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David Donnell

John Hass

Canadian Art #83, Jan/Feb 1963
[ 710 words ]


One is reminded of the medieval notion, inculcated through the catholicism of Aristotle's ultimate form, with the potential becoming of objects, and the need to suggest this by anticipating the future in present bodies. But while the medieval painters of this class, Breughel, for example, were concerned with an explicit birth (the expectation of God) it is the abstraction of becoming in general that fascinates John Hass, so that his subjects seem always in a process of transmutation, a formal theme to which he devotes four paintings — Patricia, Ambrose, Leaf Whispers and Blue Boy — which, though I may be seeing too much, seem to form a total botanical metaphor satirizing romantic love.

His pictures are intensely alive, both in line and in colour, and his tendency in both respects is toward a peculiar visionary quality which, bafflingly enough, is at times more suggestive of medieval India than of Italy. They strike me as painfully intimate, more so, perhaps, because of his marked humour, in that their quality of becoming, in the paintings which show this notably, seems invariably an inclining or declining of the visionary state.

Though frequently abstract, his work adheres to a definite pattern of visionary adventure, and every angle from which it is viewed offers further connotations of its potential nature, its potential change within itself. The Prince Awakens, one of three paintings which seem to represent the phases of a mythic journey ( Call, Quest, Discovery), expresses this as a definitive awakening to action, the action, I suppose, which, through the second of these three — Deep Inthe Forest — finds in the third, Hornet at Home, an ultimate solvency; while many of the other paintings, the deceptively titled Grass Still, Poltergeist and Cassius, prefer to concern themselves with more intrinsic becomings.

Though there exists a deep bias against classification in general, I doubt if Hass will seem limited if his work is looked at as falling into three principal groups: social, mythic and natural; and it would probably be of considerable interest (though there is no space to do so in this review) to examine his work as examples of generic mutation; a diversity in which social subjects are dealt with as mythic events — Goldy's Birthday; mythic subjects dealt with as natural events — Hornet at Home; social caricature — Ambrose; with its overtones of metaphysical irony, expressed as mythic botany; nature expressed as myth — Grass Still. The exhibition forms, though not as tour de force, an intelligible structure of similar transpositions.

Peculiar to his current display is a group of four paintings in oil, crayon and pencil, entitled Musical Sticks Jumping, which depicts four variations on a contorted violin, set, in each case, against a mosaicly bordered panel. The instrument of sweetness appears as an instrument of torture, and the colour principals of the four paintings graduate in accordance with changes in its degree of contortion. This group is of particular interest in that it shows two of Hass's dominant characteristics as separate elements of the same paintings: the concern with mosaic-like embellishment, and the concern with hard, spiky contortions, the round world of the child revealed as the world of pain, the spiny walnut shell of adult life.

It is these two latter qualities that Hass assimilates with perfect consistency in Portrait of Madam Mija and Saint Anne and the Baby Jesus, femininity lost and femininity found, which remain for me as two of the most striking paintings I have seen by a Canadian for some time. They are both ecological, the dominant character lying in the establishing of relationships between subject and background, to such a degree that the subjects can be truly said to be the products of their backgrounds, their functions and their defining moods.

If what I have said here implies that I find Hass an eclectic and literary painter, it is because I look for these qualities, and expect to find them in every painter raised in the modern world whose eyes and ears were not sealed at birth. His genre is carefully chosen. It is an indisputably consistent and original world that asserts itself, and almost invariably through a talent superbly suited to its choice.


Canadian Art # 83, Jan/Feb 1963


Text: © David Donnell. All rights reserved.

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