Volker's painting is characterized by a humorous disregard for the traditions of serious western art. Where other artists use traditional oils or acrylics, Volker uses house paint. Most painters create pictures on canvas, Volker paints on plywood. Most paintings end up in a frame, but a Volker is designed to hang without a frame, and is instantly recognizable by his signature black border (designed so that a work can easily be touched up, should it be dropped). His titles appear under the images, like cartoon captions. "Most paintings are pictures of things. My paintings are things" he says, and this must point be emphasized here, because you are looking at these works within a smooth glass computer frame. Volker's pieces are roughly hewn objects in themselves. Just as a postcard is not merely the image printed on it, but is a type of complete object, so is an original Volker painting more than just the picture.
Throughout his career, Volker has promoted his work with newsletters, handbills, and novelty items that often serve as a commentary on our consumer-driven culture. In the design of this web page, he has composed detailed interpretations to accompany the images shown, as though they had been written by someone else. Most of all, Volker's subject matter is funny and imaginative. Humor is an area few 'serious' painters dare to dwell for very long. Volker thrives in it, referring to himself as a comedic painter , while insisting on making a clear distinction between humor and whimsy: Whimsical art is merely light-hearted. Humor may rely on something being wrong, hypocritical or out of place. It can be dark, or embarrassing, or even cruel, But it must always be fun.
The paintings of Paul Volker express a kind of intellecual slapstick. They aren't cheap gags; neither is their function simply to serve as aesthetically composed locus ornamentum anymore than poetry and literature merely serve as pleasant arrangements of words. His thick and carefree use of color and brush stroke, combined with carefully conceived yet completely irrational subject matter are intended as a response to the stuffy and pompous cloud of intimidation that so often characterizes the world of contemporary art.
His themes appeal to the wild and spontaneous part of the human psyche that is so often supressed, yet demands tangible proof of its existence.
In the sense that it lacks the purely decorative banality that can be said to characterize so much art these days, Volker's art is not for everybody, and he knows it. His colors are not supposed to compliment the pastel hues of your upholstery. A Volker can't fade into the background of a doctor's waiting room.
At the same time, he has devoted a lifetime to creating a kind of art that everybody can afford to collect, and enjoy, and there are now a few hundred collectors in the United States, and around Europe and Asia, "easily recognizable", Volker insists, "by their sophistication and good taste in art."
During the past 20 years, Volker specifically created paintings as parts of sets, confident that one day the desire to own a complete set would naturally create a demand and increase their value. Today, there is a growing interst in the secondary market for early Volker paintings as many young people are inheriting extensive Volker collections and either want to sell them to other collectors, or acquire more to add to the collections now in their posession. This, in turn, is constantly generating interest in Volker's newest works.
Three of the artist's signature elements are evident in this large work. There is, of course, the urban setting, rendered in rough brushwork and rich, overlapping colors. Next, a concept borrowed from Volker's popular "Wild Beast" series, the rhinoceros holding a taco. And finally, the whole thing coming together humorously as a too-literal interpretation of Freudian innuendo. But this is really the point of the work, to suggest an atmosphere of torrid sexuality without being the least bit naughty. Its a delightful contradiction, a modern acknowledgement of symbolic imagery in classical painting, but with a ridiculous twist. Male and female eroticism is expressed as a blunt cliché via the rhino's horn and the taco, respectively. The image of wet pavement conveying the feeling of a hot, sweaty, steamy night in the city provides the context in this painting whose balance of composition and subdued palette itself is enough to establish this as a really great work of art.
The Pie is Ruined! 2016
12" x 14" x 1"
Absurd urban scenes are a favorite theme in Volker's imaginary world, and in this particular street scene we encounter a very distraught woman, lamenting the all-too-familiar sense of disappointment shared by anyone who has ever left something in the oven too long. That this pastry has been destroyed by a wandering elephant, or that it was left in the street to begin with, seems totally inconsequential within the narrative of this painting. She is only concerned with the pie. Volker once again juxtaposes the mundane with the ridiculous, this time to comment on the tendency to ignore big causes of problems while focusing on the trivial results.
Volker often uses foreign language as a visual element. Understanding the words is not always necessary to appreciate the work (although in this piece, the title is the translation). Volker believes that written words themselves have a separate aesthetic beyond their meaning, which can only be appreciated by those who do not understand the language. Here, the artist has selected French as the lingua franca best suited to compliment a painting about pastry.
