The Canadian Art Database

Theodore Allen Heinrich

Gordon Rayner: Edging up to Paradise
The Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa, and The Isaacs Gallery, Toronto, January 1979

artscanada #226/ 227, May - June 1979.
[ 4,416 words ]

If an extended consideration of the work of Gordon Rayner may seem overdue, there are good reasons for thinking the present moment unusually appropriate. A twelve museum national tour of a remarkable retrospective exhibition was launched at The Robert McLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa in January. (1)  A few days later a large and exhilarating show of work done entirely within the past 18 months opened at the Isaacs Gallery in Toronto under the provocative title of Paradise. The Retrospective manages to reconstruct a profile both comprehensive and comprehensible of an exceptionally adventurous artist. (2)  The two exhibitions, together with the catalogue for the travelling show document with an authority not hitherto self-evident that Gordon Rayner does indeed hold a high and secure place in contemporary Canadian art.

In The Isaacs Gallery exhibition there were 20 canvases, all but two large in scale and all rich in impact. Three more were in Oshawa in the Retrospective, one, purchased by the Department of External Affairs, is now in the Canadian consulate in Budapest, and two were left in the studio for lack of space. This, including the time required for the execution of a 61-foot subway mural, (3)  represents a period of intense creative activity that produced within a year and a half one work after another of remarkable quality. There was also a sense of stylistic unity and purpose not always so visible in some previous Rayner exhibitions. The new paintings provide two immediate and overriding impressions: that Rayner has become a colourist of exceptional range, and that in a nation of painters more conspicuous for restraint than daring he remains a man whose enormous energy can be an all but tangible element of his canvases. Some paintings here belong to a richly inventive series that derives in structure from memories of Persian rugs, rugs experienced in the difficult land where they are made and their colours set by washing in ice-cold rivers flowing to extinction in the desert. There has been some muttering in formalist circles here that Rayner has taken to painting portraits of Persian carpets, apparently, if true, a pursuit so disreputable as to put him in the category of the Algerian rug pedlars once so ubiquitous a feature of the Paris boulevards or in league with another vanished breed, the purveyors of dirty postcards. (4) 

If the suspicion of even so neutral a variety of content can be so disturbing, I should at the same time draw attention to the real sport in this excellent show, a canvas so downright near-figurative that it is quite openly called Two Weavers (1978). The anti-carpet faction will have no choice but to label it subversive. It is in fact so striking, novel and good as to put one in mind of another painting about which those very terms were once used, Les Femmes d'Alger by Delacroix.

This delectable painting is closely related technically to such other new but wholly nonfigurative paintings as Distant Dervish (1978), Slalom (1979) or Paradise No. 2 (1978). It transpires in an extremely shallow space that can function ambiguously as both a flat plane and a Caravaggesque stage. It is utterly silent. There is intense drama not in the suggestion of figures but in the appositions of curve against straight, colour against colour, darks as thick as oily smoke against a dazzle of light. It has a Rayner ancestry traceable at least as far back as the huge and still 'difficult' Love in the Jungle of 1969, (5)  but now resolved in most unexpected ways. It seems not consciously to have started with an image in mind, but with its basic coils and streaks and dense swirls of colour in patterns of dark against light it evolved into an extraordinary evocation. Anyone who has been to Isfahan will feel it instantly, others may not. But there they are, just as in the dim workloft of a family rug factory: two heavily veiled young girls seen from the back as, seated on the floor, they work silently, deftly at the base of a light-struck vertical loom under a shelf of brilliant yarns. The oily blacks have become silks, the rubies and yellows rich wools. This painting is so juicy, alive, sparkling and delightfully romantic, at the same time that it is in a formal sense so classically composed, that it could all by itself bring the notion of recognizable content back into good repute among the open-minded. Its sheer bravura of handling, likewise making one think of the French master, should give pleasure to almost everyone not totally committed to ideas of the uninflected, ineloquent two-dimensional purities.

There is only one other painting of this general character known to me and it is in neither exhibition, though reproduced in the retrospective catalogue: the smallish 1976 portrait of Graham Coughtry. (6)  The unexpected appearance now of what could too easily be taken for a virtually inexplicable new tack calls therefore, especially in the light of past performance, for an explanation. After this digression I will return to a discussion of specific paintings.

