He do the Police in Different Voices: A Curatorial Apologia

The following blurb accompanied the exhibition "Sudden Frost" at Elissa Cristall Gallery in Vancouver during July and August of 2010. Footnotes are a drag with this software; so they have not been included. Feel free to question my academic integrity....

I must begin this curatorial statement with a confession: I was not a very committed undergraduate. The common expression that “youth is wasted on the young” did not suitably apply to my example. Consequently, the vast majority of my recollections from the period are more or less confined to a sporadic series of hazy reminiscences. I offer this confession less as a testament to the exuberant rigor of my youthful bohemia than as a means to shed some light on the resonance that T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” has had for me. I clearly remember my first encounter with the poem. Its words, phrasing and imagery rattled through my bones as though I’d struck an ocean liner with a sledgehammer. I didn’t understand all of the nuances and references contained within its 434 lines. I still don’t. But I knew that it was true, and that scattered throughout its sprawling verse there was a dreadful kind of beauty.

First published in 1922 , “The Waste Land” was largely written while Eliot was on medical leave from his position at a London bank. The official diagnosis given for this sabbatical was “nervous breakdown” ; and the poem clearly suggests a certain unraveling on the part of the author. It presents a series of lugubrious glimpses into the varied tension and malaise that confounded the polarized sliver of time between world wars. Its central metaphor, of a barren landscape wracked with drought, was inspired by Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance , an anthropological study of Celtic grail and fertility myths published in 1920. But unlike the myths from which he drew inspiration, Eliot’s tale presents us with no hero. There is no Arthur to drink from his cup, no Fisher King to make the land whole again. In Eliot’s view, there is little chance for redemption.

This exhibition was inspired by a specific passage from Eliot’s poem:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.

The works in this exhibition have been chosen and displayed more by “sensibility” and “feel” than by a more straightforward (or academically defensible?) point. These works are meaningful shards chopped from larger bodies of work. They share a whimsical yet somber lyricism, creating exfoliating panoramas of tangential fragments and divergent histories.

The remainder of this statement will look closely at the specific works in this exhibition. It will discuss these works against the backdrop of these artists’ larger projects and relate them more specifically (if tangentially) to various aspects of Eliot’s poem.

David Merritt is an artist who lives in London, Ontario. He works in a variety of media including drawing and installation, and much of his work lives in the fruitful intersection between these two disciplines. His large-scale drawing included in this show, “Never Again,” is a word-mapping of common statements that incorporate the drawing’s title. There is a sense of fatalistic pathos that invades this statement that is further reinforced and emphasized by Merritt’s fragile material rendering. This is a quiet drawing that is somewhat at odds with the verbal content that it idiosyncratically delineates. Phrases like “Never Fucking Again” are rarely said quietly. But the intimate and whimsical character of Merritt’s hand-written characters along with the sprawling lines that weave them together, give us a sense that these statements are being whispered. We lean in closely to hear it speak, and the reluctant messaging of Merritt’s reticent marks becomes visibly audible.

Michel Daigneault is a painter who divides his time between Toronto and Montreal. His colourful paintings hover between abstraction and representation. In so doing, his works draw into question the continued possibility and contemporary malleability of these historical forms. His modestly scaled works in this exhibition continue this dialogue. They present vibrant clusters of semi-abstract forms dangling like mistletoe from the ceiling of an ambiguous and illogical, abstractly architectural ground. These works are a nowhere-limbo of mashed-up, art historical tropes overlapped with recycled design motifs. In so doing, they reveal hidden truths about one of art’s most pressing questions: what would happen if you put a late-seventies deKooning into a blender with an album cover by Roger Dean , a Helen Frankenthaller, an assortment of do-it-yourself-tattoo-designs and a Jules Olitski, then zapped the mixture with gamma rays , and finally air-brushed the results onto a medium-large canvas?

Kevin Rodgers is (mostly) a sculptor who lives (mostly) in London, Ontario. His large scale works present sparsely formal reconfigurations of institutional and corporate furnishings. Using these broken down and discarded emblems of a watered-down-and-sold-out Modernist idealism as his working material, Rodgers cuts up, reworks and mashes together these found objects into new and surprising formal variations. His floor piece on display here, “Qualify and Satisfy” (2009) is a striking example of this process. A sculptural diptych, it’s human-like scale commands the centre of the gallery’s floor like a provisionally constructed sarcophagus. There is an awful sense of vacancy that emanates from this work. One can almost picture the cubicles that these reconstructed fragments previously occupied: empty and dehumanized. How many “man hours” did these sculptures bear witness to? How many micro-particles of time transformed into dollars and cents? In this sense, Rodgers’ sculpture is modestly monumental. It is a monument to the monotony of time passing through human labor. Time is spent. Money is spent. Time equals money.

Nicole Vogelzang is a painter who lives in Toronto. Her hyper-representational works explore, provoke and ultimately thwart a photographic language than has been thoroughly absorbed into the discourse of painting. As such, her works play with the perceptible gaps between photographic and naturalistic and imaginary phenomenon. Her imagery is frequently wrought with an absurdist sense of both horror and whimsy, and her paintings in this exhibition stomp both feet into these metaphorical puddles. In Cup (2007), a clear plastic disposable cup has been filled with water. Eye-like slots have been violently carved from its face. Thick tears pour down from these scarified orifices, pooling at the cup’s base. A yellow plate radiates with an unnatural light from the back end of her wooden table top, like a UFO carrying extraterrestrial Lilliputians hell bent for anarchy. The background space becomes increasingly illogical as it recedes into amorphous ground. A moonlike shape glows there with a treelike silhouette interrupting its spherical demarcation. There is no evidence of a window through which we look out. Rather Vogelzang’s moon hovers uncannily in a dark, implausible limbo. Unknown and unknowable, we surrender our convictions to her seductively rendered uncertainty.

Jenn E Norton is a Toronto artist working in video and sculpture . Her piece in this exhibition, Very Good Advice (2009), is a tragic love letter, a conflicted ode to the city of Toronto (as well as a more generalized post-industrial Western experience) rendered in high-definition video. The piece opens with Norton posing daintily in the middle of a traffic-filled city street. Like Lucy draped over Linus’ piano, Norton sings her melancholic lullaby, “Very Good Advice,” appropriated and personalized from Disney’s Alice in Wonderland. As the central metaphor that runs through Norton’s sobering-but-psychedelic non-adventure, it loosely connects a series of haunting vignettes filmed during Toronto’s most recent garbage strike. “Very Good Advice” presents the city as a site of internalized trauma, impotence and escapist denial. Everyone knows the destination of the road of good intentions, putting one foot down in front of the other along its junked path.

Sky Glabush is a painter who lives is London, Ontario. His large-scale paintings provide a startling vision of a crumbling, regionalized pastoral. Marred by tragedy and rife with pathetic fallacy, Glabush’s 60’s architectural suburban dwellings are neglected, overgrown and decayed. “Fence” (2010) is one such piece. In it, a darkened gray-purple haze falls over a joyless Mudville. An eerily under-painted, green light radiates from the twisted branches of the backyard barren trees. The faded yellow split-level hasn’t been repainted in quite some time. Its floral print curtains were replaced by bed-sheets that never open. Mrs. Cleaver died in ’87, and Mr. Cleaver moved into Sunny Ridge Mature Lifestyle Community in ‘88. He cheats at bridge and has grown increasingly incontinent. The Beaver and Wally left town years ago and no longer visit. Para-militaristic squatters converted the garden shed into a hydroponic-grow-op. Ward and June’s handsome cold-war-bomb-shelter was transformed to a meth lab, with racks of non-perishable dry good replaced by post-trailer-gangster artillery.

Will Gorlitz is a painter who lives in Guelph, Ontario. With no offense intended to the rest of our underappreciated national field, Gorlitz might be the best painter living in this country. His post-conceptual approach to representational painting merges a highly sophisticated and visibly self-evident intellectualism with a nearly unparalleled material sensitivity. In this regard, his recent series “Always Already” is no exception. Inspired by an 18th Century allegorical painting by Johann Melchior, Menagerie Landgraf Carls von Hessen-Kassel (1721-28), Gorlitz’s paintings present a vast range of warm-weather animals either deceased or fighting for survival in stark winter settings. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes allegory like this:

the expression by means of symbolic fictional figures and actions of truths or generalizations about human existence.

Animals are one of the more classic vehicles for true allegory. In most historic allegorical tales, animals are used as a device to symbolize various aspects of the human character. The tortoise is slow but determined. The hare is overzealous and lackadaisical. The lion is always courageous. In the “Always Already” series, Gorlitz uses animals in this traditional allegorical manner, as though all of the redemptive features of humanity are likewise deceased or fighting for survival. The steadfast rhinoceros is dead and buried. The graceful zebra is forever preserved in its frosty tomb. “Always Already” creates a profound sense of pathos because it is clearly a winter of our own making. In this sense, Gorlitz’s bleak winter prophecies might stop being allegories. They might actually happen.

Patrick Mahon is an artist who lives in London, Ontario. Coming from a background in printmaking, Mahon extends this historicized language into the discourse of painting, sculpture, installation and even the occasional video. His works in this exhibition continue his unique material strategy of screen-printing imagery onto clear Plexiglas panels. This process creates an unusual optical effect for the viewer, as the framed works create a soft doubling of the image via the shadow that is cast on the wall behind them. The concrete materiality of Mahon’s drawn image is forever tied to its perpetually shifting, ephemeral twin. His works on display here are taken from his recent series, “Baker Lake House,” in which graphically reductive renditions of portable, modular homes in the extreme Canadian North are thrust into wild and tumultuous grounds. These architectural structures are derived from photographs taken by the artist in Baker Lake, Nunavut in 2007. The background line work is based upon a series of J. M. W. Turner’s landscape engravings. Mahon’s reductively modern and seemingly abandoned housing structures are placed within a European, capital-S-Sublime, capital-R-Romantic, background framing. These works create a harrowing glimpse into a highly marginalized community, filtered through the perceptible lens of an inescapable European exoticism and haunted by the transient shadow that lurks beneath their clean, plastic exterior.

Although the world has changed exponentially since “The Waste Land” was written, it is easy to draw various parallels to the broader social climate under which it was created. Like the times in which Eliot penned his infamous ode, we too are living in an anxious, polarized climate. There are striking similarities between our seemingly disparate worlds. As a particularly clever poetic genius, Eliot was prone to more than his fair share of moments of incredible lucidity. In Murder in the Cathedral he states:

We do not know very much of the future
Except that from generation to generation
The Same things happen again and again

Like the quotation that inspired this exhibition, the title for this show is likewise borrowed from “The Wasteland”:

"That corpse you planted last year in your garden,

"Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?

"Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?

The artists collected here, working in a wide range of media and within a broad critical spectrum, address the frenzied conditions of our current social-political experience. These works provoke us to reexamine our contexts and to reanalyze our framing. In this sense, they have sprouted and are in full bloom. Digging ardently with sharpened nails, they disturb our bed.

Operating Systems

The following blurb is an essay from a brochure that accompanied the exhibition "Unnatural: Monica Tap and Michel Daigneault" at Rodman Hall Art Centre, Brock University.

Whatever we may think or affect to think of the present age, we cannot get out of it; we must suffer the sufferings, and enjoy the enjoyments; we must share in its lot, and, to be either useful or at ease, we must even partake its character.
— John Stuart Mill

Although it could be successfully argued that Baudelaire’s “The Painter of Modern Life” is the prototypical manifesto for the entirety of Modernist painting, many of its underlying treatises had been lingering in the cultural atmosphere for quite some time. The idea that the function of artist-intellectuals in a society is to form and to express an intensely insightful understanding of the character of their age was inherited from Romanticism generally and German Romanticism specifically. The notion of Zeitgeist as “the collective individuality of a society” and the view that high art should aspire to a sense of “fidelity to the spirit of the age” were central ideologies that underscored the potency of the movement. Thus Shelley’s famous English-language decree that artists are “mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present” had its intellectual roots in the movement’s original, continental branch.

The true stroke of Baudelaire’s genius, however, is found less in his framing of the artist as the inspired revealer of hidden truths than in his specific understanding of where these truths were to be found in modernity: in “the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent.” Thus, if we squint past the opulent glare of Baudelaire’s romantic hyperbole, we uncover fragments of lucidity that bear consideration for the present moment as well. If the invention of photography had any more resounding impact on the development of Modernist painting, on Manet and his followers, it was this: that faithfully representing these newly uncovered truths was no longer enough. Rather, the painterly processes that created these representations had to further encapsulate modernity’s perpetually shifting character. Paintings could no longer merely describe the present; they had to embody it. This thesis is thoughtfully and passionately argued throughout modernity. In countless manifestos, criticisms, and paintings, the familiar refrain is this: different forms of experience necessitate different forms of expression.

Let us fast forward.

Perhaps the most insightful manifesto for art making in the early twenty-first century is Nicolas Bourriaud’s Postproduction. In it, Bourriaud states that the most “authentic forms” of contemporary expression are those which incorporate “inauthentic forms” into their production strategy, a layer of interference that acts as a mediating filter through which artists perform the varied enactments of their creative musing. Bourriaud claims that artists today seek

to produce singularity and meaning from the chaotic mass of objects, names and references that constitute our daily life. Artists today program forms more than they compose them: rather than transfigure a raw element, they remix available forms and make use of data.

Let us press pause.

The works of Monica Tap and Michel Daigneault clearly embody the ideals laid out by Baudelaire and Bourriaud. Although their paintings and production strategies are “formally heterogeneous,” the artists seek to discern “fragments” of meaning from the bedlam of information that bombards our contemporary experience. In the remainder of this essay I will seek important thematic congruencies through which to discuss the nuanced diversity of their painterly responses. I will argue that their works and “operating systems” offer an insightful glimpse into the frenzied nature of now.


Monica Tap’s paintings are based on video clips of the landscape that passes as she travels by train, bus, or car. Taken with a low-resolution, ten-frames-per-second, five-megabyte, digital still camera, this footage is uploaded into QuickTime, where still images are sliced from their raw data. Tap’s paintings are representations of the “physical” landscape revealed at the speed of low-fidelity. Michel Daigneault’s paintings are representations of the “social-visual” landscape, the complex web of graphics and images that flood our eyes and memories. His work blends abstract formal and/or compositional motifs with found, ready-made-template shapes and forms. These paintings are a veritable limbo of art historical and cultural memory. The work of both artists is vibrant and colourful, filled to the brim with an array of confident painterly negotiations that give substance to the ephemerality of the image.

There is a remarkable consistency to Daigneault’s formal and iconographic vocabulary in the paintings on view, which date from 2002 to 2008. Although new forms gradually creep into his lexicon, the recurrence of familiar shapes gives his work a sense of constancy without ever feeling feigned or repetitive. These shapes become specified terms in his idiosyncratic, painterly language. In Outer Space (2008), Daigneault employs a large semi-centralized motif of multicoloured RVs that cluster down from the painting’s upper right side. The conglomerated mass of forms comes perilously close to the painting’s edge without extending beyond its frame. This bulky pilgrimage is contained within a faded cobalt-blue ground that is interrupted by a chocolate-milk-coloured, continental-maplike structure that crosses the middle of the painting laterally. A wispy delineation of maple leaves gives a light but tangible weight to the painting’s bottom edge. It is a compelling cantation of our national symbol in that Daigneault avoids the more common graphic simplifications that mark our flag and local hockey jersey. Rather, he presents the familiar foliage quasi-naturalistically, as a sparse silhouette rendered in soft grays that grounds the whimsical melody of his sophisticated composition.

From the Train II (2005) is the earliest of Monica Tap’s works presented. The earthy but colourful, pixel-like patchwork of her painterly mark making is contained within a horizontal blurring that implies an inherent sense of lateral movement. Unlike the “posthumous blurring” of Gerhard Richter, Tap’s blurring is structural; it is built into the painting’s drawn, compositional framework. In Road to Lily Dale II (2006) this horizontal banding gives way to a Mondrian-like system of pluses and minuses. There is also a noticeable increase in the overall wattage of her palette’s luminosity. In Tap’s most recent paintings, however, these earlier structural motifs become more internalized, and a true embarrassment of brushwork, opacities, and colour daubs radiates from the confines of their large-scale frames. Between Winter and Summer (2009) is one such piece. A bright, turp-thinned, under-painted orange bleeds though the slim trees that cross the middle left side of the painting. The olive and umber and sap and beige of tree and leaf and rock and sky are backlit by this uncanny glow. Thick, triangular shards of paint punctuate the surface with a gooey, shiny viscosity that breaks the painting’s spell of loose verisimilitude. This is the glare of the window, the glare of the screen.


Time and speed are essential themes in Monica Tap’s paintings. Her works are testaments to the frailty of a moment, incandescent renderings of a travelling landscape that rushes past in a trancelike convoy. The speed of a car. The speed of video. The speed of information. The speed of light that reaches our eyes; a whirlpool of data reaching our brains with ferocious velocity. The speed of a brush, attached to a hand, attached to a body. Ten frames per second. There is a careful urgency to Tap’s mark making. She is making these marks as fast as she can, as fast as she can maintain control over her eyes and body and materials. Fat over lean over hardly-even-there. Every once in a while she is able to breathe: masking tape placed on almost wet paint, lifting a little bit but bleeding a little more. These paintings give us the optics of speed. The plein air landscapes of Impressionism happened at the speed of real life, but that was the pastoral life of Sunday excursions: day-trippers and faux-bourgeois tourists. Monica Tap’s paintings are the speed of commuters, the speed of necessity. Process and exhale.

Time and speed are likewise important themes in the work of Michel Daigneault. In contrast to Tap’s turbulence, however, Daigneault’s collage-like mash-ups give us a sense of being “out of time.” His use of wonky, Surrealist compositional conventions immediately signals the roundabout fancy of dreamscapes, for if the legion of Andre Breton has taught us anything, it is this: we know what our subconscious is supposed to look like. Daigneault wields this trope with inspired virtuosity. His shapes morph unhurriedly into smeary fields of lush, open hues. There is a leisurely narrative to his compositions. Our eyes move slowly across Daigneault’s panels: right to up, down to left, looping around through the marshmallow centre. We read the semiotics of his images like words spelled in the sky by an airplane. This is slow looking. We feel the deliberateness of our gaze. Moving our eyes alone seems inadequate. We have to move our whole head, our whole body. Stepping in, moving back, we discover more at each interval. At every step, the funny-strangeness of his eccentric plot proverbially thickens.


Michel Daigneault’s paintings are (up)loaded with a vast inventory of visual memory. As if you are walking through a second-hand shop filled with recycled design motifs and hermetic art historical referents, these paintings present an immense catalogue of twentieth-century painting and its fallout as twenty-first-century kitsch. In this regard, Daigneault’s paintings are particularly lewd. Generally focusing his art historical lens on more peripheral or “marginalized” Modernist moments, Daigneault pulls an assortment of skeletons from the annals of twentieth-century abstraction and mixes these motifs with similarly blush-inducing moments from popular culture. These works probe and indulge a vast range of our guilty pleasures. Quand la couleur signifie (2006) is a particularly intriguing instance. A sea of watery-coloured, tattoo-parlour flame balls waves across the better part of the background. Several flame-coloured flame balls fall through the centre of the canvas into a fleshy heap of misty, airbrushed puddles. An airbrush is itself a fairly bawdy device to incorporate in an abstract painting, referencing Jules Olitski, jean-jacket art, and van painting. The pencil guidelines that recur around some of the sparsely laid-out forms is a clear sign of “tracing” that interrupts the “painting as drawing” convention traditionally (and heroically) linked to historical abstraction. The true comedy of the piece, however, comes from the Tanguy-like blobs in the bottom left-hand third, which cast a faint shadow over the Post-Painterly background haze. This moment of trompe-l’oeil slapstick best encapsulates the encyclopedic humour of Daigneault’s work. Monsieur Greenberg, however, would not be laughing.

Memory is likewise an important theme in the work of Monica Tap. Camcorders are a tool meant to enhance personal memory. For people of a certain age, few important moments in our early lives are not contained on some form of magnetic strip. The contemporary task of enhancing memory is, of course, more or less assigned to the realms of the digital. An algorithmic stream of ones and zeros perfectly recreates my son’s first birthday, or at least the parts of that event that seemed worthy of having the lens turned in their direction. In this sense, there is something mildly creepy and ultimately tragic about the direction in which Monica Tap points her lens. The “rugged Canadian landscape” that once seemed so eternal to the Group of Seven and their horde appears, in Tap’s paintings, to be fleeting and ephemeral, in danger of vanishing. These are not only landscapes passing from our vision; they are also passing from our experience. Monica Tap wants to remember. She wants us to remember too.


