| Robert Fones
Colour and Technique
in the Work of Joanne Tod, Greg Curnoe and Jaan Poldaas
C Magazine #38, Summer 1993.
[ 5,687 words ]
Painting is a relatively private and solitary activity. Years of practice are required for an artist to become adept in the application of painting's materials and techniques. Although the texts by painters on their own practice — such as those by Alberti, Leonardo and Kandinsky — are well known and invaluable for the insights they provide into the theory and practice of painting, the painting process itself is rarely observed and infrequently written about. Yet the technical aspects and innovations of painting inevitably influence the appearance and often the content of the finished product.
Jan van Eyck's 'secret method of painting in oil' as Vasari described it, was a 15th-century technical innovation that allowed greater detail, naturalism of colour and a wider range from light to dark than was possible with previous tempera painting. Because of the flexibility of oil paints, painters were able to use stretched canvas instead of wood panels. Similarly, the collapsible metal paint tube freed the Impressionist painters from the tedious task of having to grind and mix their own pigments and enabled them to work en plein air.
Since writing about Greg Curnoe's use of pigments and pigment names ('When Form Becomes Content,' M5V#1, 1991), I have continued to be intrigued by the relationship between pigments and colour and between the content and the technical practice of painting. I decided to focus on the work of three painters and to examine the role of colour in their work and the manner in which each painter's technique has influenced content. In addition to Greg Curnoe, I selected two other painters, Joanne Tod and Jaan Poldaas, whose work reveals a high level of technical proficiency, an inventive and rigorous experimentation and the use of colour as an integral component of the content of their work.
Tod, Curnoe and Poldaas have all experimented with unconventional, although by no means unusual, painting media such as fluorescent colours, lettering enamels and polyurethane enamels and they have worked on a variety of painting substrates: dacron, silk, plywood and hardboard. They have also challenged the conventions of painting either through their choice of subject matter, the technical innovations they have introduced, or the degree to which they have extended the range of their particular painting medium.
Joanne Tod's painting method is, by her own admission, 'conventional and spartan.' Except for a brief use of acrylics in the early 1980s, she has worked almost exclusively with oils. Her paintings are frequently based on magazine illustrations, which she tapes to lightweight 1/4-inch foam-core that she can hold in her hand as she works. Rather than using an elaborate scaled grid, she simply divides each side of the illustration into quarters, marks the edges of the canvas with corresponding intervals and uses this as a guide in transferring key features of the source image onto the canvas. She builds up the image with diluted underpainting at first, gradually increasing the density of paint application over the entire surface so that, in the finished painting, all parts will be, as she describes it, 'equally engaged.'
Tod admires 19th-century painters such as Manet and Sargent, whose work, like her own, displays visible evidence of paint handling. Her favourite brush, a natural bristle oval-shaped filbert, allows calligraphic brushstrokes of variable thickness. Her enjoyment of the act of painting is evident in the loose but skilful brushwork that intentionally stops short of photo-realism. She uses a wide range of ready-mixed colours, including some often repeated favourites like jaune brilliant, cadmium red deep, manganese blue and mauve (blue shade). Like the Impressionists, she rejects black but points out that a fairly dark black can be made by mixing olive green and mauve (blue shade) or olive green and cadmium red deep. Many of the colours in her palette are crucial to skin tones, the great Philosopher's Stone of all art students intent on figurative painting. In Tod's work these skin tones include those of a variety of races and ethnic groups. Her palette also reflects the cyan-magenta-yellow primaries of the commercial printing process as well as the decorative colour schemes and fabrics of the colonial-style room interiors she portrays in her paintings. She mixes colours intuitively, seeming to achieve, with no hesitation, the colour she wants.
Self Portrait (1982), a painting that garnered Tod wide public attention, exemplifies many of the characteristics of her work: sensuous brushwork, artificial illumination, reflected colour and graphic superimposition. Over the image of a Washington society woman descending the steps of a neoclassical building, Tod printed on the canvas: 'neath my arm is the colour of Russell's Subaru.' Beneath the woman's arm, the white fur stole becomes an intangible, indefinable kind of blue — a celestial blue reminiscent of the star-clustered Subaru logo — which infuses the shadows and fills the night sky. The printed text is the colour of the adjacent yellow highlights on the woman's emerald-green gown. This colour correspondence links the statement to the woman. Both the yellow highlights and yellow text are the result of factors external to the painting: an unseen light source and Tod's own intervention.