Over the years, but formerly more frequently than now, Rayner's work seemed to many people to be characterized by sudden and radical shifts of direction. From going full speed in one, he could seem abruptly to be going all out in its opposite. This could have been in part a telescopic illusion arising from the fact that for 17 years of his mature life Rayner was fully employed in commercial art and therefore coming to his own creative life only by fits and starts. There were as well lengthy interruptions for travels or large commissions. All this clearly did lead to problems with his artistic reputation in so far as it was based on periodic exhibitions. If the shifts reflected a strong disinclination on Rayner's part to typecast himself, they did encourage many reviewers to conclude that he lacked a consistent line of development.

The Retrospective may by selection have imposed a more definable pattern on that development than it actually had, but I do not think that it distorts, and its emphases have helped me to arrive at an analogy that suddenly opened a way of seeing Rayner's work as a whole. I had generally liked what at the time seemed to represent opposite tacks and most often felt that they represented, not a change in goal, which may or may not have been a frustrated search for a truly personal style, but something to do with source. Rayner's painting has never been descriptive, but nonetheless has always found its stimulus in experience rather than (as with so much painting of the last three decades) in theory and formula.

I found myself thinking of Rayner as a racing swimmer. The speed, energy and highly personal style are instantly apparent. The otter-like ease of the swimmer's racing turn at the end of the tank is so compelling a spectacle that one doesn't notice he has given himself an extra push against the underwater end-wall. The deceptive ease of these manœuvres is such that the artist with this peculiar skill can permit himself to dismiss the equally unseen battles of creation with one of his endlessly irresistible titles, such as Beautyrest Mantras (ca. 1968). (7)  The metaphor is useful, but in using it we should keep in mind that the swimmer is demonstrating exceptional abilities, some of which are by their nature realized under the visible surface.

The artist surprised me by accepting this observation with pleasure rather than the irritation I had expected. It seems that not only is he an accomplished swimmer but that his mother had been a champion. Perhaps we had heard too much about all the men in his family with a taste for painting. This encouraged me to pursue the analogy. It was then easy to see that the swimming tank from very early on has been too confining: its rigid limits incite rebellion. Then the clue came. It is not the pool that is important, but the water. Rayner works not to formalistic rules but to themes. He has in fact several that run throughout his work, often concurrently, and one of the most persistent and profound is the life-encompassing element of water.

Now we begin to see that Rayner's needs as a painter, and even his very personal sense of scale, operate in response to an objective but often immeasurable world. Now we begin to understand one of the main periodic compulsions to flee the studio, tidy and comfortable as it is, for the satisfying inconvenience of the cabin on the Magnetawan, or watery stimuli vastly further from home. It is as strong as any Wagnerian leitmotif (be there a current that moves the heart of a man?). River, heron-haunted lagoon, water-/ or Raynfalls, the 'liquid' in the imaginary aquarium, (8)  the colours of Atlantic shallows punctuate his painting over the years. The search for the triggering experience extends from the Magnetawan River in northern Ontario to the Amazon, from trout and lily pools to the underwater light of the Mediterranean off the shore of Ibiza. The challenges of light and colour are for him inseparable from the primordial, living thing of water.