“I want to be a machine” is one of the more famous Andy Warholisms in circulation. In contemporary art, however, artists have extended and refined this notion. Monica Tap “wants to be” a camcorder. Michel Daigneualt “wants to be” Photoshop. The obvious difference between their methodologies, however, is that where Warhol sought a more “mechanical” means of production (through silkscreen), Daigneault and Tap deliberately court the individual machinations of their own bodies and imaginations. In so doing, their work captures a splinter of precision about what it is to be, here and now. Of course, some would argue that the medium of paint is itself an anachronism and that more “contemporary materials” offer a more “honest” reflection of our current moment (the art world’s peculiar brand of contemrophilia and contemptrophelia). Painters, however, are drawn to painting precisely because of its history. It gives us context. For painters, the history of painting is the common denominator through which we can compare the nebulous scope of our collective experience. Through it, we gain a more thorough understanding of where we’ve been and where we sit. The paintings of Monica Tap and Michel Daigneault offer us this.

The system has no memory

The following blurb is an artist statement that accompanied the exhibition: The system has no memory at Board of Directors in July 2009.

“An infinite number of sentences can be generated from a finite number of words which undergo a finite number of transformations of order.”
Noam Chomsky’s First Principle of Transformational Grammar

This is an artist statement. As such, it should be regarded skeptically. This should not be mistaken for a declaration of meaning. Rather, it is a clarification of intention. Meaning belongs to the spectator. To complicate this notion: Sartre once said, “Paintings don’t mean anything, but they have meaning.” Despite the uncomfortable fact that I’ve now cited Sartre in my artist statement, the quotation itself is compelling and conveys my thoughts on the subject of meaning in my work.

I used to be an abstract painter. While always acknowledging, and in fact courting, the idea that my interior condition was not virginal terrain, that the things within us are always filtered through the lens of memory and experience, the specific shapes within my work were always of my own invention. These works acquired meaning, I think, through a sense of “looks-like”, phenomenological resemblance. This tenuous relation caused a crisis for me, and I started to think about a different approach.

Inspired by an essay of Yves-Alain Bois on the work of Ed Ruscha, I started taking pictures of the “visual noise” in my surrounding landscape: paint spills, billboards, magic-marker-graffiti-tags, product packaging, etc. Most of these photographs were taken where I lived (at Yonge and Eglinton), and where I worked (in Regent Park). I then started tracing these shapes, projecting and layering them onto my canvas. Projecting was important because I felt this process maintained the integrity of the appropriated form. It wasn’t my interpretation of that shape. It was that shape. Whatever went on inside their contours and how they fit together was my domain of creative play. All of the titles for my work came from spam emails. They still do. The title for this show also comes from spam. And so meaning has, or so it is intended, shifted more to my works epistemology. But the longer you work with something, the more complex it becomes.

For the first year, I added more and more shapes to my inventory. I ended up with 102. I’ve been making my work with the same shapes ever since. They are my vocabulary of forms. This language is not necessarily closed, however, like any other language, its terms are predicated by need. I have, thus far, not needed any more. There is no specific reason for 102, but it’s better than 101. Language needs structure, and so I have become increasingly concerned with the structures that I place my vocabulary into: art historical and pop cultural formal structures and conventions.

I’ve never been one to paint the same thing over and over again. Perhaps this is shooting myself in the foot as it complicates the likelihood of easy branding. But a painting for me is a proposition: a can this thing actually happen? Sometimes it can. Sometimes it can’t. A really great painter once told me, “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you paint.” But in my case, I think that’s entirely the point: my work is about reinvention, or at least reuse and repositioning. I know that’s not what he meant. But it’s what I’ve taken.

Will Gorlitz at MIchael Gibson Gallery

Will Gorlitz is a painter’s painter. As such, he is as good as they get, here or anywhere. His recent exhibition at Michael Gibson Gallery revealed the best of what Gorlitz has to offer: sophisticated and intelligent painterly contemplations rendered with a largely unparalleled material sensitivity. Although thematically congruent, the body of work on display carries a considerable range of iconographic, formal and material diversity that continually forces the viewer to engage these works as specific instances: individual propositions in Gorlitz’s substantial and resonant argumentation.

All of the works in this exhibition deal with assumed human domination over natural order. Although Gorlitz’s paintings are beautiful, the consequences of this bipedal-occupation are decidedly less so: dead sub-Saharan animals are littered through creamy-white, wet-winter landscapes. Flowers are plucked and chopped, vased and smashed onto lugubrious, muddy-gray, atmospheric grounds. Fruit comes in Warhol-coloured cans: drained of their contents and left for dead. Rain forest trees are grafted into climate-controlled glass homes. Even the moon is harnessed into Gorlitz’s (telescopic) lens: landed on with unprecedented zeal, only to be abandoned for further frontiers. Despite the funny-strange, absurdist character of many of his motifs, there is a profound sense of tragedy that invades Gorlitz’s allegorical impulse, with only his canned tomatoes costing anywhere near Ms. Mitchell’s prophetic “dollar and a half”.

In Gorlitz’s work, different subjects provide subtle shifts in material response. Old Crescent, Waxing Gibbous (2009) is a one-layer-thick, wet-on-wet painting of two moons on a medium sized, circular-tondo-canvas with a mostly-matte, unvarnished surface. Elephant (2009) is a one-layer-thick, wet-on-wet painting of a dead elephant in the snow on a smallish, landscape-aligned, rectangular wood panel. Little bits of ungessoed, wood ground creep through to the yellowy, unseasonably-warm, varnished surface. Empty Cans (2009) shows two open tomato cans with their bright coloured labels torn astringent on a large, portrait-aligned, off-square trapezoid. The warm-gray background space is lush and shiny with a varnish medium mixed more directly into the paint. The cans themselves, however, are more matte. All of Gorlitz works employ an otherworldly array of brushwork: like he’s hired Manet out of his afterlife-retirement to be his personal brush-caddy. The range of Gorlitz’s substrates is likewise remarkable. Most framing proportions are so aesthetically conventionalized that they disappear as ‘background’. Gorlitz’s continuous emphasis on idiosyncratic framing forces us to deal with our position as spectator to both his paintings and the varied tragedies that they describe.

John Eisler at Diaz Contemporary

In a famous essay on Sol LeWitt, rock star critic Rosalind Krauss argues that Lewitt’s work is often misunderstood as embodiments of rational thought. According to Krauss, LeWitt’s desire to carry out and exhaust the overwhelming abundance of his dryer-than-ice variations is an exceedingly bent ambition. Although there is a distinct sense of logic to drawing all of the possible permutations that a cube will allot, the urge to do so is relatively mental. I couldn’t help thinking of that old Krauss paper as I wandered through John Eisler’s recent exhibition We Want Your Complex at Diaz Contemporary. But if a bent logic informs LeWitt’s formalism, then Eisler’s is truly perverse. Every aesthetic decision that Eisler makes is absurd, exaggerated and displayed. These works not only bear the scars of his wonky array of semi-masochistic aesthetic procedures, they are the scars: the fossilized remains of his tortured materials.

Before I go on, we should all take a moment to feel sorry for Mr. Diaz’s poor gallery space: his lovely white cube has been rammed and crammed with work. The floor is covered, wall-to-wall, in silver, triangular shards of reflective mylar, like a giant disco-ball disassembled and lay flat. The walls are filled with large-scale brightly hued canvases, and even the windowsills have works (stained plexi-glass squares) resting on their ledges.

The paintings in this exhibition are stained on both sides, creating an effect that bears as much similarity to Grateful Dead t-shirts as to Colour Field painting. Created in section by folding and stretching segments to a tabletop, their surfaces are littered with staple-inflicted puncture wounds that create crisscrossing lines across the picture plane. Triangular forms are painted on the surface in high-intensity, straight-out-of-the-tube colours, like shards of light reflecting from a dangling-prism style chandelier (or from the gallery floor). Frayed edges of his pictures raw canvas are folded back over the side of the stretcher frame with threads dangling like cobwebs in a horror show.

The overall effect of the installation is remarkably disorientating as Eisler’s maxi-minimal aesthetic overwhelms our retinal registry with vast quantities of sparse forms in assaulting, psychedelic colours. We Want Your Complex is a twisted reworking of Modernist values and concepts. These formalist objects are pushed to their decorative limits, transforming the lofty goals of “High” Modernism into an amusement park fun house. Somewhere the ghosts of Adolph Loos, Alfred Barr and Clement Greenberg are really not amused.

Michel Daigneault at AKAU

These are some lewd “abstract” paintings. Like the love-child of an art historical key party that was unexpectedly crashed by the design team for Ocean Pacific, these large-scale paintings take the slackened contours of the traditional high/low culture divide as the conceptual gesso upon which they are impressively constructed. Rather than fighting against the varied pretensions of high culture, as in previous generations from Pop to Neo-Geo, this erosion seems to be, in Daigneault’s paintings, merely a basic assumption. It is the given principle that allows for the full exfoliation of his painterly musings. The vast range of meandering references and loosened signifying slippages that Daigneault employs conjures a fantastic realm that gives license to the contaminated substance of our collective subconscious.
The three acrylic canvas’ contained within the exhibition The Other Side of Abstraction are all the same size which lends these whimsical fields a good, old-fashioned sense of serial stability. They universally make use of faded, pastel-ish hues that are punctuated with sporadic moments of blacks, whites and the occasional high intensity hue. “Quand la couleur siginifie” is perhaps the most compelling of the four paintings on display. A sea of watery coloured, tattoo-parlor, flame-balls waves across the better part of the background. Several flame-ball-coloured flame-balls fall through the centre of the canvas into a fleshy heap of misty spray-painted puddles. Muddy, grey-brown-jelly-bean-rocks recede back diagonally from the centre, covering a flat pink, mauve and baby blue schematized shoreline/hillside. The trace of pencil guidelines recurringly surrounds some of the sparsely laid out forms and there is an organic sensibility to all of his geometric shapes. The best moment of the piece, however, is the Tanguy-like blob in the bottom-left-hand- third. The faint shadow that it casts brought a smile to the face of this observer as did numerous other instances of playful, cleverness that are scattered throughout this striking exhibition.
If high culture truly no longer exists, as critics such as Donald Kuspit and Benjamin Buchloh have suggested, then all that remains is culture and everything that goes on within its malleable parameters is fair game and rife with potential semiotic, social/personal possibility. Daigneault’s paintings seize upon the expansive latitude that our current moment seemingly affords. These works illuminate eccentric pathways through the limitless scrap heap of vacated signifiers that infiltrates our collective memory. They offer a persuasive glimpse into an idiosyncratic, parallel universe wherein Helen Frankenthaler designed album covers for YES, Yves Tanguy was the greatest jean-jacket painter of his generation and Jules Olitski is still taken seriously.

