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Claremont artist offers dazzling retrospective

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Claremont artist Dan Van Clapp takes this saying literally, using castoffs to create “treasure” from his imagined expeditions that appear, quite honestly, real as can be.

“Bin-diving, thrift stores and people give me trash,” the artist said, explaining how he comes across his material. And much of it finds a home in the artist’s complex assemblage pieces.

One can view the repurposing and reimagining of these objects up close in the dazzling “Captain Dan’s Incredible Collection of Rare Curiosities,” running through April 16 at the dA Center for the Arts in Pomona.

“He’s just brilliant,” said dA Executive Director Margaret Aichele. “The show is a huge statement to what imagination is on steroids.”


That outsized imagination has been driving Mr. Van Clapp since he was a boy. Born in OshKosh, Wisconsin, he and his family moved to San Diego in 1952. His first art show happened by accident. The youngster’s fourth grade art teacher tipped off Mr. Van Clapp’s mother to the quality of the work he was doing, ultimately leading to his watercolors being framed and displayed in the school’s cafeteria.

“So I knew something was happening,” Mr. Van Clapp said of his very early career.

Driven from that early age, Mr. Van Clapp, now 70, has created art his entire life, earning his bachelor’s degree in painting from San Diego State University in 1968 and a master’s degree in painting from UCLA in 1973. Over the years he has worked in sculpture, painting, assemblage and as a muralist. He is a professor of art at Mt. San Antonio College and has lived in the Village with his dentist wife, Paula Van Horn, since they were married in 1984.

The show at the dA, while incorporating more than 45 years of Mr. Van Clapp’s work, did not start out as a retrospective. The combination of the space and timing helped determine the show’s content.

“Actually, this is the first time I’ve ever had this much displayed in one space,” he  said. “This is probably the only gallery that can handle it. It’s really great to have this much space.”

The show is nothing if not varied. Pieces from as early as 1965 up through the present are represented. And while the work was created during different stages of the artist’s life, the show is surprisingly cohesive.

One standout work, “Is This Amelia?”, is an exhaustively detailed imagining of a salvaged section of the plane of doomed pilot Amelia Earhart, who famously disappeared in 1937 while attempting to circumnavigate the globe.

“I’ve always wanted to make an airplane,” Mr. Van Clapp explained, “and everybody’s always been crazy looking for Amelia Earhart’s airplane. So finally I said ‘Enough of this, let’s get the whole aircraft up.’”

The artist researched photos and schematic drawings of Ms. Earhart’s plane, and slowly began making chalk outlines of his interpretation of the structure on the wall of his Ontario studio.

Five months later, it was complete. The wall-mounted section of the fuselage and a separate landing gear wheel appear to be made of heavy aluminum and metal. But in truth, the pieces are mostly styrofoam, paint and plastic. The believability of the finished product are astounding.

“It’s like building a big, giant model airplane from scratch,” Mr. Van Clapp said. “But it’s not a kit. I had to make all the parts, and then make it look like it’s been wrecked for 70-something years.”

The ordinary materials that go into Mr. Van Clapp’s work are transformed one at a time via the artist’s painstaking aging process.

“Kids’ toys, hoses, it’s all a bunch of junk,” the artist said. “Once I use this stainless steel paint, ash compound, burnt embers, it unifies it.”

The artist’s process involves experimenting with materials and compounds, and “just a lot of rust,” he explained. “I look at actual stuff: rusty metal, corroding copper, rotted rubber, and just imitate as best as I can.”

“The folly, the depth …” Ms. Aichele said of Mr. Van Clapp’s show, “if one pays attention to his innuendos, they are pretty profound. I don’t know that there are words to truly explain his genius.”

That depth may be best exemplified in the series of historical books he’s created, including “Da Vinci’s Notebook,” “Book of Kells, 11th Century,” “Mayan Codex” and “Book from the Library at Alexandria.” The works appear to be priceless artifacts but were, in fact, created from ordinary phone books.

“I soak them in water, so they swell up and become massive,” he explained. “Then I use paints and pigments, and burn holes in them for the worm holes.”

Could Mr. Van Clapp be the first artist to create art at this level, using phone books as the source material? “I hope I’m the first,” he said. “That’d be nice.”

The playfulness of Mr. Van Clapp’s work is evident in abundance at the dA show. The spooky and the funny coexist with puns, jokes and multi-level symbolism.

For example, “The Wreck of the Carne Asada” incorporates plastic thrift store dolls the artist aged with a process involving industrial solvents, dental stone and paint. The effect on the finished product is one of a weird 100-year-old family heirloom in a state of natural decay.

“I’ve seen some of these things in churches in the valley of Oaxaca,” he said. “One church had saints with their heads cut off and swords sticking out of their breasts...very, very frightening looking things. So I took those things and put a little Monty Python spin on that.”

Mr. Van Clapp’s “Two Million Year Old Frog” (2000) piece is both creepy and funny, an observation that pleases the artist. “Good,” he said. “It should be a little creepy.”

Another hallmark of Mr. Van Clapp’s aesthetic is his “use everything” ethos. “Red Cow with Crab Claws” is a 1988 piece inspired in part by a Newport Beach seafood dinner. The restaurant’s waitress was perplexed when the artist asked her to save the crab claws, which he later incorporated into the piece. Another time, a friend tossed a beer bottle into Mr. Van Clapp’s fire pit. The next day, the artist found the contorted, melted glass. “I said, ‘that’s unusual...I’ll use that for something,’” and it made its way into his art.

The breadth and depth of the materials Mr. Van Clapp uses is surprising and more than a little whimsical. He has used a baseball bat, toilet parts, drywall screws, a microscope, a kid’s cowboy belt and rusty barbecue parts—a  creative recycling of so many items that would likely end up in landfills. He may be the world’s “greenest” artist.

“Ha, well, yeah, I guess so,” he said.

The artist was modest when asked about what it means to see his sprawling, de-facto retrospective filling the entire ground floor of the bright, lofty dA Gallery. Ms. Aichele’s perspective helped explain what it means to the gallery.

“The greatest gem of all is the artist’s brilliant mind,” she said. “His genius shines in the captivating display of ordinary to extraordinary objects and artifacts. The dA is beyond grateful to have the honor to host this exhibition.”

“Captain Dan’s Incredible Collection of Rare Curiosities” ends April 16. The dA Center for the Arts is located at 252 S. Main St., Pomona. Admission is free. The gallery is open Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from noon to 4 p.m., and Thursday from noon to 9 p.m. Tomorrow,  April 9, the gallery’s Second Saturday hours are noon to 8 p.m. More information is available at daartcenter.com. Mr. Van Clapp’s webpage is at danvanclapp.com.

—Mick Rhodes



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