Andrew Verhoeckx and the Environment

Andrew Verhoeckx

Andrew Verhoeckx

Photorealism is a genre or style of painting that aims to replicate the photographic quality of images.  It is not a style that has been widely embraced by the art community. Many perceive it as promoting technique over content, lumping photorealists with ‘illustrators’ (who likewise are unfairly cast aside by many in the art world).  Technique and content, however, are not mutually exclusive, as demonstrated by painter Andrew Verhoeckx, whose recent work showcases several instances where the natural world and the human realm collide.  These works offer an impressively painstaking technique that leaves the viewer in awe of Verhoeckx’s craftsmanship, as well as provide an interesting ecocritical perspective.

'What's For Dinner', an oil painting by Andrew Verhoeckx.

‘What’s For Dinner’, an oil painting by Andrew Verhoeckx.

Of all the paintings executed by Verhoeckx, there is perhaps none more jarring than ‘What’s For Dinner’.  This is one title that serves well to contextualize the content.  On the canvas are a number of fish heads.  It is an uncommon sight, especially in the West, where the heads of the animals we eat are not often presented with the food we are eating.  This painting articulates our homicidal dietary needs.  These are not artistically rolled sushi platters, nor does Verhoeckx present the golden brown texture of beer-battered fish.  It is the heads of the fish we see.  One can imagine the same principle applied to other dinner options:  a cow’s head resting as the centerpiece on a dinner table, as a family shares several steaks or hamburgers;  severed chicken heads placed on top of a bucket of fried chicken; a pig’s head resting on your pillow, as you are served breakfast in bed: eggs over easy with bacon.  There is no judgement here.  One is not condemned for eating meat, but one is encouraged to acknowledge the relationship that we have with the food we eat.  One is made aware of the sacrifices made by the animals who provide us with sustenance.  Are we homicidal killers?  Is there a difference between a carnivore and a murderer?  While nobody blames the lion for being a lion, perhaps it is fair to expect humanity to try to transcend our natural inclinations, or at least to recognize the sacrifices made by other animals on our behalf, so that we might  treat these animals with the reverence and respect they deserve and adjust the practices of factory farmers accordingly.  None of this is explicit in the work, of course, but the image of decapitated heads of fish, displayed poignantly, encourages us toward further inquiry, as is the case with all great art.  And like all great artists, Verhoeckx does not provide the answer or a road map to the questions.  He lets the image inspire the viewers, and allows them to find an equilibrium in their own conscience.

'Clear Skies', an oil painting by Andrew Verhoeckx.

‘Clear Skies’, an oil painting by Andrew Verhoeckx.

In his work ‘Clear Skies’, Verhoeckx creates a cityscape filtered through an oppressive grey.  It is a city devoid of any organic entities.  There are no trees, and not even so much as a blade of grass breaks through.  No people are to be seen, either.  It is a human realm, but humanity is very much excluded from it, or perhaps individuals are so minute that the have become indiscernible.  The grey filter that dilutes the clarity of the scene begs a question of the viewer: What is the source of this greyness?  Is it a cloudy or a foggy day?  Or is it smog?  The title seems to carry the key to the question: ‘Clear Skies’.  This seems ironic, given how smoky this scene appears. But if the skies are in fact clear, then the source of this darkness must be fabricated rather than natural.  It is smog.  One is reminded of the William Blake poem ‘London’, in which Blake speaks to the chartered streets and rivers, suggesting through the word ‘charter’ that these things are defined by end products of the human realm.  Even the naturally occurring river has been usurped (and is polluted beyond recognition of its natural state).  Blake describes a scene of misery that is devoid of joy and lists human constructs that seem to add no value to the world: Military, political, and religious.  Blake speaks to “mind-forg’d manacles”.  This painting, though it does not speak to specifics as Blake does, seems to work in concert with Blake’s poem.  The cityscape, just like Blake’s description, is devoid of happiness.   Both are penetrated by grey and dark, and there is no light.  There is also nothing from the natural realm in either of them.  When analysing works such as these, many focus on what is present in the text, but it is also important to consider what is missing.  Nature is absent from this painting, much as it is absent from Blake’s poem, and the result is a world devoid of light and consumed by grey.

'Moving East', an oil painting by Andrew Verhoeckx.

‘Moving East’, an oil painting by Andrew Verhoeckx.

‘Moving East’ works in much the same way.  Though the smog is gone, and the buildings are resolutely defined in the foreground, all is not well.  We see only the tops of the buildings, which we may assume to be majestic pieces of architecture, but we do not see where these buildings meet the ground.  Where are the foundations?  Are they rooted in the natural world?  Is there grass where they meet the ground, or only concrete?  These buildings, which are without foundations, are overwhelmed by the overcast clouds of the sky.  One is reminded of the images that came from New York during Hurricane Sandy. 

A photo taken as Hurricane Sandy approach New York.

A photo-shopped image meant to be Hurricane Sandy approaches New York.

We see these majestic and towering buildings easily dwarfed by the natural world.  As high in the sky as they may go, the sky itself is higher still. It can rain down on these edifices at any time.  The buildings rest on the bottom of the canvas.  The human realm, for all its ambition, cannot reach the heights of the natural world.  The painting asks us to consider how the human world relates to the natural world and what lessons we might take from such juxtaposition.

'Under the Clouds', an oil painting by Andrew Verhoeckx.

‘Under the Clouds’, an oil painting by Andrew Verhoeckx.

Verhoeckx does not always use juxtaposition to send such somber messages, however.  In ‘Under the Clouds,’ his faithfulness to the photographic image is in full effect, as is his use of juxtaposition. But instead of the dark scenes present in ‘Clear Skies’ and ‘Moving East’, we see a building surrounded by lush green trees, sitting beneath white clouds on a sunny day.  We see that the buildings present are not isolated from nature nor are they boxed in by other buildings.  Instead, the human realm and the natural realm rest side by side.  The green is represented and incorporated into the cityscape.  The result is an idyllic and almost Utopian scene.   Harmony exists between the two realms.  The clouds are yielding and peaceful, the sun is bright and illuminates the world below, and the trees are a rich green full of fertility.  There is a symbiotic relationship between the human sphere and the natural world here, one that replaces the parasitic role humanity seems to have in the other paintings.  It is a brilliant scene that is as optimistic as the other two paintings are pessimistic and one that suggests there is another relationship that can be had between nature and humanity, one which we might aspire to. 

'New World', an oil painting by Andrew Verhoeckx.

‘New World’, an oil painting by Andrew Verhoeckx.

There is more to these paintings than an ecocritical reading.  They can also be interpreted as a social commentary on the cultural misunderstandings between east and west. For example, Verhoeckx’s work fits in well within the discourse presented by Edward Said in his work Orientalism, but it is not limited to such discourses exclusively.  The work has a depth to it.  Regardless of whether one wishes to do an ecocritical analysis of the work, or an analysis based on another theory, the importance of such works is that even in instances where technique is embraced, it does not mean that content is forsaken and that the art world need reject it.  There is room for both content and technique as Verhoeckx makes clear in his work, and so the art world should be willing to recognize the value of painters who embrace technique as much as those artists who challenge it. 

If you wish to see more of Andrew Verhoeckx’s work, you can do so by clicking here.

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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