Traffic Crash Investigation: An Annotated Interview with John Kissick (2007)

*The following article is, as of yet, unpublished. It was written as a grad school seminar paper. Footnotes appear as such: (1) with the reference at the bottom of the article in a separate post (End Notes).

“An infinite number of sentences can be generated from a finite number of words which undergo a finite number of transformations of order.”
Noam Chomsky’s First Principle of Transformational Grammar

After only a cursory glance through John Kissick’s twelve page CV I am struck by two glaringly obvious facts:

1. That despite the strong reputation that Mr. Kissick enjoys in this country, he still remains wildly under-recognized for his achievements.
2. In asking him for this interview I am in way over my head.

John Kissick earned his BFA from Queens in 1985, his MFA from Cornell in 1987 and attended the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2003. Through basic arithmetic I figure him to be between 42 and 45 years old and yet he has already presented a paper to the Whitney Museum in 1989 (1) and had a book published in 1992 (2). He was tenure track at Penn State in 1993 and was tenured in 1999. He took the job as Dean of the Ontario College of Art and Design in 2000 and left to become the Director of the School of Fine Art and Music at the University of Guelph (a position that he still holds) in 2003. The following blurb, however, is not meant as a celebration of John Kissick’s impressive career as a writer/critic/academic because to do so exclusively would be to entirely miss the point of these activities. John Kissick is a painter and as such he is one of the best, here or anywhere. His work has always been good: smart, sophisticated and accomplished, but it is in his work of the last five or six years that the latent potential of his early work has become fully realized. He is an artist in full stride where each of his large leaps leaves a large indentation on the evolving surface of Canadian art.

The following interview has been annotated; various ideas and sources have been cited and (hopefully) illuminated. Not meant as a mere stylistic device or as a form of pseudo-intellectual-scholarly-name-dropping (3), these references have been included at face value for the purpose of dialogue and exchange because painting (and the various discourses that surround its practice) is not a secret. It’s a conversation.

Me: As a painter deeply concerned with art history broadly and with a lean towards abstraction specifically, what was your thinking on the recent Shape of Colour exhibition at the AGO?

John: I liked it and I liked it because, now this is typical painter talk, but there are a lot of venues that continue to show a great interest in contemporary painting. The AGO hasn’t been one of them and that’s been a little bone of contention for me. I think, in terms of timing, that there is this soft underbelly of the art world, this vulnerable spot of the art world. Within its discourse there is the continued insistence of painting and the art world’s funny relationship with that discourse. I’ll give you an example. Canadian Art: Karin Davie’s (4) on the recent cover (5). Why is Karin Davie on the cover? Well, because John (6) wrote an essay about Karin Davie but also because nine tenths of the readers of Canadian Art Magazine are interested in Canadian painting.

Me: A Canadian showing with Mary Boone (7) also might also have something to do with it.

John: Sure. And the fact that painting reproduces really well in a magazine.

Me: Especially work like Karin Davie’s.

John: Yes, but there is also the acknowledgement that painting is a series of codes and conventions that have some elasticity to them. They have both meaning inherent in them and also the ability to transfer meaning in a way that allows people to enter into the discourse. It’s something that I think painting does really well and I think that’s something that the AGO pursued really well. In terms of timing, the reality is that painting is healthier now than it’s been in a long, long time and it’s a case of the AGO being a couple of years behind the times (which it usually is). It’s catching up to the fact that painting is once again exploding. That’s a pretty typical timing thing with any major institution: two or three years behind the times.

Me: Well, perhaps even more so. For me, the two major overarching texts that informed that exhibition were the 1998 Art Forum with the cover story “The New Color Field” (8) that was all about Monique Prieto (9) Laura Owens (10) and the ACME (11) crew. Prieto was included in the AGO show. The larger text historically was, of course, Robert Rosenblum’s The Abstract Sublime (12). They even included Milton Avery (13) as a pseudo-Friedrich. Clearly the couldn’t get a Friedrich (14), so they had to go with an Avery. (It was, however, a really nice Avery.) But in extending that Abstract Sublime trajectory, they grouped together some things that were historically viewed as quite different from each other (15).

John: Sure, but also colour has emerged as a topic that within the last three years seen the publication of Victoria Finlay’s book “Colour” (16) and David Batchelor’s “Chromophobia” (17). It is the very slipperiness and the slightly intangible qualities of colour that painting has brought to the fore. It is not alone in doing it, but it has brought that discourse up repeatedly. It seems to have created some living space, some working space (18) for contemporary artists. You never used to be able to talk about colour because it was a little funny, a little squishy, a little unseemly. It was like crying in a movie because you had to bring up all of those signifiers that come with it like the Sublime (19). That was dangerous territory for thirty or forty years. Personally, I think that the trauma to painting from 1960 through to the 1980’s was the reductivist notion of the theory of the period where gesture, which had in the 40’s and 50’s suggested some kind of existential mark or some kind of ontological change, became reduced to some kind of misogyny or white hegemony.

Me: Ego-maniacal-boy-painting.

John: Exactly. But what was lost in that was that it’s a convention. When I was young I fell hard for language theory and I always recognized in painting that it was a set of codes and conventions. It is how I speak to the world. I am quintessentially post-post-modern (or whatever you want to call it) in that I am very aware of the fact that I am not working with highly individualized marks but am working within the world of language and its conventions. I believe that painting functions extremely well that way. What is interesting about painting is that it functions that way but is also, to some extent, kind of slippery. Colour is one of those areas where the system of signification gets slippery (20). It is within those fissures, those cracks that things can happen. At the end of the day I made a decision. Back in the late eighties I made the decision that I was going to make paintings. The reason for it, after experimenting with a whole bunch of different stuff, was that I was aware of the extraordinary conventionality of all artistic practice. In the first generation after painting when people were doing video or a variety of different conceptual practices, there was still this notion of the “Avante-Garde” or of progress or in the novelty in “new kinds of things”. Like when artists starting using computers and thought that this was some kind of “new thing”, but really all of it was locked in the same kinds of conventions. So if everything is going to inevitably collapse into a set of conventions, then why not work with the one language that has the ability to extend itself through the history of artistic discourse? And that’s painting. There’s more to work with in that.

Me: And potentially at risk.

John: Yes. So I chose painting because it seemed to be the conversation that I wanted to have with history and with ideas. That was a landmark thing in my life, the realization that it’s all basically been done. So if the language is richer then you have a far greater ability to have a conversation. In other words, think about learning a new language like French. Your capacity to expand the discourse is very limited when all you can say is: Pizza and thank you. That’s where painting is so incredible. It’s such an incredibly rich and historically varied set of conventions that it enables its discussions to be much more interesting.

Someone once asked me: “What makes a painting contemporary? What does contemporary mean?” I said that basically contemporary painting is like the car wreck of Modernism. Maybe that’s what I’ve been doing. My career is like a traffic crash investigator that circles around a collision at an intersection.

Me: That forms a nice little segue way into my next question. Your early work and much of your scholarly writing is very rooted in political strife, particularly in the case of Northern Ireland. Can you describe this interest?

John: There were a couple of things. One is that I’ve always been interested in the intersection between politics and art production. That’s a fairly general answer, but a more specific one was that I had gone to Ireland to do a talk on Leon Golub’s (21) work. I had done something at the Whitney Museum and was asked to go do it in Ireland (22). At the time I was doing a lot of paintings, or painting like things, that were based on issues of language. I was very interested in what happens when you take a personal experience and put it into the public realm and specifically the notion of pain. What happens when you take something private and fundamental like pain and try to express it, when you enter something that is so primal into a social discourse? What happens to that experience? This has been the problem of empathy, the inability of language to adequately express or describe the experience of pain. This is the problem of language, so again it comes back to language for me. I was really interested in this thing called the McGill-Melzack Pain Question (23), which comes out of McGill University. It happened in the 70’s. They used language as a diagnostic tool of pain management for burn victims. Before they could be medicated they had this check list and they would have to check off how they were feeling in an attempt to describe their pain: searing, freezing, boiling, agonizing, piercing, all of this kind of stuff. I was doing a lot of text based work on that while doing the work on Leon Golub and his interrogation series. I was very interested in a particular painting wherein one of the figures is not only blind folded but gagged so basically the body is being tortured but has no ability to do anything. It just implodes. The self just implodes.

But I was giving this talk on Leon Golub in Northern Ireland.

Me: At a highly tumultuous time. Things have settled down significantly since then.

John: Yes. When I was going there, when I started going there, it was the most violent time since the seventies. I thought that I was going to be able to see artists dealing with this whole issue quite fundamentally because Belfast is both this active Western city with an art community and guys in lofts and at the same time having this whole civil strife. But when I got there I was so unbelievably disappointed because everything I saw in Belfast in artist’s studios was whatever was hip in Art in America or Art Forum the month before. Basically the reproductive media that we use today has collapsed the art world into relative homogeneity. The notion that I was going to go into this region where the art would be constructed around these actualized issues was thoroughly naïve on my part. It thoroughly opened me up to the reality of what the art world was now. There was a kind of disassembling happening. A kind of disassembling of meaning and of self and of personal experience was going on in a lot of art. It was copied in art schools everywhere. That was the late eighties and everybody was doing David Salle (24) stuff over and over and over again. Even in Belfast. But the only stuff that blew me away in Belfast were these murals that seemed very real. They were thoroughly conventionalized. They were not made by professional artists. Some of them were more graphic than others. But implicit in the murals was a whole set of social relations that I thought were really interesting including the notion of audience. These things are commissioned by the paramilitaries. They’re put in communities where they’re actually protected. The big game for the other community is to try and destroy these murals. Some of them last over night. Some of them last for years. There was a whole social dynamic to these images that I found very compelling and thoroughly at odds with a contemporary western European city where there’s billboards and stuff like that. Why do murals? Why do a mural when you’re competing against big Guinness ads? And so it made me get really interested in the periphery of art practice. It wasn’t that I was going there as a sociologist, because I really didn’t have the skills, but I was interested in them as images and in the kind of discrepancy between the world and the construction of imagery and art making within these anachronisms that were in Belfast. So I looked at those very seriously and wrote extensively on them for four or five years because I’m really interested in visual images. I’m interested in art production in a wide variety of ways. I think that the world is way too interesting to just sit in a studio. I would never have made those murals, but I’m really interested in how they were constructed. So I came back here really thinking about the relationship between those codes and their communities and that influenced a body of work that I did that were based on children’s playground schematics (25). That’s a long winded way of telling you how I ended up there but again it was all about looking for that relationship between a community and its conventions but also the thorough disappointment that I found with the highly conventionalized work being produced by the professionalized art community.