Insomnia And The Werewolf Sheep 2016
12" x 14" x 1"
"I had this vision of a sheep looking into a mirror and seeing a wolf" is what the artist says about this very recent work. As a child, Volker was a especially fond of reading Aesop's Fables, and this is evident in his frequent use animals to reflect on the human subconscious mind. Insomnia and the werewolf sheep suggests a nagging fear of self betrayal. The work portrays what appears to be specific events occuring to an imaginary sheep or two in order to describe a universal condition, that of restlessness and doubt. Dark themes rendered in a playful cartoon style provide yet another example of the element of contradiction in Volker's work, and is what makes this small work easy to relate to, while providing much to think about. The notion of being self-divided is further accentuated in the composition of this particular piece, pairing up the square and round elemental props of window and mirror, with the entire image divided into separate upper and lower areas, connected only by the uncertainty of a dark doorway.
Butterstick Lounge 2016
12" x 14" x 1"
Volker has always had a fondness for the unsavory side of city life, and he delights in sharing that fondness through humor in his work. He also likes the whole process of interaction between toaster and toast, an utterly commonplace event, portrayed here as an approaching encounter on a street corner. Further events are very likely to occur, alluded to by the title element, a place that would only exist in a world inhabited by bread and toasters. In this painting, Volker uses the elements of the composition as one might cast actors in a play. The Butterstick lounge appears as the background, but this is a deceptive placement. Without it, we would merely be seeing two slices of bread and a toaster on a street corner. Volker masterfully creates an unlikely arrangement, in a completely unlikely setting, so that these players not only convey the message of forthcoming intimate social interaction, but compel one to sort out the sordid details in his or her own mind, perhaps over breakfast.
Volker's obsession with the contradictions of everyday life merge with strong social commentary in this bold and unrestrained work, intentionally rendered in thick paint on a rough plywood surface with heavy brushwork and a gritty, almost dirty use of pigment. The frowning mother, the unruly child and the confrontational father pose like round pegs hoping to fit into the predictably square hole uniformity of a fast food restaurant. Subtle, funny-yet-sad contradictions such as this, in which comedy and tragedy play off each other is one of the defining qualities in Volker's dynamic approach to the visual narrative.
The key word in the title, "Operation" is a political reference to the branding and selling of war just as easily fast food franchises sell burgers. Here, the word is borrowed sarcastically. Frequently used to give grand titles to military endeavors, here the term refers to a battle to secure something that will undoubtedly include fries and a large drink.
It's a brilliant reflection on the absorption of society into a reality of iconic triviality, and a critical comment on priorities in contemporary America.
View From a Bus Window 2009
24" x 32" x 1"
A solitary figure peers dispassionately over his left shoulder, hunched slightly, arms close, walking an empty street on a cold, rainy day. He is almost faceless, glancing carelessly to the side. The buildings behind him, pink and yellow, tell of brighter times. The raised display area behind vacant windows suggests a jewelry store or pawn shop. We approach entire scene from behind, and from a raised perspective. In this part of town, it can only be from the window of a passing bus.
Each shape and color of this composition is a separate and isolated component, which not only reflects the sense of isolation in the narrative, but makes View From a Bus Window really very visually exciting. It is along sidewalk but there is a flatness to it, and this contradiction of flatness and depth compliments the overall feeling that the work evokes.
On closer inspection, the subject's expression isn't so blank after all. His eyes are penetrating, calculating but without hope; beaten down but surviving. This is the person who goes unnoticed, uncounted, and his gaze is an intentional expression of this. It is, in fact, central to the entire piece. It's all too easy for the poor to fade into the landscape; we dont really see the eyes of the faceless unless we look, and that is the trick here. If you don't take the time to look, you won't see the whole picture. Here, it has been made all the more challenging because the work has intentionally been given a bumpy, rough surface.
It is a painting that works because a perfect balance has been struck between subject and composition, sacrificing neither, inviting the viewer to be more than a casual observer, and instead to become a participant.
This painting illustrates something that should be familiar to anyone with a short attention span. it is another wonderful example of the artist's desire to involve the viewer playfully in the work itself. After experimenting with computer photo manipulation exploring the effects of merging repeated images, Volker composed a small number of paintings in which the subject is shown in such a way that the viewer's eye follows a linear movement across the surface of the painting. There is a subtle irony, however, in that following any sequence of events or images, or variations, even one as simple as this painting, demands some undistracted attention.