What enthrals this woman more — Russell or his Subaru? If this woman was as rich and glamorous as she imagines she is, she wouldn't be thinking about a Subaru, a relatively modestly priced automobile. Instead, her subjective comment has the false note of glamour and wealth that advertisers want people to buy into. The moonlight she is bathed in is not the spotlight she might like it to be. The statement also reflects not what she sees herself but what she knows others see. The colour of the yellow high-lights and the blue-Subaru-coloured shadow are reflected colours, not the colours of the objects themselves, and hence represent visually the reflected identity of the woman who is both — as Tod makes clear in the title — a reflection of herself, as well as a figure whose identity is defined by how others perceive her.
Reflected or accidental colour (the colour reflected on objects by adjacent surfaces) is as prevalent in Tod's work as local colour (the actual colour of an object seen in diffuse daylight). Her room interiors are awash with daylight bounced off painted walls and wood floors or are illuminated by artificial light sources that give a particular colour cast to nearby objects. The raised window ledge on the right side of Shooter with Cliff and Eddy (1991) reflects the warm tones of the oak flooring and terra-cotta red of a nearby planter while the adjacent wall is coloured by the cool blue of natural daylight. The room interior of Apple (1991) and Orange (1991) are suffused with the pale green and orange colours suggested by their respective titles. These atmospheric room colours are in contrast to the solid colour of the yellow-ribboned gown in Orange and the blue Arabic lettering in Apple. Tod's use of reflected colour enhances the material richness of the exotic objects and materials she portrays, such as satin, gold and ebony, as well as occasionally creating deliberate ambiguity about the actual material of which an object is made. Is the porcelain-skinned woman in Disobeying Order (1991), for example, a real woman or a mannequin? The ambiguity adds to the figure's mystery. If she is a mannequin, then she is an object of display like the room itself.
Tod's earlier paintings, with their occasional line of superimposed text, simulate the flat colours and stylized brushwork of the 1950s illustrations that provided the source material for her work. With the development of her painting skills and her more realistic representational style, her graphic interventions have become more complex and aggressive. Mimicking the techniques of collage, photo-montage and image overlays, she manipulates the pictorial reality of the painting, creating vertiginous spaces of disorienting complexity. In See the Rushes (1991), for example, Tod superimposed a fluorescent river-like graphic over the inverted room interior, exploiting the receding space of the room to create a sense of depth for the graphic superimposition. The iridescent colours of the graphic river and rushes lend a quality of hallucinatory vision.
Pictorial dichotomies are also apparent in Two Horrors (1992), a two-panel painting representing two women with red necks against a photographer's seamless background. This work highlights a fundamental paradox of painting: the disparity between the actual materials of painting and the image. Is the red on their necks clothing, blood or red paint? Do their red necks make them rednecks? Can women be rednecks? The pictorial ambiguity reflects the incongruity of a gender-specific stereotype applied to the wrong gender. Colour is also used ironically in Reds on Green (1978), a painting of two Asian people (one of whom is Chairman Mao) against a green background. The ironic title is a commentary on xenophobia and the stereotyping of individuals and political systems. Tod's interest in the slurs, sexism and racial bigotry embedded in jokes is reflected in the slang she has used in many of her titles and textual superimpositions. Tod's depiction of 'people of colour', like the black woman on the settee in Miss Lily Jean Randolph or the Native people on parade in No Compensation, likewise discloses the social and cultural biases regarding what is appropriate for certain racial or ethnic groups.
More recently, Tod has invaded her own representational images with graphic shapes of solid colour that disrupt the pictorial space of the painting. These shapes are painted onto the canvas first, then the image is painted around these islands of colour. In the same way that these graphic elements disrupt the pictorial continuity of the painting, the bourgeois equilibrium of Tod's room interiors is threatened by the ideas expressed by these graphic interventions.
