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Brick Row Gallery is going places

Artist Dereck Van Wickel paints whimsical cityscapes, figures and the walking dead

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Landscape paintings take viewers to a different time and place. They can be realistic or imaginary, abstract or figurative, but they should — if done right — represent an environment with vivid details.

Charlotte artist Dereck Van Wickel's "Swirly Sky" acrylic painting, for example, offers a subtle imaginative glimpse at suburban life. The scene is comprised of a neighborhood of cookie-cutter houses with sidewalks lined with red maple trees. It's the placement of simple rolling clouds that fade into an evening sky that dominates the setting. The painting seems to stress the commonality of uniformed communities. It's less dreamy than a textured masterpiece, like something as renowned as Vincent van Gogh's "Starry Night," set in an idyllic village. But, even despite the suburbia compound feel, there's a sense of peace and tranquility.

Van Wickel, an artist who relocated to Charlotte from Chicago last year, will display this colorful work and others during 2nd Friday (a Lake Norman arts crawl and street festival) at Brick Row Gallery on Oct. 10. Brick Row Gallery is owned and operated by Bella Love Inc., and opened as an exhibit space in September 2013.

"For the past few years I've been thinking about how Americans live: how we want to have our own cars, our own houses, but with neighbors close by. A theory I call 'Together Alone' began to form," says Van Wickel. "I'm fascinated by subdivisions, the rows of nearly identical houses, in approved colors, and how they're usually named for whatever was bulldozed over to build them; Arbor Glen, Meadow Brook, etc., without a trace of irony."

Another work, titled "Clark Street, Chicago-view from the Office of Doctor Lauenti," offers a bird's-eye view of Chicago during a snowstorm. Small paint dabs mark snowflakes falling from the hazy sky. Stationary cars parked along the side of the road are covered in snow, while other vehicles move across the icy roads, creating linear pathways that keep residents in line with their daily grind.

The environment is more treacherous in his tornado-popping "Beat the Traffic." The work features a winding road with scurrying cars and more cookie-cutter houses. A twister slams trees and power lines along the horizon, which is actually closer than it should be. It's a stressful scene that's only relieved by Van Wickel's colorful, comical cars with blazing headlights.

"Along with houses, weather is a regular feature in my work. Floods, snow and many tornadoes are a fairly common occurrence in both the Midwest and the South, and a phenomenon I think has held a place in our cultural mythology since The Wizard of Oz premiered," says Van Wickel. "I like their randomness, how they might level one street and leave the next untouched."

Van Wickel drifts away from suburbia in "Mixed Marriage," where we see a newlywed couple walking arm-in-arm down a red carpet with their respective families on opposite sides. On the right, there are apprehensive humans; one cries while another with an angry glare grips an axe, staring across the aisle at the groom's zombie party, who look fidgety (or maybe hungry!). A full moon shines bright amid a nest of trees, an eerie fog in the background.

Though this piece is the most fun to look at (it's easy to get caught up in studying the faces of both parties), it doesn't define Van Wickel's work. Most of the paintings in the Brick Row Gallery exhibit will include the suburban/cityscapes described earlier, but there are also some figurative works — keep an eye out for the blue nude woman sitting at a kitchen table. She's sitting up straight on the end of a chair with her spine and buttock clearly defined. But much like the weather in Van Wickel's other works, her face appears stern, unpredictable and rigid.

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