There’s a piece of art on my wall I struggle to describe. It’s a black background, stretched canvas image. Stars and colorful galaxies fill the black, making it evident that the scene takes place in outer space. The principal focus of the image, however, is a wooden ship with large sails.
This is the first subversion of the expected, which seems to be a theme of the piece. The second is that the ship appears to be floating across an ethereal body of water. It ripples against the wooden hull and out beyond the stern, but the water is not present anywhere else in the scene. It’s as if the water only exists when it touches the ship, and is either invisible or nonexistent anywhere else. In keeping with this subversion of water present in deep space is the depiction of two humpback whales. One is deep underwater, or at least under the ship and in space, and the other is poking its nose through the ‘surface’ of the ‘water’ to examine the occupants of the ship. And here is where the real subversion occurs.
The occupants of this painting include: a bear playing a clarinet, a robot playing a stand-up bass, a snowman playing the maracas, a praying mantis playing the violin, a penguin playing the trumpet, a man sitting atop a tortoise who is sitting atop a large lizard, and a frog who is reaching through one of the ship’s glass windows to touch the nose of the whale. The central feature of this image appears to be a woman who is dancing with a skeleton on the middle of the deck. By the glowing lanterns hanging all around, it appears to be a lively party-like atmosphere. Subversions continue, however, in that the masts of the sails appear to be trees rooting into the deck, one of the lanterns is actually a glowing fish, and, more subtly, the sails appear to be of a Chinese-type design while the hull is more akin to a European, Age of Exploration (1600s)-style vessel.
The final bit of subversion is the title of this piece: Peanut Butter.
That’s what the artist told me it was called when I bought it.
I love this painting. Not because it means anything, not because it really depicts anything solid or even real. There is no interpretation to be gleaned from anything found in its dynamic visuals. Not even the title reveals anything. All that remains is the feeling it evokes. It’s as if the artist were saying, “Don’t worry about the details, just allow yourself to feel something.” Feeling something without tying it to a meaning seems to be the point of all this subversion.
You thought you were feeling adventurous because it’s a painting of a ship? Wrong, it’s in space. You thought you were feeling romantic because of the dancing couple? Wrong, one of them is a skeleton. You think it’s even supposed to be about whimsy? Then why do the whales look so sad?
By trying to pin down meaning to this painting, you eliminate the multiple other meanings potentially present. I love this painting because I find something new every time I look at it (I never noticed the penguin until I started writing this!). I love this painting because of the way I feel when I look at it. But I also love that I don’t have to worry about why I feel that way. There is no hidden political agenda, no message, no subtext. There is subversion after subversion after subversion, as if it’s trying to raise then eliminate any potential meaning until all you’re left with is a feeling.
But it does make me feel something. It is art for art’s sake. It is feeling, it is love, for the sake of the wonderfulness of those things. And that’s the only message Peanut Butter could be argued to make, that good things are good, and go ahead and feel them. Or perhaps that is the ultimate subversion Andy VanSchyndle created, that to impart meaning can sometimes destroy the magic. I don’t think this should be a universal message. Meaning should exist in places. But so should magic, and I find magic in Peanut Butter.