Brendan Van Hek

Reflecting on his current exhibition "new and unrelated works," Brendan Van Hek speaks with Erin McFadyen about systems of negation, works which frame their viewers, and how his ongoing work with neon shapes his broader approach to materials.

The title of your current exhibition at Sarah Cottier Gallery, new and unrelated works, brings to the fore an idea of modularity – or of component parts coming into configuration together – which (I think) has rippled through some of your shows in the past too. How did you piece together this exhibition, and how was that similar or different to past shows? 

This idea of modularity is certainly something I bring to the way I put shows together. It’s also something I consider in my approach to daily life. I assume that things, no matter how close or far apart they are, might bear some connection or relation to each other. It’s not so far fetched that two seemingly disparate ideas might effect or connect to each other. How this happens may not be immediately visible, and I don’t think it’s a simple equation where A + B = C. This for me is an absolute oversimplification of what are often complex situations. This oversimplification, I feel, feeds into systems of negation, nullification, and exclusion. An overarching theme in the show is the idea of frames and how they are used as devices. I am considering the ways in which they operate to include or exclude. So, when I put shows together, I am thinking about all of the elements in an open conversation, there is no definitive picture I am hoping to present but rather something that shifts and changes as you engage with the work. I am hoping to highlight the complexities that exists between things.

When I put shows together, I have a reasonably good idea of where I want to place the works in the gallery. Of course this changes when you’re in the space, and often there are surprises when you finally see the work outside of the studio. This, however, was a very tough exhibition to put together, and the placement of works didn’t come so easily. Works went up slowly and one at a time. A couple of the wall works were quite involved to put up and others couldn’t be installed until these were completed. 

In this show, I have included works that have already been exhibited (from 2017 up until fairly recently, with some work already shown at Sarah Cottier Gallery). These are placed alongside newly produced works. I wasn’t trying to construct any clear narrative between them, but rather looking at the possible relations that might come up or what the effect might be when they rub up against each other. 

I am re-presenting these works not only with the hope that I’ll find out something new about them, but also out of a frustration with a system that generally only values the new. As artists, we are always making new work and a lot of it may only see the light of day once or twice before getting packed away in studios, never to be seen again. In the scope of an artist’s practice these works can be so important; they bring an audience into the artist’s thought processes and arc of development. 

I’d like to ask you about material. You’ve had a long relationship with neon, and more recently have explored glass as well, notably after a Canberra Glassworks residency in 2019. I have two questions here: Firstly, how has your relationship with neon changed or remained constant over time? And, how (if at all) has work with any one material shaped your relationship to others? 

I have been working with neon for a long time, since late 2007 when I made my first neon work for a mini exhibition in Sherman Galleries Artbox, which was set up as an opportunity for early career artists. It was a small-scale text work that read “lead heart.” Since then, I have made numerous neon works, both for the gallery and at a much larger scale for public spaces. My most recent public commission City Lights, 2019, for Little Hay St. in Darling Square, Sydney, is a nest of neon and metal, measuring five metres in all directions and suspended eight metres up from the ground. I am currently working on a large-scale neon wall work, to be completed later this year, for a public space in Bondi Junction, Sydney, that measures seven metres high by twenty-seven metres in length. Neon still has a strong presence in my practice, but I’ve been expanding beyond it and returning to materials that have always interested me such as glass, metal, mirrors, and furniture. The cost of producing neon has gone up significantly as the industry has shrunk considerably in recent years, so this has had an impact on its accessibility and viability. 

I think neon, with its different associations, its boldness, and as a light emitting material, has had a significant impact on the way I consider other materials. It is a material that has a very strong presence and can take up a lot of space, it is unapologetic about this, and yet is largely intangible (light being immaterial). You really have to have a good understanding of what it does in terms of how much light it emits, how the light travels and how different neon colours mix or sit in relation to each other. What I’ve gained through my work with neon has helped considerably when making decisions about colour for works. I’m often looking at how light is reflected and absorbed and how this might effect an environment spatially. 

The sightline mirrors, 2019, remind me a little of some of your neon works like horizon (warm white, white), 2014, in the way that the fields of the works are split horizontally. Do these works have anything to do with each other, or is the resemblance happenstance? 

