Rust and Reflection: Erna de Vries

Unreal city,

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.

(T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland)

In the vacant places
We will build with new bricks

(T. S. Eliot, Choruses from The Rock)

Before we all began self isolating, and so many cultural spaces closed, in response to COVID, I still managed to miss Erna De Vries’ exhibition at the Jordan Art Gallery. As many who live in Niagara are familiar with, transportation can often be a hurdle that’s hard to get over.

Erna de Vries, Untitled.

But I’d seen her work in a group show (at the Niagara Pumphouse), and it was a piece that I enjoyed greatly: well executed, with imagery that alluded to several interpretations that were both subjective, on my part, and seemed to resonate with several artists there with me. Luckily, de Vries has a website, showcasing a number of images within that same genre as what caught my eye. The rusted tones, the fine details, the allusion to a ‘rust belt wonderland’ (or industrial ruination and remnants) are hallmarks of her work. I’m unsure if the time I’ve spent in Welland, exploring the Atlas Steels site, or my time in Windsor and Detroit (where the indexical remnants of industrial production stand like ghosts or haunted houses) is what attracts me to Erna de Vries’s work, or that I simply find a space within which to articulate these memories and experiences within her evocative and sometimes eerie scenes.

Erna de Vries, Cathedral Bay, 2013.

Some of her works – Stelco City, or Stelco City – 2, in referencing Hamilton’s industrial giant, or Passage of Time or View of the Industrial City – fit easily within this approach. When looking at some of these, with their encrusted and textured surfaces, with subtle scenes of industry and abandonment, all in hues that are earthy, or suggest corrosion and decay, I heard more words from T. S. Eliot echo in my mind: These fragments I have shored against my ruins.

Cathedral Bay (concrete, wax, reclaimed metal and image transfer on wooden cradled panel) pictured above, brings more words from Eliot to mind: In this decayed hole among the mountains / In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing / Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel / There is the empty chapel, only the wind’s home.

Erna de Vries, By Still Waters.

You can read more about her practice here, as well as exploring more of her images in the gallery section. But I offer this excerpt from her statement regarding her works: As I portray aspects of our urban industrialized landscape, I am reminded of the complexities that creation can present: powerful, majestic, harmonious, yet vulnerable, fragmented and broken. I marvel at the beauty of nature and am intrigued with the impact that industry and architecture has on the natural world. I recognize the dichotomy of change and the necessity to co-exist in this diverse and complex world. All this provides inspiration and becomes my reality.

Erna de Vries, Out of the Ash, 2016.

Erna de Vries’ colour palette is restrained (or more exactly serves her subject matter, whether earthy hues or moreso employing the variant tones of industrial decay, with browns and greys and bits of corroded vibrance). Her use of texture is quite lovely. In some ways, this is a strength of encaustic painting, where forms and shapes can be as defined by alternating grooves and dips, then built up surfaces, with a gooey, translucence that is less about mark making than it is sculptural. Many of her ‘landscapes’ imply that which has been built, or has grown. Some of the trees that sprout up in spaces that look almost toxic, or like Chernobyl, are at essence hopeful: like dandelions findng refuge and growing strongly in the cracks of a concrete sidewalk.

There is a very organic quality to these works (and keep in mind, I’m simply highlighting the works by this artist that interest me: there’s a diversity in her practice, as you can explore here). de Vries, in her use of mixed media, with elements like copper or steal, also repurposes industrial components into her landscapes (as in Stelco City 3), and with hints of mechanization and manufacturing. View of the Bay also seems familiar, to any who’ve travelled to or from Hamilton, or lived there: in that respect, de Vries creates landscapes that are not just defined by what’s around her, in urban and industrial scenes, but also uses materials from those landscapes to make them (with copper, or concrete, or reclaimed metals).

Erna de Vries, Out of the Dark.
Erna de Vries, Beneath The Surface, 2012.
A Concrete Reality, Erna de Vries, 2016.
Erna de Vries, Serenity

It’s no surprise to my readers that, in my affection for the #rustbeltwonderland of Welland (a term gifted to me by James Takeo), vignettes that explore and re invent, even reinterpret through a personal lens, this landscape, are inspiring to me. The rich waxy encaustic surface, the sheen of the metal mixed media, the play of subtle lights and darker, almost ‘dirty’ rich blacks, all pulled me to de Vries’s works when I first ever encountered it at the Niagara Pumphouse. Images I’ve shared here don’t do her work justice, with their very physical nature that encapsulates the industrial, urban and sometimes – still surviving, with deep roots and flourishing amidst the desolation – natural landscape.

Erna da Vries, Every Tree Counts

All images are copyright of the artist, and you can see more of Erna de Vries’ artwork at her site, as well as at the Jordan Art Galler’s online artist spotlight page. The header image for this article is titled Carbon Neutral Three: several works don’t have dates included, as these were not shared by the artist in her posts.