Me: Your recent work is quite different.

John: It’s funny. You go and you revisit your older work and you think that you’ve really changed. You look at your artist statements and that. But the issues haven’t changed at all. The text based work was about trying to create a degree of interference between how someone was able to read the text. I did this text based work where I’d hammer text, like rifling, onto lead. Lead is so soft that whenever you put a letter down and then put another one next to it, it kind of oozes over to the other letter. What I did was I looked at a variety of kinds of conversations and then put them together. The series of text based work that I did in the early nineties was all based on a combination of human rights reports from Amnesty International, Victorian lover letters that dealt with sentiment and rules from a text on children’s playground games. What I would do was take one sentence from each text that I found interesting and put one from another. Through the act of hammering them in, what would end up happening was something that looked like cuneiform, something as old as ages, but with just words coming out. Words would just blurt out. You couldn’t read anything except for little fragments. So there was this collage or this superimposition of a kind of information or of sentiment that created a unified field of disparate quotations. What I didn’t want these things to be was pure collage wherein you would read one sentence and there’s this disconnect with another sentence. Instead the act of producing the work produced a new or a different piece. You would be able to see bits and pieces like “scarring, tissue, Danish Rounders, children’s voice, I love you”. Through the act of creating a template or situation wherein these kinds of collisions of language could occur, bump up against each other, through the act of actually engaging the language through writing it became very compelling to me. It was all about those little spaces, those fissures. When I look at the new painting, that is exactly what I’m doing but I’ve removed the text and am instead using the language of painting (and its conventions) to collapse and to create those kinds of fissures.

Me: Yes. That’s quite interesting. Going back to the notion of language, in 1992 a young John Kissick wrote:
“One reasonably certain aspect of communication is that its codes embody and are susceptible to the pressures of change. This should make sense: language incapable of adapting to new situations would simply become irrelevant” (26). How do you think the language of painting has changed over the last fifteen years?

John: One of the things that is pretty clear to me is that, and it might be feigned, but there seems to be a lot more freedom in contemporary painting then there might have been ten or fifteen years ago. I think it’s been the generation that’s coming up now that’s basically said “I’m tired of irony. I’m tired of cynicism It’s an endgame. It doesn’t go anywhere” (27). There was this sense in and around painting, especially in the early 90’s, that the best attitude to have was to be ironically detached so that nothing really meant anything and you weren’t really committed to anything because to be really committed to anything was dangerous. There was a great line from Peter Schjeldahl (28) wherein he was describing the Rothko exhibition and he said something like how: “In the last great tide of faith Rothko, like Mondrian before him, lacked the wisdom of today’s art stars that know that to believe in anything is messy and dangerous and that does give us an edge on them.” That was very compelling for me. Of course he was saying it tongue and cheek because thank God that there was this “tide of faith” when commitment really mattered. There was this period we went through where there was so much joylessness in painting. How much of yourself could you remove from your work? (29) John in the Karin Davie piece brings up a good point in that a lot of the joy came back into painting when a lot of young women painters started moving beyond the discourses of first generation and even some second generation feminist theory in order to reengage painting on their own terms (30). I think it gave license to a lot of people to move back in and to talk about notions like play and small ‘m’ meaning, to engage ones interests again and to put the ‘self’ back into painting. I think that today’s painting practices bear a little bit of that which I think is nice. I think we’re at a stage right now where one can find painting interesting again in a wide variety of ways. There are multiple voices out there now where as a decade ago there was this sense of a unified field of irony. Now the other side of the coin is that if you’re one of those people that, at an impressionable age, lived through those wars of the 80’s and early 90’s (31), you have to wonder about the rigor. There is this willful blindness to those issues and how they came to function. I feel like a weary veteran that’s been in the trenches too long and has the shell shock of experience.

Me: In your Ben Reeves catalogue essay (32) you describe this reluctance as potentially “mid-career fatigue”.

John: Well on the one hand you have this pair of glasses that you see the world through that makes me skeptical, not cynical but skeptical of this kind of “whatever-ness” that goes on in contemporary painting. At the same time I’m thankful that a lot of good young painters have given license to mid-career practitioners to be able to do be able to do what they want to do without having to obsessively justify it. It’s a funny thing because painting was the sacrificial lamb of Postmodernity. It was the big boy on the block and arguably the bully. It was seen to be needed to be knocked down. But I think that we’re in an interesting time right now. I think that there are opportunities for painting once again. It seems to be that the problems that were inherent in the first phases of post-structuralist thought (33) were an end game and there was a lot of painting that seemed to illustrate that theory. Painting is not a good vehicle to illustrate theory. It sucks at it and painters aren’t theorists.

Me: Nor should they be.

John: This is one of the things that happened in the 80’s. Everybody started reading these texts and this is one of the things that pissed me off. It’s why I wrote that book. You’d have students who are supposedly talking about Derrida but had no stinking understanding of basic semiotics. They had no idea of where semiotic literature came from, nor of how to look at ideology in different fashions. I found that everyone had become a dilettante. Artists are to some extent the greatest dilettantes in the world. They’re experts at everything because they’ve read one book on it. But they’re not philosophers. They’re not historians. They’re artists but somehow they believe that it’s ok for them to take all of that on. They’ve got all of the ideas and there is a level of dilettantism that has always concerned me. That’s all the more reason why my practice has tended to become more and more focused. I just want to know something well. That’s all I want. I want to know something well. I want to learn something completely in the old traditional notion of ‘a practice’. This runs counter to some other people’s notion of how art making works today. I just have found that there is a tendency within the art community for a rarified, “aren’t we special”, view of the world and I don’t think that the work always hold up to it.

Me: I think that a lot of those 80’s discourses were a very powerful rhetoric filled with some very convincing arguments. (34)

John: Absolutely.

Me: And although a lot of artists in the early/mid-nineties sought to reject those arguments, it seems to me that there has been no similarly convincing argument put forth to counter or refute that rhetoric. I think that a lot of contemporary painters and young painters especially, seem to feel that sheer irreverence for those dialogues is a good enough strategy for its negotiation. I think of artists like Laura Owens.

John: To some extent there’s a slightly Oedipal thing that goes on from generation to generation. You get a crop of artists that are “the new evangelists” for the Postmodern theory that came out in the 80’s (35). They’re schooled on it and they become the parent-figures for the next generation of artists. They give all of the readings. They give it to all of their classes. What happens is that they initially buy into it. They accept it. It’s like Piaget’s “Three Levels of Child Development” (36). At first they don’t understand it at all. Then the rules matter all of the time. Then they react against the rules and finally they subsume the rules and invent new opportunities. I think that Piaget model is very much what happens in a social sphere.

Me: It also seems to relate to the classic Hegelian Syllogism of thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis (37).

John: Yah sure. It’s interesting to me how profound an influence education has. Art schools are really the pressure cooker for where you get all of that information. It’s the one time in your life when you do and then it gets awfully lonely out there in the art world. That’s where those kinds of collisions occur. What is next? I don’t know. But I do know that, in how you were talking about there not being a convincing counter argument to the 80’s, the arguments of the 80’s really called into question the possibility of art production at all. So that either means that the artist dies as an irrelevance or an eccentricity, and maybe we are an eccentricity of culture right now, or you just simply ignore the message and go on. I mean civilization is based upon a whole bunch of prophets of doom that everybody accepts and understands and nods their heads. You’re actually a good example. You’re going to be a father (38) and we’re living in the twenty first century where we’ve seen everything from the collapse of religion to Nietsze to Freud (39) and all the rest of it. Somebody might argue to you that your love for your child is either genetically programmed into you but the fact remains that you would still throw yourself in front of a bus to save that child and you wouldn’t think twice about it. Despite all of the discourse that would tell you that it’s nothing more than a social coding or a kind of blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Parenting is very good analogy for how we construct our world. I believe that more now than ever. Despite what we know, we do what we think is right. We do what we do because of sentiments and such despite all of that other stuff that we know. Art production is the same way. This was part of the joke of the 80’s, the hook line and sinker adaptation of certain parts of Deconstruction (40) or of hard core Post-Structuralism like Baudrillard and that, ended the art realm. It was a complete end game. Once it’s been done once you’ve illustrated the theory and thank-you-very-much. You either decide that’s it or you move on. But to move on, after that gesture has been performed, is in some ways an act of faith again or a Sysiphisian “rolling the boulder up the hill” knowing that somehow it’s going to come back down. The art act is the act of the exertion of rolling that boulder up because if you don’t roll it up, it just lands on you and you’re crushed by it. You are crushed by the weight of its discourse. To my mind, if what’s offered you, if knowledge of a Godless conventionalized world is all that’s left to you and you sit and putrefy, then I think that I make the choice, despite what I know, the very human decision, to move forward. That’s one of the reasons that, despite all of the rhetoric and the theory that comes along with the writing today, the bottom line is that when you look at the work in the art magazines of today there are smatterings of stuff that was done in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s. What makes it contemporary is that everything is gobbledygooked (41) together in the same magazine whereas it wouldn’t have been ten or fifteen years ago. There’s a kind of flattening out of hierarchies perhaps but the stuff is still out there.

Me: For sure. So I guess my last question is this: You are teaching a fourth year undergrad course called “The Language of Painting”. How much of that 80’s stuff (42) are you going to give them?

John: That’s a good question because one of the things I have to do this week is to construct the course. I don’t know. It’s a good question because on the one hand I’m conscious that this is a studio course and I don’t want it to become a reading course. On the other hand there has to be a series of convincing essays that people can read in order to get their minds around the notion of language itself. It’s kind of a weird one. Truth be told, I’m trying to trade out of it.

