Belle Of The Ball On The Island Of Misfits
By Andrew Belonsky
I wasn't surprised to hear that late painter Van Eno also designed costumes and backdrops for Key West's community theaters. His detailed paintings, inspired by Flemmish tapestries and Biblical and Greco-Roman folklore, echo tones of the thespian. But it's not drama that dominates Eno's aesthetic. It's drama's overacted cousin, comedy, or maybe comedy's even more outrageous kin, absurdity. Whatever you want to call it, it's magical and refreshing and far more engaging than the bulk of the work, mostly landscapes, that has come out of Key West.
In one of his pieces, a queen and prince — or it is lady's maid and a jester? — play cards and drink Black Label beer. In another, a blond girl resembling the stereotypical fairytale beauty appears to be flashing the peace sign. And Nance Frank from the local Gallery on Greene notes that Eno's portrait of Cleopatra features a duck flying overhead, a reference to Antony and Cleopatra, in which Shakespeare describes Antony as a doting mallard flapping after the Egyptian pharaoh. Clearly Eno knew what he was drawing about.
Like so many of the artists who have passed through Key West — perhaps more so true for the lesser-known creatives than the bold-faced names like Ernest Hemingway or Tennessee Williams — Eno's past remains something of a mystery. Most people at the time didn't ask about their peers' pasts, but Rae Coates, who directed a 1982 Water Front Theater production of Godspell for which Eno designed brightly colored, minstrel-inspired costumes like those seen in many of his paintings, remembers Eno's father was a military man and that the artist, born 1947, was educated in Germany and the United Kingdom during the post-war period.
(Image of Van Eno courtesy Tony Deluigi.)
At some point, Eno, handsome and with sad eyes, moved to New York City before, as gallerist Nance Frank puts it, he "burst onto the Key West scene" in the early 1970s, maybe 1975, back when Key West, with its history of welcoming outcasts and exiles, was still "an island of misfits."
Gordon Ross, a fellow Key West resident and fan of Van's, thinks that Eno may have come earlier, around 1972, when Richard Heyman, who would in 1979 become Key West's first openly gay elected official and later its mayor, opened his gallery, Gingerbread Square Gallery. "I think Van was one of the first artists to show there," said Ross, mostly to himself. "Whenever he arrived, though, Van was the belle of the ball. He was the most popular artist and had the most fantastical imagination."
"He was incredibly, amazingly talented in different genres," said Ross, pointing again to Eno's theater work and the graphic design he did for local party invitations.
If not the most well-liked of Key West's 70s-era artists, Eno was one of the most prolific, churning out painting after painting after painting. And while most were in a playful, sardonic style, Eno also began experimenting with splatter art and larger installations, like a table that read "Good going Mayor Heyman," a gift to Heyman on his birthday, which, luckily for Eno's artistic vision, coincided with Ronald Reagan. Eno, like most HIV-positive men at the time, regarded Reagan as a traitor, and knew that silence equals death. The disease would become a central theme in his work and life up until his death in 1986. He was 39-years old.
Today most of the Eno's works remain in private collections, though occasionally lucky collectors will find one of his hundreds of works at a flea markets or garage sale. But for those of us who aren't lucky enough to own a piece, or to have seen the The Key West Art & Historical Society's retrospective of Eno's work last year, a former acquaintance of Eno's, Mark Van Cour, and Mark's partner, Ming, created a website dedicated to Van Eno's works.
Many of the images in this slideshow come to us from Mark and Ming, while others came from Gallery on Greene. We've included titles where possible, and encourage any one with insight into Eno's work to help label the rest, and perhaps even submit some more of this unique artist's work. Of all the artists who have traveled through Key West, Ross says Eno's the most deserving of a renaissance, the one who deserves to be shared and liked and kept alive for years to come.