Nathan VanHook — Stroking It

Art & Design
Words by Taylor Dent — Photographs by Nicholas Peter Wilson

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When I first chatted with Nathan VanHook, he was working in Miami at Art Basel, and I was across the country, footing through the snow-sloshed sidewalks of downtown Portland. We were planning an “unstaged” photo shoot of his collection of paintings. Though he explained that he didn’t have a studio, per say, and he created the pieces out of his garage, or the living room, there was something compelling about his process that I wanted to document.

The art at stake was Nathan’s collection of paintings for “Stroking It.”, his upcoming show at One Grand Gallery on SE Burnside. The surfaces of the paintings is hard to describe, but if you’ve experienced the hypnotic phenomenon of Op-Art spirals, then you’re familiar with the visual trickery present in Nathan’s art. Though I’d only seen JPEGS from behind the laptop screen, the effect is still strong, and Nathan’s paintings appear to be pulsating; they literally vibrate outward from Google like Crayola-red supernovas. The strokes on the canvases have a dashed off, unsentimental quality; they’re the kind of pieces anyone can enjoy without knowing anything about art. Gazing at them is just, well, enjoyable.

Nathan is more prominently known as a Footwear Designer for Nike, currently in the role as a Footwear Design Director. After joining Nike in 2008, he created the Nike Aina Chukka, LunarTerra Arktos, and the Air Yeezy II, a collaboration with Kanye West. Outside of footwear, he’s created paintings for street installations and galleries under the moniker The Love Movement since 2005, showing work in major cities throughout the US, Europe, and Brasil.

One Sunday in December, I arrived at Nathan’s Portland home where he introduces himself and offers me a tour. In the dining room Cream was playing over the stereo and stacks of his wooden paintings from “Stroking It.” rested against the wall. On the table, glossy photos of supermodels Kate Moss and Christy Turlington were overlaid with Nathan’s signature brush strokes. “They are also glow-in-the-dark”, he said while holding up a picture of Naomi Campbell to the light, and then we talked about his upcoming  exhibition:

Taylor Dent: How did you get involved with One Grand Gallery for “Stroking It.”?

Nathan VanHook: I use to do a lot of gallery shows when I was living in L.A. I knew Jordan [Chan-Mendez] through a friend but I didn’t know he had a gallery. I saw this new gallery opened in Portland which had a Neck Face show and had had no clue it was Jordan’s Gallery. I had just finished doing a little exhibition / discussion in Portland called IT’S A PROCESS and we started talking about doing something together in the future. I showed him these brush stroke pieces I was working on and proposed to do a show entirely of brush stroke paintings, and he was sold.

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TD: How long have you been working on the show?

NVH: Four months.

TD: When do you normally find the time to work on the paintings?

NVH: I do them at night after my daughter goes to bed while hanging out with my wife watching television, but mostly I do them late into the night once my wife Amanda goes to bed.

TD: How did you get involved with Nike?

NVH: I was the Design Director for Body Glove Wetsuits in Los Angeles. I was looking for a new adventure and was accepted get my MFA at Central Saint Martin’s in London for painting. During the same time I noticed the great work Nike Sportswear was doing, and seeked out opportunities with their Creative Director. Fortunately a door opened at Nike and we moved up to Portland instead of London.

TD: How did the concept for “Stroking It.” come about?

NVH: I was in a large international art grouping called Human Pyramids and my buddy organized a print show In Barcelona and Malmo, Sweden based on CMYK, the printing colors. I did a piece for it messing around with the colors and the idea of mark making slowly radiating the colors and strokes out from the center to the edge of the page. In the end I created a really interesting color blob and the response from the piece in the show was great; and then I did a larger one for our house based on a circle and a couple more. I think things have to happen organically.

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TD: On press release for “Stroking It.” it says that you,“stroked over the faces of supermodels from your adolescence”. How did you come up with that idea?

NVH: I wanted to work on a variety of mediums for the show to mix it up. I had worked wood a lot in the past, as well as canvas, but I wanted to try something different. I had the idea of making masks with the use of my strokes and thought why not try one on Kate Moss. I expanded it to the six top supermodels of the 1990′s, my teenage years.

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After our brief chat downstairs, Nathan takes me upstairs to a small studio that contains a profusion of materials wedged into bookshelves: DIY zines, art books, art magazines and photos mingled with daughter Leighton’s illustrations, plus a botanical hat with a “Soupcreme’ ” label. Difficulty pronouncing it? It rhymes with James Jebbia’s red logo-ed skate wear company.

TD: Back to the “Stroking It.” images – can we see a demonstration? And how long does it take to do the images?

NVH: Sure, I can work on a piece in the middle of its process. I start with a center point and then create expanding circles. I start radiating brush strokes out larger from the center as the circle gets larger, the work is a derivitave of the process. The little ones I work on can take one night and the larger one’s take up to a week.

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When we go downstairs Nathan leads me to the family room and props up a large canvas of fluorescent yellow and blue strokes against the wall. This piece will be completed once he’s filled the negative space with enough red strokes to solidify the circular structure. As we talk while he paints strokes in the center of the canvas, the painstaking nature of the art becomes obvious.

TD: What are you listening to these days?

NVH: I think everyone in our generation listens to everything. I usually listen to the Stones while working or hip-hop. I will put on some Biggie, Wu-Tang, ASAP, Action Bronson, and dig around my iTunes. I also like working to the mix tapes of Been Trill.

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TD: Do you feel more inspired to do other side projects?

NVH: Nike is a pretty amazing place and if you get the opportunity to work there, you get the privilege to work with some of the top talents in the world. You want to do really amazing work when you’re there to stay at the level of everyone else. My job is very fulffilling and I’m older than when I use to do a lot more art projects in Los Angeles. I have a wife and a daughter now. But I still like to do one bigger side project a year, from a Mural Project at a Highschool in Brooklyn, to lectures, to an exhibition. Right now I Am all about “Stroking It.” and I like the idea of the process and seeing where it goes.

See the show 1/10 – 2/7 at One Grand Gallery (1000 SE Burnside St., Portland, OR 97214)

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