidence behind the making of "Memorial."
NUVO: I can't help but wonder how 9/11 affected your work.
Vermeulen: There was a strange coincidence in one of my paintings...
NUVO: That one painting, entitled "Memorial," where your likeness is lighting candles on the street?
Vermeulen: That's the one. And that came before 9/11 happened. After it happened, I was like, That's a little strange. And just a couple of weeks ago I was starting work for this show in New York entitled Book. All the artists are all taking off on the theme of books. I was doing a painting of myself in a room that's just sort of filled with books. But behind me is a painting of a tornado in this landscape. And I was doing the drawing for that painting, the under drawing, the day I started it.It was the very next day that all the tornados hit Alabama.
For more on the artist, visit www.timothyvermeulen.com.