Seeing things: Illustrator Christophe Vorlet puts the elephant in perspective

The elephants in “Christophe Vorlet: Works on Paper” are on display at Les Yeux du Monde gallery through April 10. Photo: Courtesy of the artist The elephants in “Christophe Vorlet: Works on Paper” are on display at Les Yeux du Monde gallery through April 10. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Christophe Vorlet painted his mailbox pink, but purely for functional reasons: It makes it easier to give directions to people. That the mailbox also serves as roadside art didn’t factor into the decision, he says. Much of Vorlet’s approach to visual art is filtered through a similar matter-of-factness. As an illustrator and graphic designer who has succeeded in making a living off creative work for decades, this approach certainly hasn’t hurt his career. Yet an exhibition at Les Yeux du Monde this month, “Christophe Vorlet: Works on Paper,” demonstrates that there is more than functionality in the work that has led Vorlet to be internationally known.

Born in Bern, Switzerland, Vorlet grew up in a family with little interest in art. “I never dreamed I could make a living drawing,” he says. It wasn’t until after high school that he studied art, gaining admission to Zurich’s Kunstgewerbeschule in 1973. There, he was selected for an apprenticeship and honed his skills working for a magazine photographing concerts, designing album covers and fine-tuning his typographical skills. “Every letter, for me, is a picture,” says Vorlet. “It’s all proportion and balance, which is the ultimate philosophy.”

This grew into designing logos and then editorial illustration work for newspapers and magazines, on which he built a successful career in Switzerland, before moving to the United States in the late 1970s with his wife, Katherine.

Barely speaking English when he arrived, Vorlet made ends meet between work as an illustrator and other odd jobs. “I tried to start at the top, because it’s easier than the other way,” he jokes. He worked hard, had luck and got his illustrations in front of a number of eyes, with reprints overseas and commissions helping pay the bills along the way. He credits Robert Crumb and Saul Steinberg as major influences. Both are easy to identify in Vorlet’s editorial illustrations, as well as in smaller details of his fine art work. Whether it’s the cross-hatching and attention to texture and bulge of Crumb’s illustrations, or the simple lines and sharp wit of Steinberg’s, Vorlet sources a rich history of illustration that makes his own art feel timeless.

In 1989, after stints in New York City and Los Angeles, he and Katherine packed their worldly goods into a Volkswagen bus. “We hoped to find open space and warm weather,” so they drove up and to the right, he recalls. What they found was snowy Lake Tahoe, but they continued on to Death Valley and then on to the East Coast. Along the way, they visited a friend in Charlottesville and decided it might be a good fit, eventually landing in an 1875 farmhouse in Troy, where Vorlet now has his studio.

In addition to the pink mailbox, Vorlet has customized the homestead with his personal aesthetic, imbuing the everyday with art that resists highbrow or academic interpretations. It is simply part of the landscape, while still existing completely separate from it. “It has to work with nature,” says Vorlet. “Of course it can never compete, but it can stand its ground.”

His approach to his fine art and illustration work is similarly unsentimental and practical. “Seeing things is probably the most important,” says Vorlet. “If you see it, you should be able to draw it.” With a journeyman’s approach, he is also careful to note that the art world is nothing more or less than any other industry. It is a way to make a living, if you’re lucky.

“Works on Paper” marks Vorlet’s third exhibition at Les Yeux du Monde, after almost a decade without any local exhibitions. Though the exhibition features more than 30 of Vorlet’s editorial illustrations, the focal point is undoubtedly the large elephant works.

Comprised of 15 panels each, the six works are a grid of smaller, framed drawings of elephant parts. All but one of the elephants face to the right and all but one have broken tusks. “The tusks don’t fit into the frame. There’s no special meaning to it,” says Vorlet, when asked by an admirer about the significance of this choice. Indeed, he often works to demystify his art, explaining the functionality behind seemingly aesthetic choices.

For instance, the background of one elephant is painted a light caramel color that is leftover indoor latex paint; another features acrylic paints that Vorlet bought in Switzerland in the 1980s—all used for the simple reason that they were available when paint was needed. Other elephants are strictly pen and ink or graphite. Each exhibits the topography of a rocky desert in some places, mountainous terrain with weaving rivers in others. The landscapes are magnifications of the drooping and chapped hide of an elephant.

“I love elephants, I always have. It’s an idea I’ve worked on for many years,” says Vorlet. “I enjoy looking at [the elephant’s form]. It has a calming effect.” He created the first of these elephants around 1991 with nine panels. Each iteration is just “one of so many interpretations of this particular beast,” says Vorlet. As with all of his art, there is no myth of a creative genius at work in the elephants, or indeed in the exhibition overall. It is simply the collected works of an artist with the experience and skills to make us see the world through his pen and perspective. “There’s no real magic,” explains Vorlet. “Yet, there is.”

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