A Deer Carcass in the Desert: A Discussion of Dark Life and Times with Artist, Henk Pander
By Cara S. Vincent
Here's the thing: When you look at Henk Pander's work, when you really try to parse out the details in his giant oil paintings and decipher what all of this dooming despair could possibly imply, you are left with the resounding sense that times are bleak; that death comes for us all, that what lies beyond the shadows of what we know of sorrow and loss is only a fraction of what roils in the mind of an artist like Pander.
He has endured a lifetime of tragedy, but also of success in many facets of the art world. As a portrait painter for local politicians, working for NASA, with the fire and police departments in Portland to capture, as it were, the daily life of their duties, large scale murals, set designs for theaters and countless other commissioned pieces found around Europe and the United States are all pieces that build up Pander's body of work.
How did you begin your journey into the art world?
I grew up in an artist family, my father was an artist - a well-known bible illustrator - a bunch of my siblings are artists, I had a great, great, great uncle who was a famous sculptor. And so I basically grew up in the arts.
How did Portland help you find your footing as an artist here in the U.S? Were you working before you moved?
When I was young, in Amsterdam, I got hired by the government there to make drawings of the city as it evolved and grew. This was a regular thing, for artists to be commissioned to reflect a citizens perspective of the changing environment of a city. When I came to the U.S. in the '60s, I felt frightened and a little bit alienated from my family, my home and my culture by being here. I was really young. I found myself really impacted by the historical environment and I wanted to respond to that.
Back in the '60s there was a counter culture, there were demonstrations against the war in Vietnam. And it lead me to begin recalling World War II when I was a child. And that plus the drama of living totally on my own here, I started wondering what my role was as a Dutch artist - as an immigrant artist - in the States and so I started drawing the world around me, and the world out here is extremely striking.
How have the historical moments you've lived through, the war and such, affected your subject matter or informed your work?
I lived as a young child in Nazi occupied Holland - and when I really started to think about all of the influences that go into the creation of my work, it became clear to me that the life I saw when I was a young boy is still very present in my overall memory of my life. I remember there was great famine, and men had to be taken to work camps in Germany, there were Jewish people on the street who had to go into hiding, there was nothing to eat, there was sheer and bitter cold. So, all of this darkness and despair, I think, is what drives me - World War Two is an essential part of who I am. Then I came to America and saw the effects of the war in Vietnam, which struck up the same feelings.
A lot of your paintings feel eerie and otherworldly. Would you say there is a narrative at hand in your work?
You know, there is a difference between the real world and the painted world. The painted world is a world of illusion and imagination, so it is, in that sense, free from the real world. There is a kind of developing narrative. As I get older, I start to look at the world differently.
My work is highly personal. A lot of my paintings are sort of a sense of memorial, or elegies, remembrances, if you will, of that kind of poignancy of existence. I've become a different person and I don't really have a home anymore, that I can go back to. And my wife died a couple of years ago - so there is this sense of loss and that, plus the historical times I've lived through, all these things create a narrative, sure. I'm reflecting on my own experience as a self-imposed exile.
What is your process like? Can you describe your studio?
Oh, I work all the time. I paint on weekends and basically it's always busy here. There's also getting things sold, completing commissions, developing new ideas. I do a lot of studies for my pieces. I go out into the wilderness and I look for things. One time I had asked some people I encountered in the desert if there was anything out there that maybe I should see and they told me they had seen a dead deer carcass. So naturally, I went looking for it, and I found it.
Then this farmer told me there had been this cow rotting under a tree for like thirteen years, and asked me if I wanted it. So I basically just started accumulating a collection of these dead creatures and began suspending them from the ceiling to create these narratives, or events of drama. I bring them back to life, in a sense. There's a look into my studio.
How would you describe your particular style?
I guess you could call it classic Dutch 20th century realism. I'm an academically trained painter, and I've been doing it my entire life, so there are many different styles I've done over the years.
What is coming up next for you? What are you working on?
Well, I've had some recent sadness in my life. I had this really nice girlfriend who drowned after a car accident. So in remembrance of her, I have asked an old girlfriend of hers to pose for a full length nude. It's a sad painting of a reclining figure, to honor her. But also, about a day's drive from here is the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, which was part of the Manhattan Project and was where the first full-scale plutonium production reactor in the world. The plutonium created here was used in creating the first atomic bomb, the one that destroyed Nagasaki.
I went down there and did a bunch of drawings of the core of this nuclear power plant from the '40s and then scaled it up to a 12 foot canvas. The painting will have a good sense of mystery. The whole thing is very complicated.
Henk Pander has lived his life doing what he is most passionate about, and it is clear that he still has a lot of work to do and many things left to say. He is a remarkable figure in the contemporary art world with a unique life perspective and an innate ability to capture the mortality of man, a world weariness whose warning it would be appropriate to heed, and the perpetual turmoil of existence on this planet we all call home.
To learn more about Pander, you can visit his website http://henkpander.format.com/#1
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