In Apple, for example, the blue Arabic letters appear to exist in a perspective that is different from that of the room, yet they both share the same pictorial space. The ultramarine-blue text, unintelligible to a western audience, invades the tranquility of the room interior in the same way that media images of the Gulf War of 1991 disturbed the conscience of North American viewers. The ultramarine colour evokes the ultra marine (across the water) transmission of these media images as well as the spirituality of Islamic art — a spirituality that is threatening to and little understood by the western world. Ultramarine blue is derived from lapis lazuli, a semi-precious mineral found in the Middle East and used in much Islamic art and architecture.
Similarly, in Presence (1991) the lipstick-pink shapes drift like paramecium in an unquestionably feminine bedroom, seeming to express the carnal passion that is suggested by the lipstick on the napkin, by the pink rug, cushions and bed canopy and by the bedroom itself (the customary site of sexual activity). The fluorescent silhouetted head in Shooter with Cliff and Eddy repeats in graphic form the motif of disembodiment expressed by the headless mannequin and the crudely cut-out heads that drift around the space of the room.
Tod relishes the fact that the intensity of fluorescent colours cannot be captured in photographs or colour reproductions. In their intensity, flesh-like appearance, forbidding associations and intrusive presence, Tod's fluorescent colours aggressively inhabit spaces that are otherwise inactive and unoccupied. They may also suggest the upheaval of an old representational spatial order and the emplacement of a new as yet fragmentary order.
Since Tod only makes paintings as large as she can manage on her own, her largest works are frequently composed of several abutting panels. She capitalizes on this physical limitation by using the division between panels as a severing device that cuts off some part of the image, echoing the character of the collage technique often responsible for the source image. In Disobeying Order, Orange and Shooter with Cliff and Eddy, for example, the superimposed graphic cut-out of a ball gown is cut off by the horizontal or vertical division between panels. Similarly, in Friday Night (1991), which depicts a kitchen interior turned on its side, a blood-like puddle of fluorescent colour appears to seep from the gap between adjoining panels. The gap is also along the bottom edge of a set of cupboards turned on edge, further complicating a definitive resolution of our question as to the source of this pink ectoplasmic entity: is it in the painting, on the painting or behind the painting?
Fluorescent paint was invented in the 1950s primarily for industrial applications such as marking fire exits and traffic cones. Greg Curnoe first used it in 1960 in some of his earliest figurative paintings. Like many artists associated with pop art, Curnoe was attracted to fluorescent paint's eye-popping intensity, its matte finish and its unconventionality within the history of painting. Also like many pop artists, Curnoe had been influenced by the flat colours and stylized forms of comic-strip art, as well as the tradition in comics of combining text and image.
In addition to fluorescent paint, Curnoe experimented with a broad range of materials including oil, acrylic, watercolour and polyurethane enamels as well as — in the recent series of rubber-stamped works on paper — urine, semen and excrement. He favoured plywood as a painting substrate because it offered resistance to the pressure of rubber stamps, an integral element of his work from the beginning of his career. He eschewed canvas because of what he perceived to be its fine-art associations, although he did use it in two series of rubber-stamped works describing views out his studio windows and in a few isolated paintings.
A 1963 painting titled On the Bed depicts a stylized couple embracing on a bed. The text rubber-stamped in capital letters at the bottom of the painting reads: 'This is a painting of a man and a woman embracing. The main colours used are ultra white, bright yellow, geranium lake & ivory black.' This text indicates the equivalence for Curnoe of painted image and printed description. Occasionally, as in this work, the text records the actual materials used to make the painting. On the Bed also illustrates Curnoe's method of depicting three-dimensional form by the application of geometric pattern, as in the plaid dress of the woman, or by using parallel bands of colour, as in the man's trousers. In these early paintings Curnoe generally depicted people and objects using flat areas of solid colour. He usually kept colours quite separate. In places, however, he rubbed diluted pigments into the raw plywood, thereby extending the tonal range of a single colour. These areas also allowed Curnoe to blend two or more colours into each other. As well, this semi-transparent, rubbed-in colour exposed the grain of the fir plywood, creating a decorative pattern compatible with his attention to object detail and the details of clothing pattern.
