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Michael Greenwood

David Bolduc's Recent Painting

artscanada #178/179, May 1973
[ 2,046 words ]


David Bolduc's development as a painter has been appreciatively observed, assessed and commented upon in the pages of this journal since his first exhibition in 1967 at the age of 21. Early recognition can be a valuable asset to an artist but it can also impose upon him an irksome sense of obligation to fulfill prematurely the often exorbitant expectations invested in his progress by others. There is no evidence, however, that Bolduc is in the least flurried by any such pressures, but plenty to suggest that he is quite resolved to move at his own pace toward maturity, consolidating his gains and obeying no other dictates than those attendant upon a patient quest for self-discovery. In his attitude toward the development of a personal 'style' Bolduc is typically nonchalant, quite aware that the issue is of minor importance and can, indeed, never be forced without violating the artist's true nature. He acknowledges quite frankly the need to make use of a variety of fruitful sources without seeking to disguise their identity. Moreover his response to those sources is so authoritative in its interpretation and so sensitive to the spirit of the original that the critic is disarmed of any possible suspicion that the artist might be evading his responsibilities. On the contrary, he can in fact only be impressed by the genuine humility and sense of responsibility that permit Bolduc to be so patently honest with himself and the public. There is a world of difference between unscrupulous borrowing and the open tribute that an artist of integrity pays to the sources of his inspiration. It takes no small measure of inner strength and self-confidence to acknowledge those sources without prevarication.

Bolduc's sensibility was formed from early days by immersion in the tradition of aesthetic modernism. While still at school he was fascinated by such writers as Rimbaud, Mallarme, Huysmans and Verlaine; and he soon realized that the visual arts which developed within that tradition could not be dissociated from an intellectual and philosophical ambience that includes music and literature as essentially related forms. His understanding of the historical factors that contributed to the revival of aestheticism is unusually erudite for a practising artist. He continues to nourish his sensibility with extensive reading and listening; the latter being concentrated especially upon certain recent developments in modern jazz in which he discovers an 'abstract' quality remarkable for the purity of its intimate blending of sound and sensation. Travelling, too, has been another notable source of mental and emotional enrichment, particularly in the Orient where the sensitive occidental visitor new to those lands is exposed to an intense, often overwhelming experience of impressions and sensations. Listening to Bolduc's account of his travels in India and Afghanistan is to be reminded of Delacroix's and Paul Klee's own personal experiences of North Africa recorded so vividly in their journals. Those artists were literally numbed by the stunning impact upon their sensibilities of an exotic, unfamiliar culture. Klee, unable to take more than a small dose of it was obliged to return home prematurely, emotionally overwhelmed after a few tumultuous days; while Delacroix at one high point of sensory exaltation on entering a harem actually 'freaked out'! Neither artist chose to repeat an experience -- the phrase 'mindblowing' describes it neatly -- that required years of subsequent assimilation; but its imprint upon their lives and later work was profound and ineradicable.

Art history provides copious evidence of the importance of Eastern art in the formation of the modernist aesthetic movement from Ingres and Delacroix on. To take only one well-known example from many, Whistler's passion for oriental art proved to be a most infectious influence. David Bolduc's enthusiasm for that master's Nocturnes in particular serves to corroborate the point, but the continuing links between the East and contemporary aestheticism in painting -- so-called 'pure' painting, that is -- are not perhaps given as much attention in recent critical literature, apart from occasional references to the influence of Zen calligraphy, and Eastern mysticism in general, upon such painters as Motherwell, Tobey, Gottlieb and Francis, as they would seem to deserve. But who can fail to perceive in the brooding and meditative presence of a Rothko painting a spirit of fatalistic passivity far removed from the normal ambience of classical Western humanism? Proust's Royaume du neant seems to lie behind those mysterious veils of consciousness; likewise the hollow reverberations of the void that echo through the final pages of E.M. Forster's A Passage to India. The immense paintings of that other former Russian, Jules Olitski, also induce in the beholder a trance-like state of withdrawal, a bemused abandonment to the hypnosis of pure sensation that was formerly quite alien to the spirit of Western humanism but to which Baudelaire and, indeed, Coleridge before him had already surrendered themselves in the mists of opium. Bolduc, unaccountably it may seem, finds the enormous Olitski paintings too overpowering, but delights in the smaller paintings with their more human scale where the grandiose vistas of sublimity give way to something less cosmic, more accessible to immediate aesthetic appreciation. It is the difference, let's say, between the experience of a Wagnerian cycle and of a Chopin Etude.

David Bolduc is aware of the historical parallels between the contemporary crisis in Western culture and that which produced the widespread transcendentalism in art and ideas 90 years ago: a similar disillusionment with materialism and its chimerical promises; a like yearning for the consolations of an art divorced from external realities that will translate the anxious and world-weary spectator to a haven of personal reverie and aesthetic fulfillment. For Bolduc, the objective of painting as an art of suggestion and evocation becomes increasingly paramount. It is a position that would not, of course, have been challenged by Mallarme, Debussy or Odilon Redon. 'To clothe the idea in a sensuous form' was accepted by poets, painters, sculptors and composers alike as the principal aim of the creative act. According to this philosophy, art should generate in the respondent a mood of poetic introspection that relieves the immediate tensions of individual consciousness and promotes a state of receptive awareness. The mind is made sensitive to the muted reverberations of memory, to long-submerged and elusive sensations as surely by visual images as by words or music. And since those sensations emerge from the generalized substructure of consciousness where specific reality as such has no place, it follows that their visual reflection will be correspondingly nonspecific and diffuse.

