In the Studio with Neal Vandenbergh

The works of American visual artist Neal Vandenbergh are often layered with sinus lines, translucent fields of colour, and visual conundrums. We met with Neal to tell us more about his practice, growing up in Chicago, and the journey to the artist he is today.

When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist? 
My late teens when I was attending community college. I’d been painting and drawing in a fine art type of way since high school and was always making stuff and drawing before then. Community college was the first time I was socially participating in a community of artists.
Where are you from and what was your upbringing like? How has this impacted your work?

I grew up about an hour southwest of Chicago, IL where the suburbs, rural farmlands and a small industrial city with its own economy all met. We had Chicago news. My upbringing was completely insane. Right now I’m a little too fixated on my working class skepticism of “savvy” art world taste. What is accepted and rejected, what is said and unsaid. It’s been a fertile motivator for me to make work.

Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. What inspired you to first pursue, and then continue to practice, artistic work? Was there a pivotal moment when you felt you were on the right track? 

I’ve had a lot of different ideas of why I make work over the years but really it’s just been a consistent compulsion, probably for unconsciously needed therapeutic reasons. After being humiliated in front of large audiences of middle-aged midwestern  buffoons as child on various sports fields, being better at art than the rest of people in my school felt pretty good. Not entirely sure there was a distinct moment of being on the right track. There is just so much day to day doubt. There are some pretty good semi-regular highs when something I’m making turns out.

What’s the message of your work? How would you describe your aesthetic?

Not really sure about a message. For like a decade when I was in school I loved learning about and identified with all types contemporary and avant-garde art practices. But when I would go see art in person it was always some random painting that blew me away. GOOSEBUMPS! HEART RACING! MIND REELING! All from some color on a canvas you know? I guess ideally that’s the type of thing I’d like to provide. Funny, scary, weird, beautiful.  

I think about visual taste. Not really what art is “about” like the subject matter, or what people are researching/writing their exhibition statements about but how the work is presented, what it looks like. A lot of work I’d see when I’d go scope shows struck me as really cold or obtuse. “Smart” was the best thing you could be as an artist. So I want to see a little bit more psycho-emotional intensity in these art spaces that are purportedly representing culture.

Are your works planned? What do you want people to take from your work when they view it? 

I’ll gather a set of references and riff on them extensively. Just trying new ideas sometimes subtle or if it really stinks then I have permission to do something crazy. Following impulse and what excites me. Doing that long enough builds a big bank of work I can draw from if I want to make some more deliberate work for an exhibition or something. Pretty simply I want people to enjoy my work in some way – I don’t have anything too defined there. I have an audience in mind when I make work for shows. I used to think you always had to make work for an audience but now I really cherish the times when I’m just tunneling into my own biz. Maybe counterintuitively I think that when I shut out concerns about an audience for a while and just practice then what people end up seeing has a little more life and is more generous to a viewer.

Who and what are your greatest influences?

Where I am able to live, who I talk to on a daily basis, atrocious U.S. imperialist international actions and policies, how much money’s in my pocket, access to healthcare, how my parents treated me as child.

An unexpected source of inspiration?

Reading the novel Dhalgren during a hot summer in year one of sobriety. Rearranged my DNA.

Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany

What events in your life have mobilised change in your practise/aesthetic? How has your art evolved? Do you experiment? Do you see any parameters to your work? 

I try to let my life change my work all the time. I want to cut out the delusions of theoretical vacuum art discourse.

Parameters are what makes distinctions between series for me and are usually rules on time and material. Like these drawings are done as fast possible no deliberation, one sitting, oil pastel and ink on 11 x `14. Or this is about flat fields of colored pencil with no pencil marks so you can take as long as you want but still really don’t deliberate just finish it.

I had the very good fortune of working for the artist William J. O’brien who has helped me in so many ways. Bill always gives the metaphor of a rubber band pulling in two directions. You have what you know you are good at in the middle and you experiment till you get too far out and you don’t know wtf is happening, then you come back and start working on what you are familiar to provide a sense that you are indeed competent and follow that until it gets unbearably boring and you think you’re a hack then you start doing a little experimenting and push boundaries until you’re too far out and on and on.

What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a “good” piece of work?

Can’t beat the excitement of trying something new and it working out better than you had expected.

Tell us about the inspiration behind one of your works?

This is referring to “Untitled” 30 x 40 red face, blue eyes, yellow mouth guy.

This is a portrait of my crazed friend Brian Selkie. The reference image is an outtake from a photoshoot where he let me cake a bunch of coconut oil on his face and then step on his face to get some photos I could paint from. He’s the type of person who is fucking stoked to let you step on his and is really dear to me. I needed to test some new materials and this particular image had nice lighting and a weird facial expression so I turned him into this despicable psychedelic clown.


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