Brendan Van Hek: Salvaging Light
Brendan Van Hek’s reference to domestic space doesn’t mean he’s abandoned the cityscapes that prompted his earliest work with salvaged neon.
Words: Ingrid Periz
Photography: Maja Baska
Perth-born Brendan Van Hek’s work ranges from large-scale installations using neon, mirrors, glass and assorted found objects to works on paper and prints. “Interdisciplinary,” is how he describes it and in this mix, light is key. Critic John Barrett-Lennard has called Van Hek’s light works “not just windows to be looked through, but images to be entered into,” while Andrew Frost noted his use of reflected light “takes these stunning sculptures to another realm.” Van Hek, who is now based in Sydney, recalls Perth’s particular atmospherics. “I distinctly remember the starkness of the light and it’s something people who visit comment on. I always think of Perth being bleached out by that light and it’s… shaped the culture and the way the city has come together and continues to develop.” When Van Hek uses neon it can evoke landscape, as in the Horizon series where two fields of differently coloured neon strips abut each other, as well as the built environment of nocturnal city spaces. Liking the medium for its malleability, Van Hek loops and suspends it in works he’s called “neon drawings” as well as in sculptural configurations with other materials. Along with the scavenged furniture and house fittings that featured in his earliest works, objects that in his words “have a history and carry in them clues of the past,” neon has its own historical references to the cityscape of the 20th century in all its advertising promise and film noirish threat. Using scavenged as well as purpose-made neon Van Hek exploits the medium’s association with signage in enigmatic ideograms like Colour Composition No. 1 (2011), arced ribbons of colour affixed to wooden bases in the continual condition-three shades of white (2016), and directional phrases like The path to luck (2011).
Perth is sometimes called the most isolated city in the world and three residencies which took Van Hek away from his birthplace have proved hugely influential. In 2007, after six years of solid exhibition history in Western Australia, Van Hek spent three months in Sydney at Artspace’s Gunnery. He found Sydney offered better international connections and more possibilities than Perth and it was here that he first used neon in lead heart, a text piece. This was a shift in medium he remembers as “an organic transition from the light bulbs and fluorescent tubes” used in previous work. He adds, “My main attraction to neon was its association to the city, whether it be nostalgic or speaking about the future.”
Western Australia continued to be supportive. In 2009 Van Hek won the City of Joondalup Invitation Art Award and in 2011, the Art Gallery of Western Australia Stringer Award. That same year the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts hosted his solo exhibition A Certain Slant of Light. One year later a residency at New York’s International Studio & Curatorial Program proved galvanizing. “It had an enormous impact on my work, a lot of ideas I was considering before I left Australia became possible. The attitude in New York that anything can happen had a huge impression on me.” A subsequent New York visit where he spent time examining works by neon pioneer Dan Flavin and minimalist sculptor Donald Judd was similarly fruitful, the work aligning with Van Hek’s recent combination of neon and furniture-like wooden forms.
Last year a residency closer to home, at the Canberra Glassworks, allowed him to work with British master neon-maker Richard Wheater and develop a serious interest in what he calls “the glass side of things.” Over a 10-month period working with the Glassworks, Van Hek has been producing hand-blown glass forms. Still in development, these forms will be part of his forthcoming exhibition at Sarah Cottier Gallery in Sydney. Also on view will be further work in the Horizon series and his most current combinations of neon, metal and glass forms, and what he calls “furniture-like supports.” These “have no function, as furniture might have, instead they suggest how things might come together in a domestic space, how at times disparate elements might find a way to cohabit.”
Van Hek’s reference to domestic space doesn’t mean he’s abandoned the cityscapes that prompted his earliest work with salvaged neon. He is currently working on an animated neon commission for the City of Perth as well as several public art projects. Whether domestic or public, nostalgic or future- thinking, Van Hek’s work shows neon ‘cohabiting’ well beyond the limits of the illuminated sign.
HANNAH MATHEWS Senior Curator Monash University of Art Museum, Melbourne
“I first encountered Brendan’s work when I was curator at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts and was drawn to his interest in urban space, assemblage and the role that illumination could play in connecting histories and spatial relationships.
“Since then, Brendan’s practice has crystalised, becoming focused almost exclusively on the medium of neon sculpture. This commitment to exploring the potential of a single material has continued to compel me. He really delves into the language and possibilities of neon, its history and its future. While his work also has a strong formal language, it can just as quickly turn its hand to site, experimentation and even autobiography.
“Most recently Brendan has been testing the boundaries of neon and colour. The works often manifest through an exploration of the domestic, becoming about the inhabitance of space, and drawing upon considerations of how we relate to each other in both social and political terms. This puts his work in dialogue with international artists like Jorge Pardo and Pedro Cabrita-Reis, who have successfully taken similar approaches to consider local and global affairs through everyday domestic environments.
“It’s an exciting time in the development of Brendan’s practice. He continues to push the boundaries of neon while returning to the layered conversations that can occur between light, sculpture and design. The varied directions that he’s exploring at the moment through different materials offers a number of possibilities for the work. I’m keen to see how he will shape and form these explorations. I know they will be singular in style, witty and sensitive.” – Paris Lettau
SARAH COTTIER Director Sarah Cottier Gallery, Sydney
Sarah Cottier first encountered Brendan Van Hek’s work at ACCA Melbourne when he was included in NEW11, curated by Hannah Mathews. “I appreciated its calm order in comparison to the hurly burly in Justene Williams’ (whom I also represent) installation immediately adjacent.”
However, it was seeing his work Horizon (warm white, cool white) at the 2014 Blake prize for Religious Art (at COFA galleries) that she says really took her breath away. “It is an extremely powerful work, the closest thing possible to a religious experience for an atheist gallerist!”
Sarah has since witnessed Van Hek’s work flourish, including in recent years through large public commissions that incorporate functional as well aesthetic components. “The marriage of form and function has opened up fascinating possibilities within Brendan’s art practice.” It will also inform his next exhibition at Sarah Cottier Gallery, titled The Scene was Set, in which he has been working with a furniture maker and the Canberra Glassworks to, as Sarah describes it, “populate the gallery with a series of neon-incorporating sculptural forms that will suggest potential narratives and fictional applications.”
“Brendan exacts a remarkable poetry with his work”, says Sarah. “Dealing with elemental properties of light and reflective surfaces, he not only constructs concise and minimal forms, he manages to invest his artworks with a strange emotional power: a melancholy generated by the visceral effect of intense luminosity.”
So, what kind collector does Van Hek’s work resonate with? Sarah answers this question in truthful jest: “An enlightened one!” – Paris Lettau
Brendan Van Hek will be showing at Sarah Cottier Gallery, Sydney from 27 July – 26 August, 2017.
This article was originally published in Art Collector issue 81, JUL-SEP, 2017.