End Notes

1. See: John Kissick, Golub’s Punished Bodies: The Interrogation Series as Cultural Document. A paper presented at “The Whitney Symposium on American Art,” The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, May 1989.
2. See: John Kissick, Art: Context and Criticism, Brown and Benchmark, Madison, 1992. This is a massively scoped introduction-to-art-101-first-year-text-book. As such it is an astounding achievement for a non-PHD to have written and it is in this fact that the text’s greatest strength lies. It is written from the perspective of a thoroughly engaged and informed contemporary artist (with a distinct lean towards semiotics and conceptualism) rather than a “pure” academic historian. Rather than attempting to forge a history based on notions of priority, Kissick’s text deals with historical motifs as imagery to unpack and (potentially) make use of. In a strange way, the book seems to foreshadow his entire subsequent oeuvre.
3. Although admittedly it may function in some capacity as both.
4. Karin Davie (Canadian, 1965-)
5. See: John Bentley Mays……
6. “John Bentley Mays writes non-fiction, memoir as well as reviews for a variety of media. He is the author of Arrivals and Emerald City: Toronto Visited, for which he won the City of Toronto Historical Board Award of Merit; In the Jaws of Black Dogs, for which he won the National Magazine Award Foundation’s President’s Medal; and Power in Blood: Memory and a Southern Family.” He also teaches in The School for Writer’s at the Humber College School of Creative and Performing Arts, which is where I found the bio. His recentish contemplation on contemporary painting Beyond Overcoming: Notes on Abstract Painting, C Magazine, Spring 2004, features Kissick’s work quite prominently. It is quite a wonderful (if meandering) text and within the context of this blurb is absolutely worth noting.
7. Mary Boone Gallery is a gallery in New York City that currently represents Brian Alfred, Pierre Bismuth, Ross Bleckner, James Lee Byars, Francisco Clemente, Andy Collins, Will Coton, Karin Davie, jay Davis, Eric Fischl, Eric Freeman, Chie Fueki, Luis Gispert, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Peter Halley, Hillary Harkness, Jacob Hashimoto, Barbara Krueger, Barry La Va, Damian Loeb, Aleksandra Mir, Marc Quin, David Salle and Keith Sonnier.
8. See: Lane Relyea, Virtually Formal: Formalism in Recent Color-Field paintings by Various Artists, Art Forum, September, 1998.
9. Monique Prieto (American, 1962 -)
10. Laura Owens (American, 1970 -)
11. ACME is a gallery in Los Angeles that currently represents Amy Adler, kai Althoff, Kristin Baker, Uta Barth, Miles Coolidge, Tomory Dodge, Tony Feher, Chris Finley, Katie Grinnan, Kevin Hanley, Kurt Kauper, Martin Kersels, Joyce Lightbody, Allison Miller, Carlos Mollura, Aaron Morse, Michael Norton, Laura Owens, Monique Prieto, Stephanie Pryor, Dario Robleto, John Sonsini and Jessica Steinkamp.
12. See Robert Rosenblum, Abstract Painting and the Northern Romantic Landscape Tradition: Friedrich to Rothko. New York: Harper and Row. 1975, which is sort of the extended remix of the original text The Abstract Sublime. The central argument (reductively) is that Rothko is like Friedrich without the trees. In the book version, he constructs a whole history/conspiracy theory of Northern Romanticism in painting.
13. Milton Avery (American, 1893-1965)
14. Caspar David Friedrich (German, 1774 – 1840)
15. See the Shape of Colour exhibition catalogue edited by David Moos and published by the AGO. There are full page texts by an impressive array of writers that accompany each full colour illustration.
16. See: Victoria Finlay, Color: A Natural History of the Palette, New York: Ballantine, 2003. I have never read this book.
17. See: David Batchelor, Chromophobia, London: Reaktion, 2000. This book I have read, or parts of it anyway, and it is a compelling look at the drawing over colour prejudice in Western art/culture.
18. Although John is not really referencing Frank Stella’s notion of ‘working space’, which is highly nebulous, he is borrowing the phrasing. See: Frank Stella, Working Space, Cambridge: Harvard, 1986, which uses this notion of ‘working space’ to forge a history that links Stella to Caravaggio (with intermittent stops along the way.) Agree or disagree, the book reveals Stella’s blue-blooded-Ivy-league-upbringing and the fact that, masking tape and gyrating aluminum protrusions aside, he is a very smart man.
19. Hopefully you have some understanding of the philosophical notion of the Sublime because I am truly unequipped to wade very far into these waters. If you are completely unfamiliar with this concept then unfortunately I don’t have much to offer you other than the weary and snobbish advice that you should probably read more. See Kant, Schiller, Burke etc.
20. There is no better example of this “slipperiness” than in the vastly underappreciated work of Anda Kubis (Canadian, 1962-).
21. Leon Golub (American, 1922 – 2004,)
22. See note 1.
23. Ronald Melzack and Patrick Wall wrote about the Gate Control Theory of Pain in 1962 and 1965. (www.wikipedia.org) The McGill Pain Questionnaire was later developed by Melzack in 1975. (www.phsyiobase.com/protocols/assessment/pain_questionnaire.pdf)
24. David Salle (American, 1952 -)
25. See the exhibition catalogue John Kissick: Ether Day and Other Stories, Leo Kaman Gallery, 1995 with an introduction by Kaman and an essay by Kathleen Menus Dlugos. You could probably buy one at Kaman’s.
26. See John Kissick, Art: Context and Criticism, p 22.
27. I first became acquainted with this conversation as an undergraduate through David Foster Wallace’s essay E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1997. For a more specifically painting related discussion see anything written or spoken by David Urban (Canadian, 1966 -) including his wonderful essay Paintings Radiant Array, Border Crossings No.91, 2004. If you are interested in a more comprehensive cultural study of sincerity as an enlightenment value see Lionel Trilling’s , Sincerity and Authenticity, Cambridge: Harvard, 1972.
28. Peter Schjeldahl is a New York based art critic that is mostly known for his work in The New Yorker.
29. See the work of Jonathon Lasker as well as his Complete Essays: 1984 -1998, New York: Edgewise, 1998.
30. See artists like Davie, Prieto, Owens, Kubis, Fiona Rae (British, 1963 -), Monica Tap (Canadian, 1962-), Denyse Tomasos (Canadian, 1964 -) and Sue Williams (American, 1954 -)
31. For a good example of this see Douglas Crimp’s classic (if classically lame) 1981 essay The End of Painting in The Museum’s Ruins, Cambridge: MIT, 1993 and the likewise classic response (if classically awesome) by Thomas Lawson in Last Exit: Painting, Art Forum, October 1981.
32. See John Kissick, Langue and Parole: Some Thoughts on Painting, Canadian Idol and the Drawings of Ben Reeves, Complicated Matter: Ben Reeves, London, Ontario: Museum London, 2006.
33. “Post-Structuralism is a broad historical description of intellectual developments in Continental Philosophy and Critical Theory originating in France in the 1960’s. The prefix ‘post’ refers to the fact that many contributors such as Jaques Derrida, Micahel Foucault and Julia Kristeva were highly critical of structuralism. In direct contrast to structuralism’s claim of culturally independent meaning, post-structuralists typically view culture as integral to meaning.” (www.wikipedia.org)
34. Although admittedly most of the stuff that I am blanketing under the term “80’s Stuff”, such as Barthes, Baudrillard, Derrida, Foucault and Kristeva was not actually written in the 1980’s, it did rise in intellectual prominence in North America in the late 70’s and was pretty much art school gospel by 1983. These notions had a tremendous influence on 80’s art as a whole, particularly on the Simulationist/Neo-Geo people. For a more vivid portrayal of this, see the wonderful (if thoroughly Foucault-drillardian) writings of Peter Halley in Collected Essay’s: 1981 -1987, New York and Zurich: Sonnabend and Bischofburger, 1988.
35. Like the Neo-Geo people.
36. Jean Piaget (1896 -1980)
37. Despite the fact that I am using this notion correctly and pointedly, this reference is pretty much sheer academic posturing on my part as I really only have a rudimentary understanding of Hegelian philosophy.
38. Lukas Wraxall Smith (2006-)
39. Illuminating either of these two would be really condescending. (I apologize if any of my other illuminations have come off that way. It was certainly not my intention.)
40. “In contemporary philosophy and social sciences, the term deconstruction denotes a process by which the texts and languages of (particularly) Western philosophy appear to shift and complicate in meaning when subjected to the textual readings of deconstruction. The term was coined by Derrida in the 1960’s.” (www.wikipedia.org)
41. I am really intrigued by the fact that gobbledygook is an “official word” recognized by Microsoft yet gobbledygooked is not. In a completely unrelated digression Microsoft Word also recognizes the word Obi-Wan-Kenobi yet doesn’t recognize the term hybridity.
42. See the above note on “80’s stuff” but also throw in the Halley, Crimp, Lawson and an astounding plethora of other possible textual sources.

Cartographies (2007)

*The following curatorial statement accompanies the upcoming (July) exhibition "Cartographies" at Elissa Cristal Gallery in Vancouver. It presents the work of Melanie Authier, Martin Golland, John Kissick, Monica Tap and (of course) myself.

Billboards. Televisions. Magazines. Internet. Kleenex
boxes. Movie screens. Airport lobbies. Subway
tunnels. Jpg's. Graphiti. Screen savers. Utube.
Portablev DVD/LCD. High Definition. Traveling through
the atmosphere in waves. The speed of light. Breathing
in images like air, we process and exhale.

This exhibition presents the work of five contemporary
painters who map the domain of contemporary visual
culture: plotting its course and charting it
movements. These works give substance to the
ephemerality of the image. They are cartographies of
the visual landscape.

Sliver (2005)

* The following curatorial statement accompanied the exhibition "Sliver" at Elissa Cristall Gallery in 2005. It presented the work of Anda Kubis, Alistair Magee, Suzanne Nacha and (of course) myself.

“At times I felt its wooden life invade me, till I myself became a piece of old wood.”
Samuel Beckett, from The End

As children, “getting a sliver” is a frequent occurrence of mild, yet immediate trauma. A mothers hand is required to sooth us. We hold her close as she digs out the small splinter of wood that has penetrated our fleshy exterior. As we grow older, we develop a threshold, a tolerance, natural resistances to life’s bumps and bruises. As adults, a sliver can go unnoticed for days, a soft irritation of which we are scarcely aware, a small sore, a subtle discomfort that is buried somewhere beneath our skin.

