By Chet Bromstein
2020: James Van Way, Artist of the Year
James Van Way is a fixture in Lafayette, Louisiana’s cultural landscape; a sentimental statement, but it is true. Over the last twenty years he has played in experimental bands including Plush Claw, Curse Capital, Frames of Reference, and Markings. His bio seems like it could be pulled from Monty Python’s Flying Circus or Spinal Tap. Most know him as the long-time host of Out on the Fringe, The Flipside, and Ghost Towne, all on KRVS, NPR’s Lafayette affiliate. Van Way pushes boundaries into the weird and offbeat in ways that are pleasurable and accessible to his audiences, an approach he recently started to incorporate into his visual art practice. His work is a perfect fit for a year filled with crisis and confusion, at least as far as fundamentally understanding confusion is concerned.
Van Way is not new to painting and drawing, but he never approached it as seriously as his music. Not until recently, at least, since his musical style has crossed over into how he thinks about visual art. His current installation at the Acadiana Center for the Arts, titled James Van Way: Doodlebug & Them, is a strange tour de force that features cobbled together found object sculptures and emotive gestural paintings. A score Van Way composed fills the air of the exhibit, accompanied by a narrative stop-action animation created by Philippe Billeaudeaux under Van Way’s loose creative direction. Each piece of the exhibition has within itself a gravitation pull, which creates a physical space that is uniquely Van Way’s, and true to his style. The space he creates can follow the audience anywhere. Van Way’s score is published on Bandcamp as Jazz Under the Arches (www.jazzunderthearches.bandcamp.com) and Billeaudeaux’s animation is available on YouTube (https://youtu.be/7xRH4XssW7Q).
In mid-March when I first saw Van Way’s installation, I felt as if I had stepped into a psychedelic junkyard, and each work of art stood as an artifact connecting me to a world Van Way created. I found myself lost, fascinated, and wanting more. I stood in the middle of it all, surrounded by works of art that seemed somehow separate from the real world. It took some effort to understand what I saw, and I suspect a lot of people never get past this first, overwhelming impression. I poked and prodded each piece trying to find a way in (figuratively, of course). I thought of Klee and Pollock (Van Way’s favorites), Tracey Emin, Fred Wilson, and Rocha Yaghmai, but any connections I saw with their work was not real or concrete enough to give me direction.
The thing that brought it all together for me was Van Way’s narrative artist statement. I am still not sure it is really an artist statement. It may be an epic poem. Normally, I think artist statements ruin shows, but in this case it works. It frames the whole exhibit within a storytelling mechanism that explains all of Van Way’s intentions without relying on self-serious, academic phrases like “evocative juxtaposition,” “alchemical disjunction,” or “heuristic solipsism.” To me, his statement seemed like committed world-building, with each artwork presented like an artifact meant to give a sense of what it was like to inhabit his fictional realm. Van Way’s installation certainly has an air of weird for weird’s sake, but everything he communicates is delivered with such conviction it intermittently suspends this cynic’s disbelief. It feels like the hero (maybe Van Way), the unnamed painter who inspired the unnamed hero, and the quasi-alive mannequin muse Doodlebug are real people in the narrative. The lack of labels in the show also makes the objects seem more real and less like they are representations of abstract ideas. They get passed off as real things.
Van Way delivers everything with so much conviction I get a kick out of asking myself, “is this guy serious?” Yes and no. The answer, as with most things, is not simple. When asked about his influences, Van Way cited literary giants before musical or art historical ones. Kafka, Pynchon, Barth, Camus, and David Foster Wallace top his list. His work is a peculiar brew of absurd anti-authoritarianism that ironically winks at his audience while telling them irony is stupid. People are complicated. For me, this makes it clear how subjective the kernels of truth found in his storytelling are. They remind me that authenticity or commitment to an idea is not related to the truth, or right or wrong for that matter. As a result, James Van Way: Doodlebug & Them is extremely timely because it asks people to be incredulous.
Granted, Van Way seems to extend this invitation for the sake of thoughtful entertainment, but I think lessons learned from his work can speak to broader societal trends. Van Way’s installation at the Acadiana Center for the Arts is a prime example of how repetition legitimizes even the strangest ideas. That is a problem in a time of crisis, but his work reminds us of how complacent we are with respect to accepting the absurd in real life. I hope this anatomy of how misinformation is created results in a little outrage when readers are presented with misinformation in the future, but I worry about the melancholic disappointment and skepticism it brews in me. Why the hell can saying something stupid or believing something strange make it true?
James Van Way: Doodlebug & Them
Acadiana Center for the Arts, Lafayette, LA
On view March 14 – September 15, 2020 (extended in response to COVID-19 pandemic)
Chet Bromstein is a middling appropriation artist based in Dulac, Louisiana. You have never read his writing before.