These works are definitely related, both practically and conceptually. The straight horizontal line drawn in both functions as a visual tool, but operates in different ways between them. In the Horizon work, the line is literally there to represent a horizon line. It’s about a point that is forever deferred and the illusion of somewhere that doesn’t exist. It’s a dream place, it’s somewhere unreachable. The Horizon works are an ongoing series that I started back in 2014. They take neon’s historical association to advertising and signage as a conceptual basis. They are about dreams for sale, dreams that can be bought, switched on and off. They are hollow dreams. There is the allure of neon, the allure of a dream, yet they are empty dreams. These works emit light, they are intense. You are both drawn to and repelled by them at the same time.  Visually, your eye flips between colours – it’s not stationary. You are absorbed into it.

In sightline, the horizontal line has the function of obscuring information. A bottom section across two mirrors is spray-painted white. It splits the reflective field and interrupts your view. The spray-painted line repositions you. The mirror could potentially be a portal to somewhere else, but the line creates an obstruction, it doesn’t allow you to enter. It could potentially trip you over. It doesn’t allow you to drift or dream, you are made more aware of your surroundings. The work employs negation as a tactic that comes up recurrently in my work.

I’m excited to see that there’s a carpet work in your current show, which reminds me of your work for The National in 2019 – both insofar as you’re using carpet, but also in the frame-like shape of the piece. I remember that the work for The National felt a lot to do with how a space might invite us to behave in certain ways, as well as frustrate our understanding of exactly what we’re being invited to do. How was your thinking similar or different for this new work with carpet?

I like your observations on something to hold onto, that I made for The National. My intentions with this work was to raise questions about our patterns of behaviour and movement, and how we engage with the world around us. I have taken an everyday diagonal-striped graphic that is used to alert us to a potential hazard or danger, and blown it up large scale and spray-painted it onto carpet tiles. The spray-painted pattern is not fixed and is unstable, and over the course of the exhibition it smudges, and deteriorates. As people walked through and engaged with the work they carried it with them. The audience is an active participant in the simultaneous making and undoing of this work. In many ways we are living in very uncertain times, and any small action can have enormous repercussions. One of the ideas I wanted to convey in this work through the element of participation is our need to be aware of the potential consequences of our actions.

With the new carpet work, unlike something to hold onto, the work is permanent. I used two different types of carpet pile – a flat one and a shag. The black shag frame is raised above the flat carpet pile and becomes a frame within the frame of the carpet/rug. I have slightly shifted its orientation, creating two entry points into the frame. While we are given license to enter the frame, it can also trip us up, we can find ourselves accidentally within/outside of the frame, the tilt giving the work (and ground) a sense of vertigo and distorting our understanding of where we’re standing.

The edge of the field (the frame) is both defined and denied, softened and playful in the soft shag, slipping off to one side. What happens when we enter into this field? How does it frame us? In this work, what is different to something to hold onto is that we are not making/unmaking the work but being guided by it.

Lastly, I’d like to ask about the work counter measure. This work seems “machinic” in a kind of similar-but-different way to your light works, and works with cables/electricity. Can you tell me a little about this piece?

This work is an accumulation of parts that I have been collecting over the years. I never really thought about this before until now, but it’s a work that came together quite organically. The blue acrylic rods I bought in New York back in 2012 when I was on a three-month residency, and the wood and metal cups were inherited in 2017 from a metal spinner who used to have a workshop next door to my studio. I have always been interested in materials for their inherent qualities and how these can be activated. I’m also interested in recycled materials for their history and what might be revealed through their markings, surface coverings, etc.

I had originally conceived of this work quite differently to how it’s been presented in the gallery. I wanted the wood in its raw state, with stains and painted areas, and for there to be something transformative about it. But this didn’t work out. Basically, I was so far away from my original idea that I had to abandon it and re-think the work. This is where the other parts came into play, and it became about position and strategy, and again, a kind of negation of the material. 

I understand why you describe this as “machinic” – there is a sense of functionality or the force/mechanics of making this work. Having lost the rawness of its original state, it takes on a “fake” quality, it suddenly seems quite manufactured but remains quite obvious about its workings; there are no hidden tricks. It takes me back to my earlier description of a horizon, which while trading in effect and illusion makes us aware of its mechanics and the potential to just be switched off.

Brendan Van Hek: new and unrelated works
4 February – 4 March 2023
Sarah Cottier Gallery, Sydney

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