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Michael Greenwood

A Selection of Painting in Toronto (1976)
[David Bolduc, Paul Sloggett, Erik Gamble, Dan Solomon, Howard Simkins, Paul Fournier, Kay Graham and Millie Ristvedt-Handerek and Jack Bush]
The David Mirvish Gallery, January 10 - February 7, 1976

artscanada #204/205, April/May 1976
[ 2,613 words ]


If we consider the modern movement as divided into two main streams, the constructive and the intuitive-expressive, it is obvious that neither is immune to the danger of academicism. One may be enslaved to method and theory, the other to preciousness, inbreeding and etiolation. And both may feed upon the achievements of others rather than return to the basic sources of individual experience.

The artist, concerned primarily in giving plastic expression to his aesthetic sensibility, or to paraphrase Moréas, to 'clothe his ideas and feelings in a sensuous form,' is particularly vulnerable to these hazards. Since he does not operate within an established system of principles that provide a firm ideological foothold, his sources and departure points are almost certain to be located within a stream of tradition that depends largely on the unique, intuitive, and therefore inimitable achievements of its masters. It is true that this branch of the modernist tradition has in time acquired something like a code of aesthetic behaviour or, perhaps, a set of general precepts, but this code has mainly been established by critics on the basis of a highly restrictive interpretation of art history and is therefore a thin and dangerous sheet of ice upon which to support the solid base of conviction necessary to sustain a life's work.

Once again the spectre of academicism raises its bland and avuncular head. To be subservient to a critic's arbitrary viewpoint, to meekly accept an admonitory rap over the knuckles for some alleged infringement of the rules, or equally to line up in hope of receiving a certificate of merit from a fashionable pundit is the abject fate of a lackey. Still, the problem remains how properly to assess the merit and quality of painting and sculpture stemming from this tradition unless the task is undertaken by people who have educated their sensibilities to respond to it. But surely the acceptable critical approach is based on the instinctual recognition of an authentic, deeply felt experience revealed in the plastic forms that embody it. If the end result convinces, then the artist's means, whatever they may be, must be deemed valid. To interpret Maurice Denis's famous definition of a painting too literally — in the jargon beloved of academic formalist criticism — is to convert a mildly plausible aphorism deriving from that extremely earnest young man's preference for Eastern and Gothic styles into a rigid, patently untenable dogma.

These cautionary remarks are provoked by an exhibition of nine painters recently organized by the David Mirvish Gallery, all of whom, despite widely varying personal styles, adhere to the ideals of the symbolist / synthetist tradition of painting established in the last two decades of the nineteenth century and more recently given a new lease on life by the first and second generations of the New York School. This is not to suggest that the nine painters form a 'group' or 'school' in any sense — none of them, in fact, knew in advance who the other exhibitors would be — but simply that their broader intentions and aspirations belong essentially to the tradition of 'pure' painting discussed here, that is, anti-naturalistic, evocative, sensuous and contemplative in the Mallarméan sense, but also concerned with exploring new possibilities of pictorial structure as an end in itself.

Interestingly enough, it appears that this particular direction is still capable of attracting young adherents in Canada at a time of extreme cultural fragmentation. It also suggests that the relative youthfulness of this transplanted tradition in Canada - a mere 15 or so years — is enough to ensure its continuing vitality. Such was the momentum generated by the great American predecessors from 1945 on, that their example is still the most potent inspirational force, though other sources — Whistlerian overtones in the case of David Bolduc, El Lissitsky and Art Deco in Paul Sloggett, Kandinsky in the very promising Erik Gamble, for example - are also in evidence.

The problem already mentioned as inherent to this type of painting, namely inbreeding and consequent debilitation (where, for instance, could anyone go from Olitski?), could become critical unless its exponents establish once again the kind of intimate rapport with nature which their predecessors understood. Though in his pronouncements Whistler liked to affect an indifference to nature, he nonetheless studied it profoundly in order to distil the essence of mood and visual sensation which he condensed into the purely autonomous entity of the painted canvas. Gauguin counselled his followers not to copy nature but to brood upon it (rêver) and 'abstract the dominant sensation' in translating it into the language of form and colour. This is exactly what Monet in his maturity did, though he never withdrew his searching gaze from the evanescent spectacle that absorbed and tantalized him right to the last poignant, fading vision. The internalization of nature by the artist, which involves not only its visible aspects but also sounds, rhythms, infinite spaces and intimations of an elemental unity with cosmic forces, is what provides the dynamic core of the significant nonfigurative art of the past 70 years. In the presence of such art the viewer does not experience tedium and estrangement but a sense of enraptured recognition, knowing with absolute certitude that the artist in his experience of the world has discovered and conveyed something of profound consequence.