Curnoe's paintings on plywood from the 1960s reflect a wide range of influences including comic-book art, pop art, dada (particularly Francis Picabia) and the French painter, Robert Delaunay. In his use of complementary colours, Delaunay was influenced by the theories of Eugene Chevreul, a French colour theorist who was, in the mid-19th century, director of the dye works at the Gobelin Tapestry outside Paris. Chevreul noted that the retina compensates for oversaturation by one colour stimulus by producing a sensation of that colour's complementary outside the stimulated area, a phenomenon he called simultaneous contrast. As a result, a colour appears more intense when placed beside its complementary than when seen in isolation. Since that time, the theory of complementary colours has become a mainstay of colour theory. Like Delaunay, Curnoe exploited this optical effect in his work, with frequently dazzling results. Curnoe's description of colours as 'bouncing off each other,' even ones that were not complementary, indicates his sensitivity to colour phenomena.
Delaunay's characteristic billowing, circular, multi-coloured clouds are openly quoted by Curnoe in CN Tower (14 Oct. 1976 - 16 Oct. 1977) and 1 Iron, First Hole, Thames Valley G.C., with Delaunay Sky (6 July 1971 - 1978). And also like Delaunay, Curnoe drew inspiration from the colours of sports uniforms — in Curnoe's case, those of cycling jerseys. His stencil-lettered works of the 1970s 'consisted of names with letters patterned and coloured like national and club cycling jersey designs.' (DEEDS ABSTRACTS, Forest City Gallery, London, Ontario, 1992) Curnoe designed the yellow, green, blue and orange jersey of the Centennial Wheelers, the local cycling club to which he belonged. His use of cycling colours was a pragmatic as well as an aesthetic choice, since the colours were a means of identifying the affiliation of particular cyclists. The significance of specific colour combinations to a select cycling audience is consistent with Curnoe's interest in the associative meanings of coded colours, particularly those of flags and roundels.
The influence of Disc, a 1912 abstract painting by Delaunay, consisting of concentric circles divided into quarters, is acknowledged by Curnoe in a 1983 work titled What's Good for the Goose Is Good for the Gander, which depicts a naked Curnoe against a background of Delaunay-style discs. Curnoe's answer to Delaunay's Disc is his lifesize paintings of bicycle wheels. These watercolour works on paper are both realistic depictions of bicycle wheels that record the subtle variations in spoking patterns, as well as colour wheels that afforded Curnoe an opportunity to experiment with various colour combinations.
Curnoe's practice of applying wet watercolour paint to dry paper resulted in uneven densities of colour and visible signs of brushwork. Because watercolour is semi-transparent, the lightest areas of an image must be painted around rather than painted over as with oils. As a result, the filled-in background areas between spokes in the bicycle wheel watercolours create planes of colour — similar to Delaunay's cubist planes — that appear to advance or recede within the painting. Since the bicycle wheel is mostly empty space, Curnoe's choice of background colour and the visible brushwork combine in creating an unusually patterned background that often conflicts — obviously to Curnoe's satisfaction — with the depicted image. Curnoe saw much more than silver spokes and aluminum rims. These paintings represent some of his most detailed and colourful works. The influence of Canadian abstract painter Claude Tousignant, whose 'target' paintings of the mid 1960s Curnoe admired, is acknowledged in the titles of Tousignant Red (Small Flange Campagnolo Hub) (27 - 28 Feb. 1979) and Tousignant Blue (28 Feb. - 5 March 1979).