Our Transparent World 2013
24" x 24" x 1"
A highly textured surface gives a transparent quality to one of Volker's city - like images, this time a brilliantly effective composition of five simple shapes suggesting the view looking down the street along a very wide, empty sidewalk. On the left, Volker offers an obvious giveaway, the side of a "building" in yellow. But this is a trick, meant to lead the viewer to see the area on the right as, either, two different color shapes (a red "building" high up on the horizon over a dark purple "street"), or as a single two-color shape (red and purple together as one "building" bordering the other edge of the light gray "sidewalk") which gives the two color area its own look of transparency.
In front of all this delightful eye-play is surface of the work itself, created using a special material perfected by the artist, giving the piece a smooth, water-like quality with a rough edge meeting the black flat border behind it.
The function of the surface is to interrupt the perception of perspective in the composition. As a result, the eye naturally shifts back and forth between the surface of the work and it's composition, as though we are looking through textured plate-glass, seeing the glass and then seeing what is beyond. Hence the title, Our Transparent World. The entire piece works very well as an abstract composition while retaining an excellent yet subtle representational quality.
Comedic painter Paul Volker thrills us with this delightful advertisement for the all-too familiar bad cup of coffee. It is a sign whose humor draws from a universal mythos, the distastefully romantic concept of the greasy-spoon diner. In a world where an overpriced cup of predictably trendy Java is the standard, Volker once again plays the contradiction card in this simple painting, and it works quite well. But why?
It isn't merely the cigarette butt ground out in the saucer, the dead cockroach, or even the chip in the cup itself. These are the obvious visual gags, of course. But they don't explain why something so innately, so familiarly distasteful as a concept is simultaneously so deliciously wonderful to think about. It is through the conflict itself, presented humorously, that the artist cleverly engages the viewer.
The answer is in the carefully coarse application of the visual elements in this piece. Once again, Volker has skillfully incorporated the medium itself into the representation of the subject. There is a grittiness to the surface of the painting which betrays any notion of separation from the viewer: it's not merely a picture of a sign for bad coffee, it really is a sign for bad coffee.
And, while it might be assumed that the absurdity of such a sign is because no such product really exists, the truth that Volker invites us to delight in is that this product does exist, everywhere, constantly (and he has dared not only to announce that fact, but to celebrate it).
Volker's careful use of the least-appetizing shade of light blue as the background is of course, intentional. Against this is vividly and expressive red, cartoon-like lettering, and a banner with a single word conveying two meanings. In a rather quaint sense, as a grammatically incorrect variant of really , but more to the point, as a mocking reference to a painfully overused adjective. REAL, meaning not artificial, which is generally used in advertizing to suggest that the food item is of superior quality, which of course, bad coffee never is. But this painting is.
"Paul Volker's witty and beautiful paintings hover seductively between book illustration, outsider art and conceptual painting.
His cartoons feign at nativity and legereté but behind the curtain are darker tales and a wonderfully precise control of paint." --BBC Art Documentary Film Maker, Ben Lewis
They Cayman The Night 1996
35.25" x 48.5" x 1"
Because of the large areas of single colors with clearly defined outlines, They Cayman The Night is a good example of the artist's work and style before the year 2000. The image is inspired by Volker's childhood memory of seeing waterbugs (a kind of large, black cockroach) scattered around the living room and furniture of his home at night when he was very young. The texture of the surface incorporates a grid of nearly invisible raised dots, an effect created by painting on paper permanently glued to a sheet of masonite peg board, and then sealed with a clear acrylic coating.
This work, from 1996, was originally titled, "Cacophony" until Volker changed the title in 2016, after encountering a flock of thousands of snow geese. As with the painting, "They Cayman The Night" done around the same time, Snow Geese was created on paper permanently glued to a sheet of masonite peg board, and then sealed with a clear acrylic coating.
The Great Illumination 2014
22" x 32" x 1"
Projection is the key element in this uncomplicated work, in which very little is happening, yet so much is being expressed. Solid, angular areas of color at first appear as random elements surrounding a picture of a chair. But this gathering of minimal information is purposefully deceptive. The largest shape, a black void, really, is the protagonist in this story, and the artist intentionally uses it to make a profound statement. It is precisely because you know what it is already, that Volker needs only to show a corner of it. Thus, it is not the light being projected onto the chair which "The Great Illumination" refers to. Rather, it is the concept in the mind of the viewer which is projected onto the picture. It is a statement about the intrusiveness of technology into the mind's behavior itself. There is no need to show the whole television, and no need even for anyone to be sitting in the chair watching it.
