Conversation pieces

Talking art with Camille VandenBerge and John Tarahteeff

Camille VandenBerge, in a forest of her own making.

Camille VandenBerge, in a forest of her own making.

Photo By David Brooks

Camille VandenBerge answers the door of her East Sacramento home with tears in her eyes. She and John Tarahteeff, her close friend and artistic colleague, were trying to move one of her towering ceramic sculptures, and it toppled over and cracked.

It’s raining outside.

In the studio of the sparsely furnished home, the nearly 7-foot-tall sculpture, “All BlossoMe,” appears relatively intact. The fact that VandenBerge has been traumatized by the fall points more to her relationship with her work than to the extent of the damage. “All BlossoMe,” like the other female statues towering in the room, is a friend, and her pain is VandenBerge’s pain.

Daughter of local artists Peter and Marilyn VandenBerge, Camille says she had a happy but introverted childhood. Whereas other kids hurried home from school to play with their friends, she hurried home to make friends up. She’d put strips of scotch tape across her eyes to make herself look Asian. She’d become a completely different person.

“I was alone, and these characters could help me,” she remembers. “I think a painting or a sculpture can help you. That’s why art is OK; it’s not this horrible and selfish thing.”

VandenBerge, now all grown up, is still playing make-believe, and the art world is taking notice. She has her first showing in Chicago this month at the SOFA Gallery, as well as a combined show with painter Tarahteeff, another local emerging artist, at the Solomon Dubnick Gallery.

The inner life VandenBerge shares with each piece seems to animate the half-dozen elongated female figures in her studio. Their shapes and textures are impossible: pencil-thin waists, elasticized arms and legs, solid chunks of hair, porcelain complexions, gouges in their surfaces like petroglyphs. Yet her figures never seem cartoonish. The colors are organic—sky blues, sunflower yellows, leafy greens—and seem to vibrate with a gentle vitality. If all of her sculptures were to come to life this very instant, it would seem entirely plausible.

“They’re standing in the eye of the hurricane,” she says. “They’re in there, in the eye of the hurricane, and they know they’re in the eye of the hurricane, and they’re not about to leave.”

“They’re not fooling around,” Tarahteeff agrees. “They’re serious.”

The association between Tarahteeff and VandenBerge has proven mutually beneficial. Tarahteeff’s paintings approach the wounded psyche through complex patterns that create associations between human beings via seemingly unrelated objects; they are, to a certain extent, intellectual means to an emotional end. His work is moving, but he’s the first to admit that it needs to keep moving forward, and he admires the intuition he sees in VandenBerge’s work.

“As I’ve looked at her work more and more, what’s impacted me is the way she uses the color and the texture,” he says. “There’s this relationship that goes on—how the color falls in the cracks, or how it sits on top of the bumps or whatnot. There’s this inner connection that I’m always looking at, how she works the color and texture together, because in my painting that’s becoming more important.”

The scrapes and gouges that score the surfaces of VandenBerge’s work are never planned out, she says.

“I don’t even know that I exist at the time. When I come out of it, when sculpting time is over, and it’s Camille time again, I just go like, [she sings] Oh, my gosh!”

“With her, it just seems intuitive; they’re like aboriginal writings on some rock,” Tarahteeff adds. “When she’s working on these things, it’s like a flourish, and she’s not thinking.”

Tarahteeff’s previous show at Solomon Dubnick, Idylls & Exiles, was a gutsy exploration of the tumultuous world of adolescents. The cut-up narratives of his mural-like work defied strict literal interpretation, but the teenage preoccupation with sex and bodily functions is certainly immanent as a theme. At times lacking a model for his female figures, Tarahteeff used himself, adding the element of gender confusion to the work. There may be disagreement about what the message is, but it is impossible to walk away and not think something.

What VandenBerge has perhaps gained from her association with Tarahteeff is the courage to explore similar ideas in her medium. While her previous work seems to exist in an almost Zen-like harmony, her latest ceramic sculptures are of characters who are engaging the world.

For instance, there’s “None,” an investigation of the ascetic life led by nuns. The figure’s habit juts off both sides of her head like the horns of a bull. From the rear, the horns are red, as if they have been dipped in blood. “Leda and the Swan,” is a contemporary take on the Greek myth, in which Zeus transformed himself into a swan in order to rape Leda. VandenBerge transforms Zeus into something more akin to a rubber ducky, empowering the fire-haired Leda. “BlossomMe Teen” is VandenBerge’s foray into adolescence; the thin, questioning figure beckons with her hands to the flowers at her feet—which can be picked by the viewer if so desired.

