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Working in Oil

In the midst of national fascination with manual labor, Thomas Van Auken finds the value in working with his hands, whether on motorcycles or landscapes.

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Women in various states of undress peer over their shoulders in Thomas Van Auken's living room in the South Side. Paintings of skulls — human and animal — pepper the gallery of flesh while easels crowd the room's interior, holding much larger and more ominous paintings of nightscapes: dark, resonant and full of shadow.

In Van Auken's house, cats and canvases dominate furniture. The only apparent food: stacked and empty cans of CafAc Bustelo coffee. His ample back yard is endowed with evidence of motorcycle maintenance and a garden pushing forth hybrid jalapenos, romas, cilantro, squash and Japanese eggplant.

This fusion of the organic and the mechanical inform his world — where food is grown, bikes are repaired and art is made. A 39-year-old nearly lifelong Richmonder who attended the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, Van Auken has always done what he calls dirty jobs — as a motorcycle mechanic, house painter, woodworker, auto body repairman and chef's assistant — to supplement his living as an artist. “Apart from the economic bullshit, being an artist is the best job imaginable,” he says. “I get to be a scientist, to work in the world of theory, but I also satisfy my need to manipulate things with my hands.”

His need for manual labor and art comes together in a new book that's received national media attention, “Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work,” written by fellow Richmonder Matthew Crawford and published in May by Penguin. Van Auken's illustrations of carefully executed gaskets and intake manifolds reflect the larger theory proposed in the text, that true tests of the intellect are found in building a motor, not a spreadsheet.

But Van Auken contributed more than the illustrations. When he met Crawford outside of a bar shortly after 9/11, they bonded over the bikes they were riding — bikes they'd repaired themselves. The next day they rented a warehouse in Shockoe Bottom that would become home to Van Auken's studio, Crawford's motorcycle repair shop, Shockoe Moto, and fertile ground for discussion of the deeply intrinsic value of manual labor.

Crawford, who holds a doctorate in political philosophy from the University of Chicago and is a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, first started putting these ideas together in print in summer 2006, when he wrote a piece for a technology journal, The New Atlantis. In it, he writes: “My shop-mate Tommy Van Auken was an accomplished visual artist, and I was repeatedly struck by his ability to literally see things that escaped me. … What is required then is the kind of judgment that arises only from experience; hunches rather than rules. There was more thinking going on in the bike shop than in the think tank.”

Crawford credits Van Auken in his acknowledgements as being critical to generating these ideas.

Van Auken believes that the same rift that Crawford explores in his book between white- and blue-collar workers exists in the art world between craftsmanship and fine arts. “Most of my neighbors,” he says — “if they were to walk into a gallery in Chelsea, they would walk out and say, ‘Holy shit, $50,000 for a blob of paint on a big panel?’ They're probably more likely to see something interesting in craft but it would fail to really give them something to conceptually chew on.”

That, he says, is “what's in danger of disappearing. Craftsmanship and virtuosity in art is a tool that an artist can use to enhance their concept, their philosophy, whatever idea they're presenting.”

That each camp — craftsmen and fine artists — has at one time classified him in the other, tells him he's just where he should be.

“An educated or just smart person isn't made dumber by working with their hands, and in some ways that can actually enhance their intelligence,” he says. “And craft does not devalue the artist as a purveyor of ideas. Craft does not take away from genius any.”

“The beauty of Tommy's work is that you can appreciate it on the surface as a wonderful drawing or painting or you can drop it lower and keep going down with it,” says Kirsten Gray, owner of Schindler Gallery, who's been collecting and showing his work for 15 years. “We have sanitized life and his paintings don't do that.”

Teaching, too, has furthered Van Auken's art, while maintaining his loyalty to craft. His painting classes at the Visual Arts Center, Art 180 and the Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen always include color theory. “The exercises you have to do are almost scientific,” he says. “Leaving that out of art education — it's just like leaving grammar out of a literary education. There are times you need to back up and look at the logic of what you've done and be able to break it into working components.”

For the last five years, Van Auken has entered the world of his own landscapes, painting in his back yard between dusk and dawn, a miniature light table hung from his neck by a string. Those naked women — languid, passionate, daring — seem a long way from here. “From a nonformal, nonoptical standpoint, a human figure is pretty clearly the most evocative subject matter to paint. There is instant empathy from the viewer,” he says, an easy connection that landscape painting doesn't earn as quickly. But like the motorcycles, it's a matter of balancing skill and vision.

“The ability to move my hand and paint the psychic impact the dark night had on me — that's the synthesis between artist and craftsman.” S

“Thomas Van Auken: Recent Work” opens at the Eric Schindler Gallery, 2305 E. Broad St., on Friday, June 12, 7-9 p.m. The show runs through July 31. Visit www.ericschindlergallery.com or call 644-5005.

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