The fauvist palette of another artist, the Dutch painter Klees van Dongen, provided the inspiration for Homage to van Dongen (Sheila) No. I (27 June 1978 - 23 Nov. 1979). Van Dongen's propensity for red backgrounds and green facial shadows is evident in this large watercolour painting of Curnoe's wife, Sheila, who sits naked on a striped bedsheet with a chinoiserie-style screen behind. Stripes of colour change into their complementary colour as they enter zones of shadow. This transition creates a polarization of space with no diminishment of colour intensity. Curnoe's interest in shadow colours seems to have been influenced by the observations of the German colour theorist, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. On a journey over the Harz Mountains, Goethe noted: 'The sun was sinking towards the Oder ponds. During the day, owing to the yellowish hue of the snow, shadows tending to violet had already been observable; these might now be pronounced to be decidedly blue, as the illumined parts exhibited a yellow deepening to orange.' (Goethe, Theory of Colours, Sec. 75)
An additional reference to colour theory is evidenced in the two colour circles drawn in pencil on the left side of Homage to van Dongen (Sheila) No. 1. The circles appear to correspond to the colour circles of Ewald Hering (1878) and Wilhelm Ostwald (1916), suggesting that the ideas of these theorists were very much in Curnoe's mind. In fact, in 1980 Curnoe experimented with 'flattened' versions of the colour wheels of Ostwald, Chevreul, Munsell and Runge.
In the transparent medium of watercolour, once a colour is applied it can be altered but not covered by a different colour. Thus, the perceived colour of an object must be carefully assessed before that colour is mixed and applied to paper. Curnoe used the transparent quality of watercolour sparingly, preferring instead to follow the practice he had previously used in oils, placing discreet areas of colour beside each other. The frequently garish colour combinations that resulted (as in Curnoe's recent self-portraits) reflect this process of individually assessed coloured areas.
Curnoe's interest in colour perception went hand-in-hand with his use of pastels and watercolours. The concentration of pigment in pastels provides an even more intense experience of colour than oil paints or acrylics, which contain smaller proportions of pigment. 'The "bluest" blue paint,' Curnoe wrote in a text for a German publication devoted to the idea of blue, 'is cobalt blue pastel, thickly applied to paper.' And pigments themselves are the subject matter of a rubber-stamped work of 1987, Before Marks, in which Curnoe listed a dozen pigment names, many obsolete, others still in use. Like Joanne Tod, Curnoe found that colour names contained rich cultural history. The origin of a pigment is often preserved in its name. Bremen blue indicates the geographical origin of the pigment as well as a unique colour. For Curnoe, who had obsessively measured, recorded and documented his own life through the agency of the objects and events around him, pigments provided a ready-made alphabet with universal and local associations. In 1990, he wrote: 'The bluest blue is the blue at the zenith of the sky, in Southern Ontario, at about three o'clock in the afternoon on a cloudless day, during a period of high atmospheric pressure (low humidity).'(Blau, Heidelberger Kunstverein, 1990)
Jaan Poldaas is similarly interested in the nature of colour: What is blue? When does blue stop being blue and become purple? Why do blue and yellow make green? Poldaas claims that the essence of a painter's day is mixing two colours together to create a third. This is the principle of Black Yellow Blue Entropy (1980), a checkerboard painting beginning at the top with three squares of colour: black, yellow and blue. Using what Poldaas refers to as 'knight moves' (the L-shaped moves of knights in chess) he mixed these colours so that each colour on the row below is a combination of two of the colours above, neither of which is directly above the new colour. If the first row of black, yellow and blue squares is represented by the letters A, B and C, the colours on the next row down can
be designated BC, AC and AB and the next row ACAB, BCAB and BCAC. Each of the colours on the third row has a higher percentage of one of the three initial colours, hence they each incline toward that particular hue (for example, ACAB has two As but only one B and one C). By the time the bottom of the painting is reached, a fairly uniform muddy green dominates. This mixing process is called 'subtractive' mixture because mixed pigments reflect less light than each pigment reflects separately.
Typical of Poldaas's work, once such a structure is decided, he systematically tests a series of colour combinations. As he so casually puts it 'You set up a structure and throw in a set of colours.' In the Entropy paintings, the six colours are black, yellow, blue, green, red and white. Through colour mixing, Poldaas expresses the tendency of natural processes to progress toward entropic dissolution. Simultaneously, he demonstrates the loss of identity of the familiar colours for which we have distinct colour concepts as they gradually change into the muddy, indeterminate colours of nature. Although Poldaas's work exhibits some affinity with neoplasticism, this series of paintings goes against the advice given by Mondrian in his 1917 essay, 'The New Plastic in Painting.' Mondrian stated: 'The new plastic cannot be cloaked in what is characteristic of the particular, natural form and colour, but must be expressed by the abstraction of form and colour — by means of the straight line and the determinate primary colour.'
