Portrait of the Mutants as Young Artists

By Matthew Groening

Cooper Point Journal, April 8, 1976

The exhibition of over 70 paintings and drawings by Don Van Vliet and Cal Schenkel now on display in the Library Art Gallery is simply astounding. Van Vliet's playful, free-form images and Schenkel's carefully controlled and developed works are distinctive examples of intuitive art and graphic design.

Don Van Vliet is better known as Captain Beefheart, composer, poet, singer, and musician on such unique albums as Trout Mask Replica and Lick My Decals Off, Baby. His art, language, and music are all freely intuitive, full of visual and verbal double entendres which cannot be really appreciated without studying all of Van Vliet's output.

Van Vliet was recognized as an artist even as a child. He was discovered by famous Portugese sculptor Augustonio Rodriquez on a trip to the zoo, and was given his own weekly television show to demonstrate his art before he was a teenager. At thirteen Van Vliet received a scholarship to study art in Europe, but his parents did not allow him to go. Some of Van Vliet's art is scheduled to be printed in an upcoming issue of Esquire, and his drawing on the exhibitions poster will appear on the cover of the next Captain Beefheart album, Bat Chain Puller, soon to be released.

The six paintings by Don Van Vliet on display are covered with dark spattered slashes of acrylic color. Three of the paintings were created in 1970 in a three-day, non-stop painting session, and all have the look of fast and furious "action" paintings.

The 22 color pen drawings were selected from dozens of Van Vliet's sketchbooks. The colorful subjects include bizarre bug-like creatures, creepy-crawly earth babies, and a sneaky devil peeking out from behind a red pyramid. They show the same outrageousness as many of his more famous musical compositions, and share many of the same themes, especially his concern for the preservation of animals. Unfortunately nothing has been titled, and given Van Vliet's excellent lyrics and poetry, this is a real disappointment.

Cal Schenkel is a graphic artist and animator whose work has been chiefly associated with Frank Zappa. Schenkel has worked closely with Zappa since 1967 designing album covers, promotional materials, and animated films. His visual ideas seem unlimited, and their style and humor are a perfect complement to Zappa's music.

Most of Schenkel's works are directly related to his collaboration with Zappa. The original collage for the album We're Only In It For the Money, a brilliant visual parody of the Beatle's Sgt, Pepper's cover, is one of the many pieces being displayed publicly for the first time, The original art for the front and back covers of Uncle Meat stand out in malignant glory, full of dentists' teeth x-rays, moldy cotton, strings of glue, and an image of a skull with "1348" stenciled across the cranium.

Rough layouts, character sketches, and the final original ink/acrylic painting for the cover of The Grand Wazoo, which depicts an epic battle between two armies, one armed with horns and the other wilh violins, shows the process by which Schenkel carefully develops his ideas. It is especially interesting to compare the discarded plans with the actual finished work. The same is true for eight preparatory pieces of art for the recent One Size Fits All cover.

Some of Schenkel's best pieces have nothing to do with his work with Zappa. His Carte de le Tresvr de La Neuw Mond et Route de Voyag, Anno 1675 looks authentic at first glance. It is a distorted replica of a longlost treasure map on old brown paper with ripped edges and blood stains. A close reading reveals countless puns and injokes about Schenkel's world. A simpler piece is Duck Masters, similar in outline to the Dutch Masters cigar box painting, except that Schenkel's Masters all have duck beaks.

Because of the close working relationship Cal Schenkel has with Frank Zappa, the excellence of his own art has rarely been acknowledged. Zappa's public image overshadows their collaboration. But the few sketches on display for animated movies insure that this collaboration will be more balanced in the future. Further evidence is the "Dental Hygene Dilemma" cartoon sequence in Zappa's 1971 film 200 Motels. The fusion of completely controlled image with synchronized sound has limitless potential, and given Schenkel's versatile art talents and Zappa's mastery of complicated music, they should together create film/music masterpieces.

200 Motels and selected animation by Cal Schenkel are scheduled to be shown at Evergreen April 30. The Van Vliet/Schenkel Exhibition will continue through April 16. Exhibits Coordinator Lynda Weinman, who spent months organizing the show, is now making plans to put the exhibition on tour. Posters for the exhibit, designed by Cal Schenkel, are available at the bookstore or through Lynda Weinman, who can be reached at 866-6229.