New Works and the Avenue A Cut-Out Theatre, Anton van Dalen’s first solo show in eight years, charts the shifting landscape of New York City. Populated with imaginative characters, the artist’s latest work vividly documents the forces of gentrification and change. Colorful and personable, van Dalen’s paintings are a major departure from the monochromatic visions of urban blight and decay for which he’s best known.
Born in Amstelveen, Holland, van Dalen arrived in the US in 1965. He has lived at the same East Village address since 1972. Emblazoned with a stencil of the word “PEACE,” van Dalen’s home on Avenue A is a recognizable landmark: the building’s roof houses one of the neighborhood’s few remaining pigeon coops, which can be viewed via a live stream on the artist’s website. Van Dalen first learned how to rear and breed pigeons at the age of 12. Representing a once prevalent hobby that united New York’s immigrant communities, the image of the pigeon coop conjures powerful associations with emigration, flight, freedom, and solidarity. Van Dalen’s flock of snow white pigeons, appearing regularly throughout his new work, provides an optimistic counterpoint to his observations of urban isolation.
Birds have long been a mainstay of the artist’s iconography, along with brickwork, dogs, and cars. His urban vignettes — some buoyant and surreal, others dark and spare — are designed with bold, economic, and sharply delineated forms. Around the mid 1970s, van Dalen began to document the blight of the East Village with sparse and eerie scenes of desolate streets, burning cars, and damaged storefronts; blunt, loaded imagery of heroin needles and collapsing buildings spoke volumes about the neighborhood’s drug and housing crises. Van Dalen’s graphic sensibility was likely bolstered by his friendship with illustrator Saul Steinberg, for whom he worked as studio assistant for 30 years — a relationship he largely kept secret until after Steinberg’s death in 1999.
By his own account, van Dalen “stumbled” into exhibiting at alternative spaces in 1980. There, his socially conscious work was revered by a generation of younger artists such as Christy Rupp, Kiki Smith, and Tom Otterness. Collaborating with groups such as PAD/D and ABC No Rio, van Dalen’s imagery — particularly his street stencils — became synonymous with the 1980s art scene, an association that has contributed to a critical neglect of his later work.
The current exhibition at PPOW includes 10 paintings (all executed between 2008–14) and, in the back room, a tableau of figurines and sets for the “Avenue A Cut-Out Theatre,” a homemade prop show that van Dalen has regularly performed since 1995.
The paintings fit into two definable categories: street scenes and surreal images of animals, the latter strange and largely inscrutable. “iMac, Wyandotte Chicken and Palette” (2009–11) depicts exactly what its title describes: a chicken bathed in the soft glow of a computer screen while standing on an artist’s palette. Set against a dark background and lit from within, the work playfully refers to the tradition of Dutch still life painting; however, unlike his Dutch forebears, van Dalen isn’t interested in painterly realism. His style is graphic. Objects are scrupulously delineated according to their shape.
The artist’s interest in form and construction is most apparent in the street paintings, in which the underlying pencil work remains purposely visible. The street scenes capture the everyday bustle of the East Village — dog walkers and trash collectors mingle with skeletons and personified food items under the shadows of tenement buildings. Intersecting street signs in the corners of each painting ground the viewer, reminding us that although the scenes are fantastical, they’re couched in geographic fact. As is characteristic of all great illustrators, van Dalen’s paintings strike a balance between imaginative license and visual legibility.
Especially noteworthy is the artist’s delicate use of wash and impasto. In “Stromboli Pizzaman” (2014), the features of the titular character — who is, in fact, a man made of pizza — are complimented by a subtle use of impasto. Thick smudges of paint lift the figure up from the canvas. The dress of a nearby stern-looking fashionista is dotted with tiny tactile dollops of yellow paint. These delicate touches bring van Dalen’s figures to life. The application of paint also underlines the personality and economic status of each character. A forlorn can collector, presented as an amoeba-like organism, is painted in a delicate blue wash. The use of impasto thus delineates the haves from the have-nots.