As an alternative to duplicating the particular colours of nature, Poldaas selected ten ready-made Pratt and Lambert colours for the 1974 MSC (Machine System Colorants) series. He mixed these ten colours to produce a total of 55 colours, each painted on a four-foot-square panel. Poldaas's algebraic approach to painting is, as he describes it, 'a method of substituting elements in a syntactical structure in order to learn about the nature of that structure and the relation of its elements.' The industrial MSC system provided a ready-made set of colours and a mechanical means of mixing those colours in precise proportions. The monochrome panels that resulted from these accurately mixed ratios are best seen as individuals within a group. Without the series, the idiosyncrasies of colour, the uniqueness of an individual painting and the nature of the structure would not be so apparent.
When Poldaas does copy from 'nature,' as in the 1978 EG (exempla grati: for example) series of monochrome panels, he uses local colours from corporate logos and identities — Toronto Star blue, CN orange, Coca Cola red, etc. — taken from objects in the urban landscape. Poldaas cheekily likens the panels to the various professions represented by the figures in Gustav Courbet's The Atelier. When seen out of their usual context, these corporate-colours appear strangely familiar yet unrecognizable, rather like old friends from elementary school whom one hasn't seen for decades. The colours trigger recognition yet require re-acquaintance and re-evaluation at the same time.
In the EG series, in addition to using the original colours, Poldaas duplicates the original finish — matte, semi-gloss or gloss; brushed, sprayed or rolled — giving these panels an archaeological quality. Since corporate colours do reflect colour trends, the EG series constitutes a historical colour record.
Poldaas's attention to surface reflects his awareness of the effect of the substrate on the perception of colour. He juggles the traditional attributes of colour — hue, value and intensity — by using various supports (hardboard, canvas, dacron, linen) and finishes (matte or glossy). The phenomenon of lustre often separates surface and colour, allowing colour to recede or advance, free of its bond to material. If the Pythagoreans identified colour as the outer limit of an object, a kind of enclosing skin, Poldaas demonstrates other perceptual factors that separate colour and substance. At the same time, Poldaas's colours rarely clash or bounce off each other as they do in Greg Curnoe's paintings. Like Mondrian's 'dynamic equilibrium' Poldaas achieves a harmony of colour balance in which all the colours retain their individuality yet contribute democratically to the composite whole.
Poldaas has a preference for colours that reinforce surface and materiality. James Campbell called them 'public' colours in the catalogue for Abstract Practices (Power Plant, 1992 - 93). Unlike other geometric abstractionists, such as Ad Reinhardt or Yves Gaucher, Poldaas rarely uses indefinable or atmospheric colours that take time to register on the retina. There is a scarcity of crepuscular violets, indeterminate greens and luminous greys. Poldaas also rarely alters a colour to the point where its corresponding colour concept is lost. Red remains unequivocally red.
Colour concepts are uppermost in Poldaas's thoughts about painting. He sees the evolution of colour concepts as parallel to the evolution of human development. Poldaas cites the fundamental perceptual distinction between dark and light as corresponding to the use of black and white pigments in early prehistoric art, followed by red ochres and other earth colours that gradually expanded the artistic palette. 'How could you have a concept of blue,' he explains, 'if no isolated blue pigment existed. The sky would simply be the sky.' Poldaas gives the example of his Estonian parents who have no word in their language for orange. When shown a sample of orange, they describe it as either yellow or red. It's not that they don't see orange; they just don't see it as a distinct colour.
Poldaas is also intrigued by the idiosyncrasies of pigments: blue must have white added to it in order to bring out its blueness, yet red is diffused by white; a mixture of red and white is called pink while blue and white has no distinct name except pale blue. Since Tatlin visits Tallinn (1988) Poldaas has worked almost exclusively with only four colours: black, red, yellow and blue. They provide a good range of value — yellow at one extreme, black at the other — and they each accommodate a wide range of variations of hue. In spite of the apparent constraint of using only four colours, Poldaas rarely repeats any previously used colour. Blue is mixed with black to create very dark blue, red is tinged with yellow. In the Square Composition series, the juxtaposition of two reds or two yellows, reveals the subtle differences of hue, value or intensity.
