Art People: life's a beach for J. Deryll Von Gunten | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Art People: life's a beach for J. Deryll Von Gunten 

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In 1976 J. Deryll Von Gunten and his Mennonite singles group took a bus to the resort town of Virginia Beach, Virginia, for the Fourth of July weekend ("We're the more liberal type of Mennonites"). Von Gunten, an amateur painter, spent most of his time taking loads of candid shots of frolicking group members. "Sometimes they got annoyed with me," he remembers.

At the time Von Gunten was 29 and living with his parents in Berne, Indiana, a town of 3,000 near the Ohio border. Until the church trip, he'd been painting the same old subjects as all the other artists in town--flowers, fruit, covered bridges, and reproductions of old masters. He'd sold about 15 of those paintings, but he wasn't happy with them. "When I got back from Virginia Beach I began to think I really wanted to pursue a career as an artist, but I couldn't rely on copying old masters," says Von Gunten, who attended an art school in Indiana for a couple years but is mostly self-taught. "You should use your own images and create your own style."

When he got the photos from his trip developed, "they were really good," he says. "In the back of my mind were artists like Frederic Remington, who went west and did drawings and later went back to their studios and made paintings based on those drawings."

He started painting from the photos of his trip, combining images of women in bathing suits lounging on the shore with his self-portrait or other items to comment on things like relationships, gender inequality, censorship, and racism. Since 1977 he's created some 48 large-scale paintings as part of his ongoing "Virginia Beach Series."

In the self-portrait Amorophobia Von Gunten is sitting on a beach, holding a camera. At the other end of the painting is an enlarged Polaroid of a woman reading a magazine. Ending This Relationship and Overcoming the Feelings is dominated by a woman in a bikini carrying a pile of newspapers. Von Gunten stands with his arms folded at the bottom; above him a little boy peers into a bucket embedded in the sand.

"Norman Rockwell painted from photographs," says Von Gunten, who is as deliberate in his speech as he is with his paintings, which take several months to complete and over a year to dry (after which he applies a coat of varnish for a photographlike finish). "Whatever I photograph I do to draw from as a guide, because I can't get people to come into my studio and sit for hours on end."

Other paintings are inspired by Larry King Live, newsmagazines, and the old masters. Black Monday, his colorful take on the stock market crash of 1987, is dominated by dollar bills and a nude woman on the beach copied from Ingres' 1848 painting Venus Anadyomene. ("The women I know in Berne would never pose in the nude," he says.) A recent work, Mr. Punxsutawney, grew out of an article in the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette about the famous Groundhog Day festival in Pennsylvania. Von Gunten painted from a photo he took of a groundhog on some railroad tracks near his home. The painting relocates the rodent to Virginia Beach and bears the captions "In Virginia, shadowboxing is permitted" and "Mr. Punxsutawney, where are your earmuffs?"

Von Gunten says he sticks with the beach images because it's his "thing." "When you are doing your own series, it's like your fingerprint. It's unique." Over the years he's expanded his archive of beach images with self-portraits and pictures of his sister and niece in their bikinis on their visits to Berne.

But his work hasn't made a big splash in Berne, where he still lives with his parents. "A lot of people here are interested in church or playing golf. If I talk to them about Caravaggio or Monet or Renoir, they maybe have heard of their names. I'm sure they've heard of Andy Warhol's soup cans. But it's like I'm in a different community. They're not against art. They just don't know that much about it." Nor has his vocation brought him much female attention, though he says he's had "a few but not a whole lot" of girlfriends over the years. "As far as relationships are concerned, I'm painting it into my paintings."

To make ends meet Von Gunten mows lawns "for older widow ladies" and is a part-time landscaper at the post office. "I think it'd be next to impossible [to leave]. I couldn't afford to live in New York City. I don't think I could financially make it in Chicago."

His parents seem to have made their peace with his career choice. "My mother likes paintings of bouquets of flowers or of the water mill that she buys at the furniture stores," he says. "But she does come downstairs and look at my paintings."

Fourteen of Von Gunten's "Virginia Beach Series" paintings are on display through August 30 at the gallery at the Illinois Institute of Art, in suite 136 of the Apparel Center, 350 N. Orleans (312-280-3500). --Cara Jepsen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eugene Zakusilo.

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