Applying such values and criteria to the work of the nine painters at the David Mirvish Gallery, one is obliged to ask if any of it offers that supreme revelatory experience. The answer, with regret and reluctance on your reviewer's part, is a qualified 'no', or perhaps more fairly, a 'not quite'. With two notable exceptions, Bush and Bolduc, one is too often left only with the mechanics of 'picture making', often adroit, courageous, sensitive and accomplished but remaining within the problems of the surface, not transcending them. There is much to appreciate and commend in the way of striking boldness of pictorial invention (Dan Solomon); or the sheer dogged battling with the formal elements of his métier that marks the work of Howard Simkins, an artist not concerned with charm but rather with bashing out a pictorial space and structure of his own making that has at least a real, if somewhat unenticing, presence. The youth, vitality and dedication are there; to offer any more definitive comment at this stage would be unfairly premature.

The same reservation applies with even more cogency in the case of Erik Gamble's and Paul Sloggett's first exhibited canvases, though the fact that they are not put out of countenance by their better known co-exhibitors is proof enough of their right to inclusion and encouragement.

Neither of these very young painters attempts to disguise his sources. From a base in Kandinsky, Gamble scores for a full orchestra of clearly defined though complex shapes and colours, employing the entire chromatic gamut from palest yellow to violet. The resulting ensembles are emotionally robust and symphonically resonant; it is not surprising to learn that he has a passion for music. The intelligence with which he attempts to bring his own needs into harmony with the expressive resources of form and colour is a good augury for the future. His paintings are rather more than exploratory exercises in an adopted style: they appear to contain the genes for a steady and healthy development rather than to strain after precocious sophistication.

Of the two, Sloggett seems at this point the more obviously knowing and sophisticated, perhaps for the association of his motifs with the 20s and a certain chrome-and-mirrorlike 'modernity' that would have looked well in a pre-World War II transatlantic liner. All the same, his efficiency commands immediate respect: whether he will eventually use it in a less impersonal way remains to be seen. His present dominating concern for style and technique does seem to leave a certain emotional void.

Dan Solomon is not afraid to be accounted changeable. His is clearly a restless mind, often chasing after a new scent, but with each excursion leaving proof of an experience thoroughly assimilated. This time he ties together the surface of his large painting, Crossways, with a loose, open network of cable-gauge lines in brilliant colours on a warm muted brown ground. But far from being energetic arabesques dividing the canvas into areas of dynamically interacting space, the ribbons of colour wander so casually across the painting as to create a superficial impression of slackness. However, that effect is quickly dispelled with the realization that Solomon is actually engaged in a daring enterprise — to wit, how far a devitalizing process can be carried before the whole structure disintegrates. He brings if off with a subtle coup: the pungently interacting colours take up the slack, as it were, left by the 'slowingdown' and virtual collapse of linear tensions. Solomon seems to be an inveterate and intrepid explorer who, if he continues in that vein, will sooner or later surely reach the promised land.

Paul Fournier, Kay Graham and Millie Ristvedt-Handerek are all artists of longer experience whose work can be expected to have reached a more personal mode of expression. Not long ago it seemed that Paul Fournier might be in danger of succumbing to the sensuous attractions of a paint surface made luxuriously tactile by the use of polystyrene foam additives. Those paintings tended to cloy the visual palate with a rich sweetness, like the taste of Aero milk chocolate made visible. The current work, however, avoids any such sweet-toothed excesses. Parrot Jungle No 7 is aptly titled: a riotous tangle of exotic forms that display their flamboyant colours with dazzling panache. The effect of dense foliation is not obtained by literal means but by shoots and spearheaded fragments of colour that might seem to owe their presence more to chance than intention if one were not aware of an underlying firmness of control that relates every seemingly random arabesque and sliver of form to a determinable choreography. The stability which finally emerges from all this profusion is analogous to that established in nature between the forces of proliferous growth and the counteracting restraints of ecology.

