Editor's note: The following essay, authored in 2002, was rekeyed and reprinted on October 16, 2002 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of Brauer Museum of Art, Valparaiso University and Gregg Hertzlieb. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you have interest in obtaining a copy, please contact Brauer Museum of Art through either this phone number or web address:


Timothy Van Laar (b. 1951), "Shadow Pictures," 1984

oil on canvas, Sloan Fund Purchase, Brauer Museum of Art, 86.22 Valparaiso University

by Gregg Hertzlieb


Timothy Van Laar's painting Shadow Pictures is one of the Brauer Museum's most popular pictures, due to not only the work's striking composition and lively surface, but also its enigmatic subject matter. Richard Brauer, the director of the museum at the time of its acquisition, admired the painting's stylized mode of representation but was primarily drawn to its puzzling, fascinating handling of a Christian message. Van Laar's work invites the viewer to look at the curious spiritual scenario and attempt to understand what exactly is happening on this symbolic stage.

Before, however, addressing the subject matter of the work, one should concentrate on the representational style that Van Laar uses here. His paintings from the 1980's are characterized by a stylized figuration, very different from his more abstract, atmospheric current work. Objects depicted in the picture are highly simplified in a manner reminiscent of comic illustration, children's books, or even medieval art. Such a simplification suggests that objects or figures are not meant to be thought of as specific or portrait-like; rather, these items are visual reminders or symbols of ideas, with the overall message of the work more important than a focus on any of its components. However, unlike illustration of various types (and unlike the precious surfaces of medieval paintings, which, although highly stylized in representation, are rich with gold leaf or jewel-like layers of tempera), Van Laar's painting has a painterly surface, with glistening passages of oil paint brushed wetly across the canvas, sometimes blending but mostly staying boldly and distinctly within forms to give the work its graphic character. Thus, Shadow Pictures has an illustrative feel to it due to the clear and distinct nature of the represented items in the picture. The ambiguity of the depicted actions, though, coupled with the delightful surface removes the work from the illustrative realm and places it firmly in art's more intuitive, metaphorical area of concerns. Van Laar reduces his scene and mode of representation to their essentials and then enriches his distilled vision with skillful paint handling and careful orchestration of light and dark tones.

The main light source of the picture is a highly generalized projector, largely without detail, that seems to shoot cartoonish rays of light from its cannon-like lens. The projector here has a metaphorical or symbolic function and needs to be considered in terms of its mechanics. Projectors typically operate by shining light through a picture, typically a slide or film frame. Thus, projectors 1) project an image onto a wall or screen, 2) shine light through or illuminate an image, and by so doing 3) use the power of their light to make an image enlarged and comprehensible for the viewer. While Van Laar's projector produces raw light without the intermediate transparency of slide or film, several words or concepts in the description above are significant and meaningful for interpretation. For instance, the word illuminated may refer to not only a physical phenomenon, but also the production of a spiritual or intellectual awareness. The concept of projection seems to deal with both the act of physically enlarging an image through light and dramatically focusing on a particular isolated notion so that viewers pay extra attention to it. Projecting onto a wall or screen through illumination, therefore, seems to refer rather poetically to the artmaking practice in general. Van Laar's painting on the wall is a projection of ideas gained through illumination. His personal experience with light, or The Light, is what he wishes to communicate through his two dimensional creation displayed on the gallery wall.

This sense of personal revelation is reinforced by the bareness of the stage that serves as the setting or arena in which the pictorial action takes place. A stage is by nature not a private space; it is an open setting meant to present to viewers some significant action for both their entertainment and edification. The generalized, nondescript character of the stool and projecting device ensures that nothing distracts from the gesture or activity taking place on center stage. Interestingly, what seems to be this key gesture appears to be obscured or hidden by a suspended sheet. That is, the human figure, so often the primary subject of a work of art, is purposely hidden by the artist so that the viewer pays primary attention to what that figure is doing. Here is yet another example of certain elements or concerns subordinated in order for the artist to guide the viewer's attention to the main theme of the work. The presence of hands and feet provides the viewer with evidence of a human figure standing between the projector and sheet. Yet the shadow and the meaning of that shadow are more important than the person's identity; witness, as further evidence of the shadow's significance, the legs in the shadow straight and together, as opposed to the figure's feet spread widely apart indicating a different pose. A precise and accurate transcription of the cast shadow is less significant than the idea the shadow pose expresses.

The shadow pose would clearly strike most viewers as mirroring the pose of the crucified Christ. While such a pose could be found in other places or contexts, the straight body with outstretched arms is so deeply embedded in Western consciousness that the association of this body position to Christ is immediate and nearly without question. Van Laar in fact could have even intended a different meaning for his painting and the figure's gesture. However, the frontal cross-shaped pose is so strong in its history of associations that viewers may automatically assume a Christian basis for the picture. Viewers, then, see the shadow not necessarily representing Jesus, but more referring to the divine nature of the crucified form.

The shadow is without interior detail. Thus, once again Van Laar directs viewer attention to the most significant elements within the work. The shadow is cast by a man (the shapes of the figure's hands and the type of shoes seem to indicate that the figure is male), a point which seems to relate to both the humanity of Jesus and Christ's spirit residing in the human heart. Thus, the artist seems to be offering a dramatic revealing of a Christian soul or essence, brought about by a climactic bathing in powerful light. Earlier parallels with the terminology of art making, however, would lead one to expand on this Christian analysis. An experience of the divine, in other words, is brought about by the illuminating, enlightening execution of the creative act. Through making, viewing and comprehending art, human beings are able to gain a sense of God, the Holy Spirit, or secular Truth (although only a shadow picture is possible; to fully comprehend or capture such splendor is beyond human capability). Van Laar's stretched sheet is a metaphor for his canvas; the shadow silhouette is a metaphor for his artistic soul. Like all artists who feel the need to express the inexpressible through highly personal creative products, Van Laar manipulates his chosen images to communicate the ideas that all works of art, faithfully and sincerely produced, are manifestations of the artist's spirit. The desire to celebrate and comprehend pure beauty and the quest to express one's admiration and gratitude for that beauty lead the artist down a path of humility. The act of painting, the act of making art, therefore becomes an exercise in devotion, faith, and worship. Van Laar does not wish the viewer to stop at an identification of Christ or the crucifixion. He wants the viewer to see that his honest work, his best effort, has led him to the point where he feels himself closer to the glorious yet humble, human yet divine, beauty within himself. Just as the strong light projects his image on the sheet, so too might art project a clarifying light to enable viewers to discover within themselves a marvelous spiritual force.

About the author

Gregg Hertzlieb is director of the Brauer Museum of Art.


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