But it also remains an obvious fact that the painting itself cannot escape being a specific and material entity, and therefore subject to the necessity of establishing its own reality in terms of some kind of formal organization, however tenuous and 'abstract' that may turn out to be. The more oblique and allusive the clues supplied by the imagination, the more subtle and, by a strange paradox, the more precise must be the means used to reveal them on canvas. In discussing the kind of painting that Bolduc produces it is tempting to dwell too exclusively on the analysis of its formal elements, since it is indeed upon their effectiveness in transmitting the nuances of the artist's poetic consciousness that the work's aesthetic validity depends. It must be remembered that for all the insistence of formalist criticism on the unity of means and ends the final justification of a work of art consists in the true expression of its inner content. The means, though clearly indispensable, are ultimately contingent upon that central fact. Bolduc makes it clear that, for himself at least, the need to evolve formal means is just an inescapable consequence of the prior need for self-expression. He is not at all inclined to make a virtue of the necessity, and in this respect at least his attitude toward the means appears as casual as an Expressionist's. Hence, one might suspect, his comparative indifference to the often touchy issue of stylistic 'borrowings'. He never paints as an exercise in aesthetic judgment; what matters above all is the spirit that animates the work. The means by which the spirit becomes painting, though necessarily demanding, remains in one sense an almost peripheral consideration.

To speak of 'precision,' therefore, in regard to Bolduc's particular mode of lyrical expression is simply another way of saying that visual imagery is made to reflect inner mood closely enough to convey the artist's message unhindered to the viewer. That this 'clothing of the idea in sensuous form' is realized more often than not in Bolduc's recent paintings is the true measure of their success. The means used lie somewhere between spontaneous improvisation and conscious control, the latter being drawn from an accumulated fund of executant resources that respond to the artist's promptings with the unlabored fluency of an experienced musician's command of his instrument.

In their pictorial structure Bolduc's paintings are apparently so uneventful, so devoid of obvious contrasts of colour and tonality as almost to elude verbal description. In any case, a bare analysis of the subtle and varied nuances that palpitate with scarcely perceptible rhythms beneath their surfaces can convey little of their impact upon the senses. On the other hand, any attempt to describe the sensations that are evoked runs straight into the hazard of subjective interpretation. The critic thus caught in a dilemma between adopting the pedantry of formalist criticism and the equally misleading approach of 'poetic interpretation' can only fall back again, somewhat lamely it must be admitted, on the artist's own leads to the cultural ambience and orientation of interests that have played so important a role in the evolution of his work.

The significance of Proustian titles applied to a number of Bolduc's recent paintings is certainly not fortuitous, though doubtless they were so given post hoc rather than the other way round. In essence it is extremely relevant not only to the specifically titled works, such as Combray and Le petit madeleine but to them all. The group as a whole is concerned to mirror the inner texture of consciousness, to build up layer upon layer a mysterious palimpsest of visual traces in which is distilled the essence of past and present experiences. Combray may not differ generically from, say, Two Poets (Miro and Apollinaire], but it emanates a distinctive 'flavour' and mood that set it apart from the other, equally distinctive painting, as a unique experience. Although each painting is keyed to a dominant, pervasive hue -- muted pinks, yellows, oranges, greens, blues, lilacs prevail - which sets the general mood, there are many internal variations of submerged complementaries and dissonances, of rhythms in series and counterpoint, and of surface tempi, all of which combine to determine its individual character. A particular mood is established that seems to generate a complex of associated sensations, all of which -- sad, joyful, nostalgic or humourous -- take their place in the context of the total experience embodied in the work. As in all such forms of lyrical expression, the visible process of its realization is an essential part of that experience. This is not a matter of being dazzled by mere executant virtuosity but of responding to the work at the level of physical identification. The paint is combed, scraped and floated across the surface in superimposed layers of a viscous, milky consistency, halfway between glaze and impasto, until the critical point is reached at which mood and visual sensation are completely fused.

Time and introspection are inseparable. 'Immersion in things, the image distilled from the dreams called forth by things-that is poetry.' Mallarme simply reverses the ancient poet's much-quoted aphorism: Ut pictura poesis. Le petit madeleine is an apt title for a painting that summons up, for this viewer at least, remembrance of a vernal dawn vibrating in the hazy, evanescent glow of youthful expectations. There are works darker, more poignant in mood, but the keynote of the whole group is one of playful seriousness, a blending of nostalgia and r-created joys.

Bolduc's paintings are for leisurely contemplation. Their secrets are not to be traded cheaply to the first comer with five minutes between appointments. They demand a certain passivity; but for those who willingly submit to their spell, time, that most abused and precious of human attributes, will be miraculously regained.


artscanada #178/179, May 1973

Text: © Michael Greenwood. All rights reserved.

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