Like Fournier, Kay Graham is also one of those painters who needs the stimulus of natural phenomena to spark her creative imagination. An earlier series of Arctic paintings recorded with memorable intensity her experience of the landscape, the light, and a sensation of awesome primordial forces revealed in their immensity and remoteness from ordinary human concerns. The Big Wave, a theme that carries wider implications than the obvious, and here suggests a dematerialized universe conceived as energy pulses, somehow fails in its essential purpose of conveying a sense of the sublime. It could be that the pictorial symbols used are not those appropriate or adequate to the ambitious task; perhaps the fault lies in the way they are treated. Calligraphic lines indicative of varying wavelength rhythms traverse the large canvas (80' x 77'') horizontally but fail to produce a spatial grandeur and expansiveness equivalent to its physical scale. With imagery as metaphysical as this, a merely diffuse vocabulary is no substitute for poetic insight.

Of the nine painters, Millie Ristvedt-Handerek is the one most loyal to the Zen-via-America tachiste tradition. It is a genre dependent upon a scrupulous discipline of intuition, wrist and sensibility. To take, as she does in Rigadoon, a large canvas upon which is placed, almost centrally, an expressive swatch of colour of such a shape and kinetic emphasis that the space around it awakens and responds, and then proceed to animate that space with fine calligraphic 'lines of force', is no mean achievement, even if it has already been done in masterly fashion for many centuries in the East. It is, after all, a very basic experience which she tries to capture and pin down with symbols of the utmost visual economy: the interaction of solid and void expressed with complementary colours in such a way as to maintain a stringent tension throughout the pictorial space.

One important strength common to both Jack Bush and David Bolduc is their capacity to make the medium of paint live on equal terms with the material reality of nature. Thus it functions not only as a medium in and from which pictorial images are formed but it also becomes the physical as well as metaphysical component of the image — a fusion of identities that establishes an immediate rapport, a 'gut' reaction, in Lawrentian terms, between the work and the viewer, without being necessarily expressionistic.

Both of the Bolduc canvases have a peculiarly compelling physical presence, dense and enigmatic, as if the mystery of concealment could in itself be a kind of revelation. The insistent physicality of the paintings might seem in conflict with their sense of an ideational content, but we must remember that the artist's Mallarméan romanticism does not recognize any such division. Here we encounter a quality in his work to which Gary Michael Dault cannily alluded in the last issue of this journal with a reference to Japanese tea ceremonies. As the origins of modernism are thoroughly investigated it becomes increasingly evident that esoteric and occult influences played a far more important role than was previously acknowledged. We know, for instance, that Japonism was much more than a merely stylistic source of inspiration to nineteenth-century French artists who, when the impact of Japanese art was first felt, were already looking for escape routes from naturalism and flirting with metaphysical and idealist theories adopted from the Germans. Whistler's Nocturnes extend beyond mere japonaiserie toward the heart of the oriental conception of Oneness. Bolduc's enthusiasm for both Whistler and Mallarmé is no secret, as his art in its oblique and allusive way bears witness. The painting Cyrille, whose still centre is rent by a spasm of insight, a sharp defloration of silence, is a work of illuminating sensuality, truly oceanic and impassive at the moment of conception, then instantly fecund.

To leave discussion of the senior artist, Jack Bush, to the end of this review is intended as no slight but rather as a tribute to one who has earned the right to be considered hors concours. If his work can be compared to Bolduc's in its fine balance of materiality and intuition, the likeness stops there. Bush does not follow the younger artist into quite such a primordial realm. His sensory concerns are more purely visual, preoccupied at this time with accumulating the tensions that gather like an electric charge between two sets of disparate though related elements, the defined and the undifferentiated. It is not as simple as that, of course, because Bush knows that the distinctions between different modes of coding reality are drawn artificially, guided by poetic and painterly instincts. The figure-ground relationship, like the interpenetration of space and matter, is a cosmic game of hide-andseek, with each factor wearing a different mask at every turn. It is a game of endless moves and no winners, but the artist has got somewhere who has grasped it at all.

Bush's painting On the Left gives much prominence to the rough, assertive force of the 'ground', which seems on the point of shoving the paired couple of bright totemic emblems 'on the left' entirely out of the picture. However, they stand firm in their opaque and signal potency, offering a lastditch resistance to the encroachment that threatens to engulf them. It seems that one has to resort to metaphorical language to do justice to at least one of the multiple sensations that a major work of this nature evokes.


artscanada #204/205, April/May 1976


Text: © The Estate of Michael Greenwood. All rights reserved.

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