"Sketching with paint" is how Volker describes this large study of three gentlemen sharing the counter at a diner, and it reveals a key principle in the artist's approach to representational imagery, that because of their recognizability, a composition's individual elements actually constitute a kind of visual language in which the various shapes, (here, suggesting things such as cups, hands, shadows, a necktie, suit lapel, and a newspaper) don't have to necessarily look like the objects they portray, but they have to mean the objects that they portray, in much the same way that the arrangement of the letters C, A, and T means "CAT", and that it is precisely through this sort of 'writing in pictures' that a story can effectively be told in such a way that the brushstroke and color become direct elements which convey the feeling one gets when looking at the picture as a whole as well as at the comparative expressions of the individual subjects. This is drastically different than the effect acheived in a photographically realistic painting, where the brushstrokes are meant to disappear, merely to produce a visual result other than what they are in their own right.
There is wonderful horizontal movement in this work in which the three coffee drinkers, or "Pumpkin Carvers" as Volker calls them, are pressed together yet each retains his own individual vertical space in the painting. While not immediately obvious, the artist has once again incorporated a subtle conflict of angles: the man in the center is in fact seated at a bend in the counter which moves opposite the fold in the newspaper. And, while taking up what appears to be the largest share of the painting, he is further back than the two who are sitting to either side. This overall zig-zagging arrangement in three parts accentuates the movement of the lines in the subjects, all of this going on against a comparatively square and motionless background, composed in four parts.
Double Coupon Days 2005
37.5" x 48" x 1"
Volker's insistence that his works are "not just pictures of things, but are things in themselves" is never more naturally expressed than in this image of a tired old man slumping over a shopping cart. In this painting we find a perfect example of both the subject and the overall feeling of a work supported by its physical medium. Truly, this composition would not have work at all as powerfully, had it been rendered on canvas and mounted in a frame.
The rough surface and deliberate brushwork, the pale and subdued colors, and indeed the method in which the background imagery, these shelves of nameless products that don't matter, has been balanced against a sort of nameless subject, also forgotten, yet so full of emotion, makes Double Coupon Days one of the artists more powerful and contemplative works. There is such unrepentant acridity in the title, suggesting that we are witnessing some sort of joyous event toward the end of this poor man's life. In spite of the somewhat gloomy ambience of this work, it is nonetheless endearing. It is a cold, harsh picture, yet a sensation of warmth is felt when looking at it. Once again, the painter has succeeded in creating irony and contradiction, resulting in a wonderful work of art.
One of the earliest works offered here, this simple painting may well be the regarded as a landmark work, possibly being the first known painting by the artist to employ three of the key visual elements that define much of Volker's subsequent work: a foundation of angles supporting the overall composition; the "snapshot" cropping of the image, suggesting that what we are seeing is but a small glimpse of a bigger picture, and the use of large, rapidly applied brushwork, an immediate break from the influence that years of illustrative line drawing had imposed. Composed at the same time as Airport Spies and The Red Table, this image is painted on a solid plank of pine, rather than plywood.
Airport Spies 1995
11" x 11.25" x .5"
Unburdened by unnecessary detail, Airport Spies is a deceptively complex grouping of about fifteen areas of color. Within the confines of a tiny square, great depth has been acheived through the vertical juxtaposition of characters shown both up close and at a distance, against the horizontal planes of the background. The result is a delightful composition that conveys a glimpse of intrigue. As with any good mystery, much is revealed, yet much is concealed. Are we looking at spies, or are we the ones spying? Creating a subtle playfulness, successfully accomplished with just a few clues and with an efficient use of brushwork, is one of Volker's special talents, and this work is a perfect example.
Composed around the same time as Freddy The Phone Boothand The Red Table, this image is painted on a solid plank of pine, rather than plywood.
An early study in contrast and composition, the subject of this work is sunlight on a person confined to some sort of institution. The otherwise square image is triangularly divided, and this arrangement of space will be found again later in other works such as The Stalk (shown above), with each section containing its own complete portion of the overall narrative. Thus, the left section contains the window, the right section, the man, and the entire bottom section the title element. Here, Volker also indulges the viewer in the experience of the physical qualities of the medium itself, utilizing the uneven thickness of the paint as a clever means of breaking up what would otherwise be flat, solid shapes. This too is an important aspect that will play out significantly in many subsequent works, and is an early indicator of the artist's insistence that the finished painting should be more than merely a picture of something else. Here, you can almost feel with your eyes, the paint being spread across the surface.
Composed around the same time as Freddy The Phone Boothand Airport Spies, this image is painted on a solid plank of pine, rather than plywood.