Robert Willem Vanderhorst is a self-taught artist with a talent inherited from his father
and a technique born of a strong Dutch tradition in art. Emigrating from Holland to
Canada in 1951, he now lives in Toronto, Canada. In 1979, he began publishing limited
editions of his images under Vanderhorst Graphics. In 1973, he held his first solo
exhibition. Over the next three and a half decades, Vanderhorst’s imagery has been used
in many diverse ways, including in music videos, television programs, live stage
productions and record jacket designs, as well as illustrations in psychology journals and
aviation book covers. His paintings have been featured in almost thirty exhibitions,
culminating in two major retrospectives at the St. Lawrence Hall, Toronto in 2004 and
2005. Vanderhorst’s work has also been featured and explored in two DVDs titled View
from the Gallery 1 and View from the Gallery 2.
An Examination of Robert Vanderhorst’s Work
by Art Historian
The paintings of Robert Vanderhorst envision a world where psychological, social and material
processes are intimately entwined. While figurative, his work typically rejects static pictorial spaces
and linear narratives. Instead, a cumulative, serial or recombinant approach is evident in much of his
work. The resulting imagery is alternately familiar and estranged, direct and mediated, traditional and
unconventional. At play are subjects that are suspended in an imaginary environment that creates an
implicit tension in the painting. Vanderhorst’s environments are both transformative and in the
process of transformation — perpetually perched on the edge of becoming something else.
This leads to the splitting of conventional narratives. Vanderhorst’s paintings are frequently
unsettling because they displace and overlay one another in eventful and unanticipated ways. His
work provides an extensive root system, capable of presenting and sustaining a widely diverse variety
of classical, avant-garde and contemporary practices — particularly evident in his use of familiar
themes, colours and techniques — and translating them into works that are explicitly contemporary.
Vanderhorst’s paintings engage the viewer with multiple layers of meaning. He draws on a
rich amalgamation of visual sources, including René Magritte, Salvador Dalí, M.C. Escher and
Johannes Vermeer, but he inventively twists, subverts and recreates pictorial conventions with a
compelling intensity and originality. His subject matter floats in and out of pictorial genres; portraits
become events and landscapes become constructions.
In referencing or assimilating art-historical styles, Vanderhorst’s practice recounts the history
of painting. However, his work is not a critique of painting but rather, an exploration of it. In his
work, narrative and portraiture become something totally unexpected.
Classical Decadence (1977), for example, portrays an elderly woman gazing at the viewer,
surrounded by family portraits. Vanderhorst plays on the notion that portraiture not only testifies to
the presence of a person at a certain moment but also to the person’s death and our inability to make
time stand still. The uncanny atmosphere prophesies the woman’s death and hints at the demise of
her family’s Old World lifestyle.
Vanderhorst’s work inevitably explores the world’s multiple layers. In The Model Maker
(1987), he references Astronomer (1688) by Vermeer but inventively reconfigures the scene by placing
an F-86 Sabre jet floating above the tabletop. This painting embodies a combination of ancient
wisdom and modern science. Vanderhorst’s fascination with the technology of aviation conveys a
visual tension between time and technology, and questions the role of the artist in that intersection.
The Gift (1995/1996) portrays a secluded cove on a Northern Ontario lake. A fish is
hovering in the air, facing a swimmer. Here, Vanderhorst is playing with the notion of potlatch,
which means giving without any obligation. Usually, potlatch, in Native North American practices,
takes place as part of a spectacle that involves the giving of gifts for the particular purpose of
challenging others to do the same. In this painting, Vanderhorst leaves viewers to their own devices
in interpreting the scene. Who is giving? Who is being gifted? As is often the case in his work, there
are more questions than answers.
The Americanisation of Gustave’s Paris (1996) can be seen as a metaphor for the mass
consumption of culture. Vanderhorst appropriated the painting by French Impressionist Gustave
Caillebotte, Paris Street; Rainy Day (1876), and subverted the scenario by adding a huddle of American
football players. Everyone in the painting is wearing shoulder and thigh padding, 19th-century
Parisians and footballers alike. American football is the ultimate American sport and functions as an
icon of patriotism. In this painting, the ultimate American sport has invaded Paris. This whimsical
scene also plays on the art world’s continual self-reference by Vanderhorst’s appropriation of
Caillebotte’s painting; he intentionally subverts the original meaning in order to deliver a new one.
Vanderhorst’s work is also concerned with the nature of human experience. Imagine (2004)
portrays a young child’s first encounter with subjectivity — with spatial relations and a growing sense
of internal and external worlds. The child not only explores the landscape through touch but is also
involved in the creative process of imagination. In this painting, Vanderhorst juxtaposes the notions
of formed and formless, seen in the fluidity of the landscape and the child’s own shifting sense of self
in the larger world.
Indeed, like the child in Imagine, the viewer must explore Vanderhorst’s paintings to discover
what lies within. The work challenges our gaze and our assumptions — about reality and about art.
Ambiguity, irony, humour, optimism, pessimism and outright dreaming all co-exist in his work. His
art practice exposes a different reality by stripping ordinary objects of their normal significance in
order to create compelling images that move us beyond the beyond.