Beat-up vans inspire photo-realist painting series

Beaten-up old vans are great for moving stuff. But for Sean Yelland, they’re also the stuff of art.

The Toronto artist’s new exhibition, Homeless Romantic, has just opened at the downtown Madrona Gallery.

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The centrepiece of the show is a dozen paintings of vintage vans, done in photo-realist style.

Some vans are dull blues and browns; others are neon reds and greens. Many are covered in graffiti (Yelland has named the series Vandalism).

These vehicles, seemingly abandoned, are pictured in lonely urban settings or deserted rural locales. The paintings are relatively small — all eight by 12 inches — but together they pack a visual wallop.

Yelland used a Canon PowerShot to take photos of the vans in Toronto over a period of years. He then created paintings using the images as inspiration.

“I tend to go for the older vans. And I wanted beat-up ones,” he said at the gallery.

Why vans? The artist can’t really say why.

He says he doesn’t like to over-explain his paintings. He works intuitively, painting any subject that speaks to him.

“The [van paintings] sort of tell a story all together, I think. They’re painted in all different seasons throughout the year.”

Homeless Romantic, Yelland’s first solo exhibition in Victoria, isn’t just vans.

In Brown Town, a massive 1970s American auto appears to stare down the viewer.

The Shut In portrays an old brick house at twilight, with just one window spookily lit up.

Abandoned-looking buildings surface in many of Yelland’s paintings.

These skilfully rendered works are so realistic, they look like photos at first glance. There’s a melancholic feeling to much of Yelland’s work, typically portraying desolate locales with no people in sight.

“I’m always attract to the downtrodden kind of places that have been forgotten. My catchphrase is ‘yelland-choly,’ because my last name’s Yelland,” he said with a smile.

A graduate of the Ontario College of Art and Design, Yelland has exhibited across Canada.

In 2011, he was shortlisted for the prestigious Kingston Prize, a national portraiture contest. His work has been reproduced in Harper’s Magazine, Saturday Night and Toro.

Often, Yelland’s paintings project an ominous quality, as though something unfortunate is about to happen.

One of his paintings (not in the Victoria exhibition) is This Is How I Feel All the Time. It portrays a commercial airliner flying mere feet above a wave- dappled ocean.

Michael Warren, who owns Madrona Gallery, has championed Yelland’s career for years.

“When I look at Sean’s work, it always makes me ask a question. There will be something missing, or something not quite right in it. It makes me interact more with it, because of that. I don’t think a lot of art does that,” Warren said.

Yelland says he likes to temper the menacing quality of his paintings with dark humour. Often, it’s found within the title.

A painting called The First Step is of a house lacking front steps; anyone venturing out the door would fall three metres. Another, Just a Moment, shows a truck pulling an Airstream trailer. The truck is on fire.

Like most of Yelland’s work, Just a Moment is taken from a photograph he took. It’s no artist’s embellishment — it was a real fire.

“It’s like he’s been waiting for his vacation forever and he just gets on the road. I don’t know why it’s funny, but it is,” he said.

Homeless Romantic continues at Madrona Gallery to Nov. 12.

achamberlain@timescolonist.com

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