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View from Olympus

When he describes his approach to painting, Menno van Dam emphasizes the role of light in his compositions. His paintings, he says, are dominated by a luminosity that seems to “radiate from within.” Light is integral to Menno’s work; its use gives his paintings a mystical quality. The inexplicable source of brightness—as though it was coming from behind the scene—invites the viewer to reexamine the work, each time affording a new perspective, a different aspect on the content.

Menno recently completed a triptych, based on the musical composition by John Psathas. In discussing this work, he talked about the experience of listening many times to this complex piece and how it influenced the format, the colors, and the content of the abstract painting. It was an amazing discovery of a piece of music where the rhythm was the foundation for color and light, never heard anything like that before.

The piece has four distinct movements, but he based the work on only the first three, selecting blue as the predominant color and separating each segment with a shimmering band of gold. Moving left to right, the painting replicates the musical moods of View from Olympus, starting with a sparkling introduction, building to a vibrant, suspenseful middle section, and finally, concluding with middle eastern echoes of the previous themes. 

Compositionally, Menno employs both strong vertical and horizontal lines, suggestion both strength and movement. The first panel introduces the themes, simultaneously containing an ominous and playful tone, expressed in the paint through strong vertical lines and light dots. The middle segment, with its horizontal lines and curvy dots, suggests movement, transition and evokes the image of Van Gogh’s seminal work, “Starry Night,” with bright dots against the sky. The third panel combines the horizontal and vertical in a series of light-dominated arches, suggesting reconciliation, passage, and victory.

For me, a native New Yorker, the painting conjured scenes along the Hudson River at night: the under side of bridges and docks; of the sea, at once placid and energetic; of life beneath the streets; of the pulsating rhythms of the night, and the preparation for the day by players rarely seen after sunrise. In contrast to the range of blues, there are large sections of white, representing the light that the Menno employs to create a surreal effect: From where does this light come? How does it affect the subject? How does it pull in the viewer? These are questions I pondered while studying the triptych.

For me, the light adds a gleam of hope, particularly in contrast to the dark blues that symbolize the opposite of hope. The third panel, a series of arches in different sizes, brings to mind the Arc de Triomphe, the Parisian icon of Napoleonic victory. Ultimately, the painting and the musical composition conclude with expressions of triumph, allowing the listener and viewer to impose his or her own concepts of victory.