Although each of these four colours is a primary colour, Poldaas does not see them as universal as the neo-plasticiens did but simply as representative of distinct colour concepts. Like Mondrian, whose palette consisted of these four colours as well as white, Poldaas initially adhered to principles of right-angled composition. In order to eliminate the technical difficulty of painting into a corner where four colours meet at right angles and to avoid the optical dazzle that Poldaas calls the 'bull's-eye effect,' he painted these primary colours in vertical bands, then stacked panels one above the other to create larger compositions.
Nowhere is the uniqueness of specific colour combinations more evident than in Poldaas's False Target paintings of 1991. As in previous paintings, Poldaas succeeded in avoiding the intersection of four colours, this time by arranging the colours in concentric rings. Each of the 24 paintings in this series is surprisingly different, as Poldaas systematically explored all possible colour positions. Each painting appears to fluctuate between being a flat surface and having an orientation in perspective. Poldaas's use of lettering enamel on masonite (he worked for many years as a sign painter) adds to the demonstrative quality of these sign-like objects.
In Poldaas's most recent Four Corners paintings, he has once again altered his palette, introducing raw umbers, greys and ultramarine blues, colours traditionally associated with the figures and grounds of representational painting. While the individual colours of the quadrilateral and triangular shapes of which these paintings are composed cause them to recede or advance, the geometry of the flagstone pattern reaffirms the two-dimensionality of the surface. Like a severe cubist landscape the colours and geometry occasionally fuse together, creating larger planes that appear to exist in compressed pictorial space. As with most of Poldaas's work there is an underlying structure that is the same for a number of paintings in the series and a repeated set of colours that has been 'thrown in.'
The work of Tod, Curnoe and Poldaas has developed out of the traditions of modernism, in which the formal aspects of painting came to be appreciated as much as the subject matter. In his 1913 book, Les Peintres Cubistes, Guillaume Apollinaire describes Delaunay's modernist work as 'the art of painting new structures out of elements that have not been borrowed from the visual sphere but have been created entirely by the artist.' Like the modernist painters whose influence they acknowledge, Tod's and Curnoe's work can be appreciated for both its pictorial and its formal qualities. The abstract paintings of Poldaas adhere to modernist notions about the autonomy of the art object. All three artists have, however, used subject matter in ways that would never have occurred to modernist painters. Poldaas's EG series used colours that already existed in the cultural environment. Consequently, the paintings are both surrogates for those objects as well as paintings of corporate identities. Curnoe's watercolours of bicycle wheels are not totally abstract works, yet neither are bicycle wheels subject matter in the conventional sense. Joanne Tod's paintings reflect the character of photomontage, yet they are strictly paint on canvas. Also, Tod's and Curnoe's quotations of other painters reflect a self-consciousness of art history typical of postmodernist painting practice.
All three artists have extended the range of their materials through their use of unconventional subject matter, painting aids, increased scale and imaginative solutions to technical problems. Curnoe used watercolour on a scale normally encountered only in works on canvas. Tod and Poldaas, while continuing to use traditional stretched canvas, have also experimented with other materials such as dacron and nylon, both of which affect the quality of the surface and the character of the colour applied to it. Tod's recent use of semi-transparent nylon incorporates the stretcher itself into the painting and reveals the two-dimensional reality of painted images as thin layers of paint attached to a stretched skin. Tod's and Poldaas's use of multiple panels has directly affected the character and content of those works.
Artists have traditionally embraced new technological innovations. I deliberately chose to write about painters whose use of colour and technical experimentation is particularly pronounced. An analysis of colour and technique certainly doesn't account for every aspect of Tod's, Curnoe's and Poldaas's work, nor is it a substitute for a thorough investigation into subject matter, ideology, artistic influences or other aspects of their work that could be explored. However, in order to recognize how the work of these artists departs from previous conventions, an examination of the technical side of their practice does provide clues to more complex issues contained in their work.
C Magazine #38, Summer 1993.
Text: © Robert Fones. All rights reserved.
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