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Gary Michael Dault

Graham Coughtry
The Isaacs Gallery, June 1975.

artscanada #204/205
, April/May 1976.
[ 765 words ]


On March 3, a Graham Coughtry retrospective will open at Oshawa's Robert McLaughlin Gallery. Curated by Barrie Hale, the retrospective, a survey of 20 years of painting, will present 34 major paintings and will attempt to reconstruct the entire sweep of Coughtry's increasingly mobile and agilely expressive manifestations of the human figure.

At this writing, the exhibition is almost together. What follows here is a kind of anticipation, remarks which, for the most part, come out of a viewing of Coughtry's last one-man show, held in June 1975 at The Isaacs Gallery.

Nobody paints fleshiness in motion as well as Graham Coughtry. Unless it's De Kooning. The show had the overall title Large Reclining Figure Moving and presented drawings and paintings based on images of a reclining nude female figure lifted from a Super 8 film Coughtry made in Spain five or six years ago.

The work was set up so that it began with story-board images from the film; small, more or less exact renderings of stills. These story-board images were then increasingly abstracted from drawing to drawing, loosened from their controlling film image, scrumbled, painted over, roughly and expressively (the artist never wastes an opportunity of this kind) annotated. Then came larger ink drawings on paper, sometimes drawings made only of well-tempered lines, wet, flung, skillfully arced onto the paper; a suggestion of a limb, the curve of a back, the record of the presence of a human shape in space. Following these, further into the gallery, were large (58" x 47") chalk drawings, lightly touched but solidly there, drawings as fine as any the artist has ever made (Reclining Figure Moving Study No 22, for example), and splendid large-scale studies in acrylic and pastel, vigorous displays of an essentially perfect (as quaint as this may sound) understanding of Abstract Expressionist method.

A work like Reclining Figure Moving Study No 21 seems to me as exquisitely lathered and punctuated as it is possible for a drawing within this genre to be. I suppose one either derives or does not derive pleasure from the reconstructed sluicing, dripping and smearing of Coughtry's paint and the dotting, thrusting, left-handed anti-slick stabbing of the artist's crayon, or from the imagined resistance of the paper, the positing of slippery surfaces where there is wet paint to draw through, the sudden blotter-like grabbing and slowdown where there is a patch of new dry paper. This sort of spasmodic enjoyment of a painting is unhappily unfashionable just now. But a good satisfying wallow in it is, I think, the only admission to the enjoyment Coughtry has to offer.

The show's accumulated studies, each internally sufficient as a finished work, led up to the central work — Coughtry's finest large oil in years, Reclining Figure Moving .

There is only a little to add, phrases and random suggestions which further enrich Coughtry's accomplishment.

Coughtry's painting is lyric painting — an achievement of tone and atmosphere, rather than of style. The most useful comment about lyric painting I ever heard is from Adrian Stokes, writing, as it happens, about Giorgione: for Stokes, something was lyrical in its lack of tension. Stokes felt this lack of tension to be an enormously affirmative quality in a work of art.

Such affirmation is everywhere apparent in Coughtry's work. In a Coughtry paint-ing, there is an equal and total insistence on pictorial energy and grace throughout every part. Neither figure nor landscape (ground) predominates or hardens into a concept, an aesthetic idea placed on a presentation surface.

Everywhere there is painterly plenitude and parity of landscape and figure, what Ruskin once called (he was, of course, speaking of Turner) 'pauseless richness of feature.' This pauseless richness of Coughtry's is no mere squandering of resources or a virtuoso poetic snow job. Coughtry's generosity of energy and his lavishing everywhere of expressionist detailing keeps each painting vigorously one thing. The paintings are thus rendered masterfully anti-hieratic.

Consequently there is no real drama in these paintings, no drama of a metaphorical kind, no set of calling and answering symbols. Therefore, there is also no stress within the paintings of the calling up of a moment in time. Nothing to have to follow. No captured movements. Coughtry has said that he was out to capture the model's 'in-between movements.' Which of course do not exist unless you are doing problems in differential calculus. Coughtry paints lyric paintings. There is nothing to follow.

artscanada #204/205, April/May 1976.

Text: © Gary Michael Dault. All rights reserved.

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