American painter Phillip Guston once said that the act of painting is like having “both of your hands stuck in a mattress”. For Guston, painting was a struggle for resolution, a subtle discomfort. He would build up a surface and scrape it down, obsessively working and reworking. He would work all through the night, trying to get the bottom to work with the top and the left to work with the right and the red to work with the black. Guston knew that if he dug deep enough, eventually the splinter would come out.

The artists involved in this exhibition were invited to participate principally because I love their work, but there is also a shared sense of subtlety, an understated and reductivist approach to both formal and conceptual concerns. There is something of substance buried beneath these lush exteriors, something that gets under the skin, a resonance and a weight that is spoken in whispers. These are quiet paintings that through disparate and even opposing ends manage to find some sort of space from which to function, a space from which to breathe.

Achilles Heel (2005)

*The following blurb accompanied the exhibition "Achilles Heel" at Joan Ferneyhough Gallery in 2005.

“The historical reference to reductivist paradigms here is only a legitimizing façade, concealing what is, in effect, a secret caricature – an image of low intent masquerading in heroic garb.”
Mike Kelley from Foul Perfection: Thoughts on Caricature

In perhaps one of the most celebrated instances of athletic failure, Boston Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner let a routine ground ball go through his legs to lose the 1986 World Series. Buckner was an All-Star first baseman known for his defensive prowess. Given the same opportunity another 999 times, he would make it every time. But on that particular day in October 1986, with millions of New Englander’s prepared to celebrate their first Championship in nearly seven decades, Bill Buckner screwed up. His one time in a thousand, the defining moment of his career (and probably of his life) and he dropped the ball. His name alone has become synonymous with failure. There is a poetry to that sort of grand scale screw up, the great hero who fails to bring us to redemption.

Webster’s Ninth Collegiate Dictionary defines a “hero as: a) a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability, b) an illustrious warrior, c) a man admired for his achievements and noble qualities, d) one that shows great courage.” The more recent and politically correct, if decisively less elaborate, Oxford Dictionary of Current English defines a “hero as: a person who is admired for their courage or outstanding achievements.” In both definitions, the word hero is strongly tied to a sense of moral character. A hero is always the “good guy” who saves us, against all odds and at all costs, from some form of “evil”. Whether it’s Superman saving the world from Lex Luther or Albert Einstein saving the world from its own ignorance, our hero’s must survive great obstacles to achieve great results.

The idea of heroism is an important one to the history of Western painting. The heroic themes of Neo-Classical painting, the heroic landscape of 18th Century Romanticism, the heroism of the everyday person in 19th Century French Realism, the heroic scale of History painting and on a personal level the paintings assembled in this exhibition, consumed as they are with paintings history, represent a form of hero worship.

In Twentieth Century Modernist movements such as Abstract Expressionism and Post-Painterly Abstraction, the idea of heroism becomes even more prominent. Modern artists saw themselves in heroic proportions, defenders of the avant-garde, great explorers of new realms and possibilities. Abstract painters fought stoically through social alienation and financial destitution in an epic quest for purity, transcendence, spiritual enlightenment and the abstract sublime. As a means of historically legitimizing their various practices, their work took on the heroic scale of European History Painting. In place of History paintings literal depiction of human figures engaged in heroic acts they placed the “heroic gesture”. David’s stoic revolutionaries were replaced by Pollock’s chaotic drips and Gericault’s beleaguered castaways replaced by Newman’s emphatic “Zips”. It is this sort of “abstract heroism” that my work draws upon. But somehow, like the work that it evokes, it seems to fall short. The heroic scale of High Modernism is made small and human and modest. Their heroic gestures are appropriated, manipulated and removed from their original context and significance. The romanticism and expressiveness of their grand intentions becomes flattened out, caricatured and made hollow.

As symbols, Modernist paintings epitomize an important era in Western History, signifying an era of unprecedented growth and ingenuity and “progress”; a time that promised to bring us all to salvation with a better life through plastics. But now, like most other products of Modernist Industrialism, the promises of Modern Art now seem empty and naïve. Like the story of Achilles and his infamous heel, the invulnerable hero with a tragic flaw or like Bill Buckner at the 1986 World Series, perhaps we too have dropped the ball.

Extraterrestrial (2003)

*The following blurb accompanied the exhibition "Extraterrestrial" at Red Head Gallery in 2003.

"Friends of space, how are you all? Have you eaten yet? Come visit us if you have time,"
-Translation of greeting from phonograph record onboard NASA voyageur deep space probe.

FACT: Alien Abductions Incorporated is a research facility, resort and day spa located on the fourth floor of a New York City office tower. Their primary service is to implant memories of alien abductions into their clientele. AAI offers weekend retreats as well as individual implant sessions. Through a careful interviewing process, AAI is able to customize their customer’s abduction experience. Back yard crop circles and fetishist inter-species breeding are described as “add-on features”.

HEARSAY: The word extraterrestrial means “originating, existing, or occurring outside the earth and its atmosphere.” As the title for this show, it is meant to function in the realm of metaphor referring to both the practice of abstract painting and the current status of the painted object in contemporary society. The scientific study of extraterrestrial life is called xenobiology.

FACT: I first saw Star Wars at a drive-in movie theater. I remember quite vividly the giant tub of popcorn we shared in the back seat. This is perhaps my earliest childhood memory.

HEARSAY: I first started painting abstractly about three years ago. I couldn’t get past the idea that if I wanted to tell people “ real things” I should just tell them. Something more direct than painting. Most things are more direct than painting. I decided I wasn’t really interested in telling people much of anything. I wanted to make paintings.

FACT: In June l947, a pilot named Kenneth Arnold declared that he had seen mysterious disk-shaped objects in the sky while flying near Mount Rainier in Washington State. Newspapers picked up his story; reporters began writing of "flying saucers" that might have come from outer space. Other people soon told of similar sightings. The U.S. Air Force responded by setting up an office to collect such reports, launching an effort that came to be called Project Blue Book, which ran until 1969. Project Blue Book, operating out of an office at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, had as its purpose to learn whether these UFOs might be a threat to national security.

HEARSAY: Somehow I’ve drifted into this terrain: large fields of lushness, wide-open blue and the suggestion of infinite space.

FACT: In 1996 structures resembling bacteria were discovered in a meteorite formed of rock ejected from Mars; however, this evidence is vigorously disputed.

HEARSAY: I first started sewing my canvas in 2000 out of concern with the structure of painting. The sewn forms also represent a visibly evident break with Modernist ideas of “purity”. Within the context of this body of work, the sewn forms make my surfaces a little bit more… uncanny.
FACT: Human-made electromagnetic radiation is detectable within an eighty light-year radius of Earth, and is constantly spreading. SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, takes the data gathered by the world's largest radiotelescopes and analyses it for artificial patterns using supercomputers and one of the largest distributed home computing projects in the world - seti@home.

HEARSAY: The alchemy of my work: big cans of enamels, small tubes of Windsor Newtons, mix, layer, add linseed, turpentine, lighter fluid? Shiny. Clumpy. Smooth.

FACT: It is common knowledge that Orson Wells October 30, 1938 radio broadcast of H.G. Well’s War of the Worlds caused mass hysteria. The October 31, 1938 New York Times front page article reports that in a single block in Newark, New Jersey “more than twenty families rushed out of their houses with wet handkerchiefs over their faces for what they believed was to be a gas raid.” Some people were even seen moving their furniture.

HEARSAY: There is meaning and truth in all of these clichés. Painting is a conversation and a dialogue. It is it’s own language. The criticality of my work comes from its ability to speak to and disrupt these histories. It is about the alchemy of its material, the questioning of its structure and the rigor of its daily practice. Painting will always be about the journey rather than the destination. Phillip Guston once said that the best definition of painting he ever heard came from Eves Kline: “Painting is like having both of you hands stuck in a mattress” It is a pleasant discomfort, a struggle for resolution. When you finally manage to free your hands, you put them right back in.

FACT: Some historians describe Thomas More’s “Utopia” (1516) or Sir Francis Bacon’s “New Atlantis” (1628) as the first works of Science Fiction. Jules Verne's "voyages extrodinaires" began in 1851 with “A Drama in the Air” and went on to include “A Journey to the Center of the Earth” (1864). These books were wildly popular and set about a large wave of copycat works. Jules Verne is generally regarded as “the father of Science Fiction”.

HEARSAY: The works in this show aspire to be lyrical. Most of their titles are excerpts from various texts. Fiction. Poems. Pop songs. Words that sound good together. Words that provide some sort of reference point and manage to capture some sort of essence. Some sort of meaning? The paintings in this show are inspired by Science Fiction and they are about escape.

FACT: In 2001 Barry Williams started a website to promote what he feels is the truth. His site provides information about abduction for the general public. It is, however, principally meant as a support network for other abductees. He wants to provide comfort for his fellow victims. The header for his website broadcasts this message. It states quite clearly in large, black, Times New Roman font:

You are not alone.

Out of this airless sky (2003)

*The following blurb accompanied the exhibition 'Out of thie airless sky' at White Water Gallery in 2003.

“The ba-sic theory, is, that when given an unstruc-tured stimulus, some shape-less blob of experience, the sub-ject, will seek to impose, struc-ture on it. How, he goes a-bout struc-tur-ing this blob, will reflect his needs, his hopes-will provide, us with clues, to his dreams, fan-tasies, the deepest re-gions of his mind.”

-Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

An eerie green light cuts through misty skies to reveal the strange and the unusual, the unknown and the unknowable. Organic forms submerging into the murky depths of an alien unconscious. Like some kind of sentient-being with an acute understanding of intergalactic space-travel and slick design principles. This, of course, is all fine and good and strange and weird. But most of these works do that. These paintings are meant to reference the aesthetic of science fiction in a personal amalgamation of crop circles and War of the Worlds. Stanley Kubric and NASA. Heaven’s Gate and Ed Wood. I’m fascinated by this culture, this cult of the conspiracy. I’m fascinated by this need for mythology. This need we have to know and this need we have to project. Conspiracy theories. Science fiction. Tabloid truths. The Pyramids being somehow implausibly linked to Area 51 and the assassination of JFK.

These works are informed by this weirdness but they are also about something else. They are about trying to defy some kind of expectation. About occupying some place between painting and sculpture. About blurring a traditional either/or and being in themselves unknown and unknowable. Defying a certain desire to identify and classify, to group, sort and make sense of. These are alien artifacts. They are entirely “unpure” (anti-pure?). They appropriate and disrupt disciplines and histories. Unknown figures locked in unknowable grounds. These works are about a sense of physicality. These are paintings that you bump in to while trying to watch the video.

