The traditional education of a painter usually begins in a dusty studio furnished with easels and a platform reserved for a model or still life. Whether in a community center, high school, college or museum school, such rooms are where painting students learn their craft by attempting to represent figures, wine bottles or flowers arranged before them.
Most serious students eventually move on to seek other subject matter, but Richmond artist Thomas van Auken didn't stop painting figures and still lifes even after he traded a school studio for one of his own. For more than 10 years, he has been painting models and still lifes in rooms with limited accoutrements, producing wry imagery of scenes he stages.
Van Auken paints emptiness, ranging in flavor from semiromantic to existential, and as he proves in his solo show currently at Eric Schindler Gallery, he does so with considerable technical skill. With a strong sensitivity to light and color, he is able to produce a sense of space as well as a credible sense of time and temperature. He works in a realist style, tempering his enthusiasm for process with control over everything from brush stroke to composition.
Van Auken's critics may dismiss his body of work as academic, but the artist seems to assert again and again that his use of nude models, a human skeleton and other clichAcs associated with an artist's studio work not only as vehicles for showing off his skill, but as sources for visual autobiography. Vapid as these people and objects may appear, they seem to represent a material as well as an emotional reality. The problem is, whatever emotion the artist manages to express usually reads as cool and detached.
In recent work he displays at Schindler, Van Auken flexes his ability in several scenes featuring a vintage dress on a dress form. In "Warehouse Interior," the dress provides a welcome sign of warmth, convincingly rendered with sunlight filtering through it. In another ambitiously executed composition, the dress and a nude model are posed against multiple layers of studio screens, partial walls and building structure. But since the dress only suggests a person, these "portraits" are but another means by which the artist keeps his cards close. These images lack a sense of risk.
The more Van Auken develops his images formally, the more restraint he imposes on them; that's why some of his most appealing paintings are quick studies in which he cuts loose with color and paint consistency. In "Space Heater," an expressively painted appliance becomes a beacon — a source of comfort — and in two studies of night scenes in which the enveloping darkness is like tar in color and thickness, he demonstrates how less can be more.
At its best, Van Auken's prowess expresses not only a visual reality but a palpable atmosphere of loneliness, abandonment and feeling held at bay. But considering his talent with paint, one can't help but wonder how powerful his paintings could become if he would just take the next step. S
Eric Schindler Gallery exhibits paintings by Thomas van Auken. The show runs through Nov. 12. 2305 E. Broad St. 644-5005.