Like Tarahteeff, VandenBerge resists any single interpretation of her pieces.

“Maybe she’s offering the flowers,” she says slyly. “But then again, maybe if she does it too much, they’ll all be gone.”

“Notice that all the male figures are props,” says Tarahteeff. He’s poking a little fun at VandenBerge’s choice to sculpt mainly female figures, a misguided criticism of her previous work. It’s taken with good humor.

“Just wait till we get to your stuff,” she says.

The drive over to the Solomon Dubnick Gallery occurs under a tremendous cloudburst. At the intersection of Fair Oaks and Howe, VandenBerge jumps out of Tarahteeff’s truck and opens her arms to the pouring rain. She runs around the truck in a circle once and gets back in.

At the gallery, it’s immediately clear that Tarahteeff has negotiated his adolescent phase and is on to more adult subject matter. VandenBerge served as a model for most of his latest work, but she’s not at all self-conscious about seeing herself exposed on canvas. Working in acrylic, Tarahteeff has achieved a darker overall tone than the pastel hues of his previous work. It gives the paintings a brooding, romantic quality that suits the subject matter—the complex emotional relationships between men and women—perfectly.

In “The Void” and “The Pearls,” VandenBerge finds evidence that Tarahteeff’s intuitive powers are growing.

“The Void” depicts a woman squatting on phallic tree stump above an empty, stained mattress. An empty sky takes up most of the middle of the painting. A brick building with a single black window stands across from the woman.

“This is my favorite part,” she says, reaching into the black window. “It’s two little fishing hooks stuck together in the black. It’s something real; it’s not make-believe. It’s something you can touch.”

“The Pearls,” perhaps the finest example of Tarahteeff’s latest work, explores the dynamic tension that holds two people together—and pushes them apart. The figures in the painting, Tarahteeff and VandenBerge, are close, yet not touching. A strand of pearls symbolizes their connection, but the space between them seems to indicate that neither may ever truly know the other.

“This is the kind of thing that I love about what John is doing now,” she says, pointing to the edge of a lawn in the painting. “There’s no reason for this green grass to all of a sudden be blue.” She points to the side of a tree. “Or you just put purple, all of a sudden, on the side of this tree. That’s an important place to go. A tree should never just have a brown trunk because it has a brown trunk. Put a blob of purple there, put a blob of blue on the green grass … because you want to.”

“The Boat” proves that Tarahteeff hasn’t lost the ability to disturb and provoke. In it, a muscular man behind the stern of a phallic boat scowls at a reclining woman in the foreground. The woman gazes longingly at a baby boy on the boat’s prow. At her feet is a box with an open lid, and a cane is poised in her hand, ready to slam the lid shut.

“He’s too scary; I want to just take him and peel him off, and it looks like you can,” VandenBerge says. “He has this look on his face, like he’s crazy, like ‘I’m taking the kid and leaving her.’ “

But what if the man is the one that’s scared, because she’s going to trap him in the box?

“But he won’t fit in the box.”

But what if the man and the baby represent the same person, and the baby will fit in the box?

She still doesn’t think the box is a trap.

“She has her head turned; she doesn’t want anything to do with that [the scowling man]. She wants this little guy; he’s like a little ball of love.”

What about the cane?

“A cane is just a crutch. It’s what people use when they’re broken or crippled.”

“Isn’t that’s what people use sometimes, some people who are broken and crippled and need security, to attract


Tarahteeff asks.

The interpretation of the painting sinks in, and VandenBerge is silent, weighing the fact that the figures depicted in “The Boat” happen to look a lot like her and Tarahteeff. Art and reality blur for an instant. A dark look passes over her face. Then she brightens up.

“Art is like our dreams, in that all of the characters are aspects of ourselves,” she says. “All the ladies are me, and all of the things that have been done to them, the scores, the marks, and the cats and the birds stuck to them.” She’s been referring to her work, and now she indicates the paintings in the room, and speaks to Tarahteeff. “All of these guys, even the women, they’re all aspects of you, that little baby is you, and even the woman is you.”

As they leave the gallery, they seem satisfied with the explanation.

Outside, it is still raining.