A key feature of “Stromboli Pizzaman” is a lack of interaction between the characters — the pizzaman doesn’t appear to acknowledge the impoverished can collector, despite walking straight towards him. Van Dalen seems to suggest that the effects of gentrification could be mitigated if we dedicated more time and thought to our local community; instead, we’re increasing trapped inside our own bubbles, not unlike the one that van Dalen has depicted around the fashionista’s head. There’s a deliberate parallel between the isolated figures and the uniform row of ATM machines shown inside the Bank of America branch behind them. Community has suffered at the expense of self-interest. Van Dalen’s recent turn towards color and vibrancy perfectly captures the pernicious and subtle qualities of contemporary gentrification, where shiny new apartments and affable artisanal stores mask a reality of horrendous economic inequality.
The third and final room of the exhibition houses pieces of the “Avenue A Cut-Out Theatre.” Mounted on wood, small models represent New York City’s denizens: the police, a homeless person, a dog walker, a limousine driver. As is typical of van Dalen’s earlier work, the color palette is mostly monochromatic, punctuated with occasional bursts of bright reds and dark greens. The pieces are designed to be as visually concise as possible: gentrification is represented as a looming tower with a dollar-sign façade; a small plant growing between three bricks symbolizes the neighborhood’s renowned community gardens. Specific local landmarks, such as the Pentecostal church at 250 East 3rd Street, make an appearance. A three-dimensional cardboard model of the artist’s home shows van Dalen tending to his pigeon coop on the roof, staring towards the sky and away from the tumultuous scenes below. Displayed along the back wall are four large “Cut-Out Panels” that function as a dramatic backdrop. Depicting skeletal riot officers, a can collector, and a man whose upper torso fuses with a house, these works specifically allude to the Tompkins Square Park Riot of 1988, during which a police curfew — intended to forcefully displace the park’s homeless squatters — turned into an overnight melee of violence.
On February 28, the gallery hosted a performance of the Cut-Out Theatre. Standing before a packed audience — many of whom were fellow artists and peers — van Dalen recounted amusing and tragic stories from his time living in the East Village. These included the stabbing of a bodega thief outside of a tombstone store, the tragic shooting of teenager Carmen Iris Rivera, and the incongruous appearance of limousines during the rise of the neighborhood’s gallery scene. Van Dalen’s cardboard house doubles as both a backpack and a storage unit for his props. One by one, the artist lifted figurines out of the box (seemingly at random), discussed their histories, and then placed them on a plinth before the audience. By the end of the hour, the plinth had become a model microcosm of the East Village. The event had the air of a school show-and-tell, with van Dalen simultaneously embodying the role of friendly grandfather and mischievous student. To describe it as a “performance” would somewhat misrepresent the candid and straightforward nature of his delivery.
Having spoken of the rapid changes effecting the neighborhood, the artist discussed the urgency with which he embarked on the Cut-Out project. After witnessing fellow artists struggle with grant applications, van Dalen turned to cheap materials such as cardboard and wood — appropriate media for a project charting the everyday occurrences of the street. Versatile and tactile, the artist’s figurines work both as props and as sculptures; he arranges the figures into a number of dramatic tableaux, like a toy set. In creating work that appeals to our childlike curiosity, the artist is able to make difficult subject matter palatable.
Van Dalen’s work does not proffer specific solutions to social ills such as gentrification, nor should it be expected to. What is does offer is a deeply humanitarian vision of cooperation and mutual respect. His work implores us to consider our community. The characters are typically contextualized as part of a larger scene, and even grotesque figures, such as the Stromboli Pizzaman, are rendered without spite or judgment.
In a recent interview with artist Martha Wilson, van Dalen briefly discussed Holland’s Protestant heritage: “The idea was that we all had to find a community where we lived, respond to that, and find meaning and grace in that life.” Such humility is present in his work. Van Dalen’s new paintings characterize the figure of the artist as an immutable, humble, and ever-adaptable individual. He pays reverence to all the people of New York, and as a result, his scenes are inflected with a great deal of warmth and humanity.
Anton van Dalen’s performance of the “Avenue A Cut-Out Theatre” took place at the PPOW Gallery (535 W 23rd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) on February 28. New Works and the Avenue A Cut-Out Theatre continues at the gallery through March 14.