I’m using a lot of enamels these days. I like how they both accentuate and hide brushwork. How they reference the brush without revealing it’s secrets. I like how they glop and slop. I like how they bury the thread of the fabric and everything is absorbed into a weird, lugubrious surface. I love their plasticity. I like the irony of personally mixing commercially manufactured colours and then applying Windsor Newtons straight out of the tube. I love this weird spectrum. Ocean Horizon, Crayon Green, Italian Leather, Lover’s Kiss. Something you’ve seen before but can’t quite place. Some strange anti-pigment existing in your home. Your office. Your car. These are the colours of our everyday. They are something inside. Something internal. They are buried deep.

Mostly these works are about painting. They’re about pushing and pulling and backwards and forwards. They are about how there needs to be pink here and I don’t know if it’s finished yet. They are about the idea being a place for departure and not a blue print. They’re about Phillip Guston and Donald Judd. They’re about having both of your hands stuck in a mattress and about being interesting. These are love letters for dead heroes. They are about a sense of nostalgia for Modernism, about a loss of and a need for idealism.

And so finally,
after all of this,
when the alien space pod landed,
it was, of course, too late.
The aliens had seen the messages. The broadcasts.
They had witnessed, over time, these messages becoming more frantic and more desperate.
Cries for help broadcast in high fidelity throughout the cosmos.

And so the aliens had sent their space pod.
They sent it with high hopes. Their intergalactic care package.
All of the great truths were to be revealed.
Why the crop circles were made. Why all of those cows were abducted and mutilated. How Oprah was really just another false prophet. The significance of the Pyramids and Stonehenge. How the caramel got inside the candy bar and why JFK simply had to go. But most importantly, their pod provided the comfort of knowing YOU ARE NOT ALONE.

But even still,
despite their loftiness of ambitions and their highest of hopes,
the pod landed
with little fanfare or recognition.

hero biscuits (2002)

*The following blurb accompanied the exhibition 'hero biscuits' at 1080 Bus Gallery in 2002.

This show is titled after a common expression from my grade school days. Whenever you did something you were proud of some sour-graped kid would say: “Do you want a hero biscuit or something?” It must have been a line in some movie I didn’t see. I never understood what it meant. I still don’t. But I understood the implication. These works are about that, the things that you don’t understand fully but get the overall feeling of.

These paintings are pretty. They’ll look good in your loft. But beneath these lush Easter-egg-coloured exteriors lurks something creepy. Something that crawls into you. Something you can’t put your finger on. Something just beyond your reach. Like the feeling that there are dark and mysterious forces in the world. Government and corporate corruption. Conspiracy theories and alien invasions. Microwaved food can’t be a good thing. Neither can Kentucky Fried Chicken. These things you hear. These things you know.

Most of these works reference the body. Organic forms in cosmic conflict staging microscopic dioramas. Those things that crawl around on your eyelashes. The dust mites in your bed. The pneumonia in your lungs and the hidden cancers in your balls. Cellular mitosis and the Milky Way.

And still there’s something else. Some kind of happy day that’s all smiles and dogs catching frisbees in a field (and maybe you’re just imagining things.)

A lot of these works reference symbols and language. Like graffiti that you can’t read. Illegible but it penetrates you. Like a sign written in a language you don’t understand. You don’t even understand the alphabet. How a symbol relates to a sound and a concept. You don’t understand it, what’s written, what’s drawn. But you know it means something. Maybe it’s something profound. Or maybe it says: Walnut Cakes.

My nephew tries so hard to draw things that look like something and I try so hard to draw things that don’t look like anything and they end up looking remarkably similar.

All these works are about painting. About the pushing and the pulling and the backwards and the forwards of it. It’s about going to all the trouble to create a complex system of rules and boundaries and then breaking them because it looks better this way. These works are about how there needs to be pink here and I don’t know if it’s finished yet. They’re about the idea being a place for departure and not a blue print. They’re about occupying three-dimensional space because painting is not 2D. They’re about being interesting. So much contemporary abstraction is about finding a technique or a process that is technically astute and then milking it. Painting is just more complex than that.My work is as much about Donald Judd as it is about Robert Motherwell.

In the end this is just another show of paintings by just another artist. The last thing the world needs is another painting. The second last thing the world needs is another artist. And so these paintings are hero biscuits.

Two Exhibitions (2004)

Two Exhibitions that Didn’t Change My Life, but Did Change My Week:
Even More (as if there weren’t enough) Criticism on David Urban and John Kissick.

*Originally posted in 2004 on samplesize.ca

Perhaps more so than any other contemporary painter, David Urban elicits a bi-polar response from his audience. Urban’s vocal (and rather eloquent) arguments for a return to Modernist values and painting practices as well as the support and acclaim that the artist receives for such arguments seems to firmly divide art audiences into those who either vehemently oppose him or those who “believe” in him. And “believe” is indeed the proper description for the level of support that Urban’s poetic longings ask of us. His opening addresses at art talks usually begin with poetry readings and similar lines often accompany his solo exhibitions. (Usually it’s Wallace Stevens, although his recent Moore Gallery show was accompanied by a line from Rainer Maria Rilke.) He is also unafraid of pulling out the old Modernist saw that compares Abstract painting to music (usually Jazz). Above all else, Urban trumpets sincerity and authenticity (as the Jed Purdy of Canadian art) by asking us to disregard our Postmodern cynicism and to suspend our disbelief. This is a difficult task and despite my clever quips, I have tremendous respect for David Urban for having the audacity to ask us to do so.
That being said, I was quite concerned about the prospect of viewing his recent exhibition at the Moore Gallery. His 2002 Art Gallery of Ontario show had been, for the most part, tremendously disappointing. The paintings in that show had the sense of being rushed. Their Riopellish palette-knifing and early Modernist inspired, out-of-the-tube colours seemed woefully second rate and even second year. It is however, arguably, a difficult task for an artist of Urban’s stature to switch gears. Practical obligations such as exhibition schedules and gallery showings (not to mention such trivial concerns as having to eat) force such awkward periods to be made publicly. The works in the AGO show, I hoped, were transitional and as a traditional David Urbanite, I did my best to maintain my belief. I chose to respect him, regardless of the abysmal results, for having had the courage to embark on such a quest and it seems, with his present Moore Gallery exhibition, that he has at least spotted a worthwhile destination.
Perhaps the most striking feature of his recent exhibition, Treats for the Nightwalker, is the works overwhelming sense of confidence and urgency. (These traits are also mentioned by G.M.D in the Globe review and they certainly are the works dominant quality.) The main room at Moore Gallery is filled with large scale works. (The twenty-foot-long, A Toy in The Pond, for L.U., seems custom made to decorate an airplane hangar.) In this new body of work, Urban employs sparse but tremendously bold and emphatic lines, sculpted with a combination of thick and smeary blacks, whites, reds, yellows and blues to elicit feelings of a colossal, primordial struggle. Perhaps a minor detail, but a telling one as to the works heroic intent, is the inclusion of the artist’s initials that are reminiscent of Jackson Pollock’s drip-painting signatures. (Doesn’t he know that you can’t do that anymore, that only high school kids and Robert Bateman sign their work on the front?) David Urban wants you to know that he made these things and he is unashamed of saying so. These works, beyond their poetic titles and musings, are testaments to him as Creator. They are all fire and ice and heaven and hell. They are pure and unapologetic audacity. Unlike most contemporary abstraction which seeks to evoke Abstract Expressionism, these paintings are, in fact, Abstract Expressionism.
As for the display, the works are divided according to hot and cool colour schemes, reinforcing their “Wrath of God” sensibility. The hot (and to my mind more successful) paintings take up three of the gallery’s walls. My one concern with the works installation is the rather off-putting, framed work-on-paper. Although, colour wise, the piece fits in nicely with the other paintings on the cool colour wall, it seems strikingly misplaced in a room dominated by large-scale works on canvas. I can only assume that this was a decision made by the gallery. (The show was apparently “commissioned” by the Moore Gallery, so really they might have made all of the hanging decisions.) Although the monoprint is a nice piece, it really shouldn’t have been included in the front room show and its inclusion, to my mind, signals a very commercial/used-car-salesman/salon-style approach to painting exhibitions which is unfortunate in an otherwise first rate display.
Taken as a whole, the show will certainly serve to reinforce the gap between Urban’s audience and in so doing, stimulate the ongoing debates that such a division creates. For the most part, Treats for the Nightwalker, is a collection of what must be unanimously considered really good, if not “great” paintings. The real question, of course, is whether David Urban was born a half-century too late. Can his work be taken seriously as contemporary revitalizations of Modernist paradigms or are they, like almost everything else (especially at Moore Gallery), merely mannerist variations? Can people still make paintings like that, about those kinds of things? David Urban says that you can and whether you agree or disagree, you have to at least admire the conviction of his claim.
In contrast to David Urban’s bravado is a wonderful survey-says exhibition of recent paintings by John Kissick on view at the Stewart Macdonald Art Centre. Perhaps the greatest quality of John Kissick’s work is its sense of reluctance and insecurity. These qualities might seem unfitting to works that are so vibrantly coloured and often built upon six inch thick wooden panels, but Kissick’s paintings are rigorous investigations of abstractions past that sit on the fence between Urban’s unabashed sincerity and Johnathon Lasker style appropriation. In fact, his works seem to embody this struggle. Rather than claiming to have all the answers, John Kissick’s work presents us with questions.
The show at MacDonald Stewart is an impressive collection of Kissick’s work from 2001-2004. As much as I enjoy his work of 2001 and 2002, his work of 2003 and 2004 are just so much fun. Although the works still employ his older nods to Abstract Expressionism and Eighties style Post-Abstraction (quotations of pre-existing quotations?) his newer work throws OP style and Surrealist tropes into the mix. Everything gets swirled together into a whimsical, alphabet soup of abstract modes.
Although his use of appropriation and self-conscious “nodding” might imply that his paintings are academic or cynical, to my mind, Kissick’s playful works present the idea that although it might not be possible to create a “new” abstract painting, it is possible to create abstract paintings that are “different”. In this way, the paintings of John Kissick are every bit as “sincere” as those of David Urban, but unlike David Urban, John Kissick’s work exhibits doubt and to this, his paintings serve as elaborate testimonials. They are dense and vast, painterly landscapes of overlapping and conflicting ideas and sentiments. John Kissick’s work is a beautiful limbo of paintings past that, to my mind, best epitomize paintings present.