I think that Rayner even enjoys rain, especially if it showers jewels or generates Raynbows. But he doesn't see rainbows, as did Brueghel or F.E. Church or Turner. A rainbow for him can be an inverted reflection that has broken into an easy-angled set of diagonals with the order of its colours arbitrarily rearranged, as in Justa Juxta (1968). This stain painting provides an excellent example of what happened when Rayner was still busily assimilating influences from among his heroes of the New York School (especially De Kooning and Morris Louis), recovering from his attack of Greenbergitis and discovering the reality of Rayner. It isn't the iridescent chevrons that are the special Rayner touch, as such they are hardly as new as even Noland and Bush, for Miro had produced them in 1917 for one purpose and Klee slightly later for another. Rayner's first transformation is rather to geometrize the borealian washes of Louis and then, like Zeus, to put the resulting angular, inverted rainbow in its place with a straight bolt of white lightning. The totally unexpected white line — here straight as an arrow but elsewhere curled like a whiplash or jagged like a check mark — appears as unheralded as real lightning on numerous canvases over a long period of years (at least as early as Pendulum (1964), and North Storm II and III (1965), none of these in either exhibition). Sometimes it is present as the first element of the design, sometimes it has been added as an afterthought, but in either case it seems to stand as a sort of seal of self-approval, Rayner's Mark of Zorro. In Justa Juxta, the white line also establishes, out of the evanescent, shimmering rainbow, a very solid, completely unexpected pyramid. It may be noted here that triangles and pyramids play a basic role in Rayner's work. They are staples of his vocabulary and syntax, even if subliminally stated. They are used as stabilizers and rarely appear as overt themes. It is themes, not modes or manners, that count for Rayner. His major themes, apart from water, include night, the colour and abstract patterns of the Islamic East (from Morocco to Lahore), the mystery of what lies beyond the window, the free irrational associations of dreams. The latter may express themselves in terms of one or several of the former, since they represent the compulsions of the unconscious in his working methods and often in the sources of his imagery.

His art may appear to develop out of itself and to arrive at unforeseen ends, but this is something of an illusion. One of the several streams he habitually works for gold is surrealist, a fact that should make us suspect that what may look haphazard is just possibly a smokescreen for a simultaneous process deliberately disguised. He might be described in no pejorative sense as a tangential artist, or an allusive one, regularly working on two or more levels of seeing, feeling and meaning at once. The manipulation of materials can be the most apparent but not necessarily the most important aspect of this multiple process. I think his remarkably ingenious titles are generally meant to invite us to search for apprehensible sources behind the abstract surfaces. There is almost always a springboard in some form of experience, related in the process of transformation to art, with the unseen kick and shove of the turning swimmer that I have described.

He hardly ever paints people and then almost as afterthoughts (the Coughtry portrait and Two Weavers). He never paints scenery but he is profoundly responsive to landscape and its components. This sensitivity to nature is perhaps his most Canadian characteristic as an artist, but it does not at all find a characteristic Canadian form of expression. Because it is so often related to dreams, as well as to the essences of remembered joys and terrors, it is in fact a prime source of Raynerisms.

It might be said that the absence of the commonplace in these exercises has the best of romantic tradition behind it. He has as both artist and man not one but two sets of very deep roots. They nourish, but occasionally threaten intolerable constraints. Every now and then he has to fly completely away to keep them in order: because they are there, he can safely fly to the moon and back. One set is planted in the rough cabin on the Magnetawan, where he has summered since he was seven, the other in his very orderly studio opposite Kensington Market on Toronto's Spadina Avenue. Rayner's art is, on one plane, very often a reconciliation between just such opposites. Another useful analogy can be made with the town studio and the north country cabin. Most artists work from a single point, whether physical or ideational, and within a circle described about it. Rayner has two base points; the circles around them overlap but are far from coinciding. He cannot only work from within either one, but within others extended from their points of intersection. He thus gains exceptional latitudes. The tangents are palpable. The eye must, however, be very quick and penetrating to discern just which launching pad has been used. Gordon Rayner, born in 1935, belongs historically to the brilliant little group of Toronto artists who were just too young to have belonged to the Painters Eleven [see also Rayner's Mnemonica in the artists section], but whose early development was strongly influenced by the excitement of their break away from Group of Seven preoccupations and ardent plunge into the new world of Abstract Expressionism. But he differed from his immediate friends in avoiding the usual mode of training in an art school. By getting some of these ideas at second hand from those who were at the Ontario College of Art (especially from Dennis Burton and Graham Coughtry), by having had the luck of starting to work in an office where he fell under the influence of an old family friend, Jack Bush, and by devouring with his eyes everything he could lay them on, he began the long process of teaching himself to be an original artist. This route balanced against the usual disadvantages of the autodidact the substantial virtue of coming out with absolutely no inhibitions about what he 'shouldn't' or 'couldn't' do. He had a rather tentative first solo show as early as 1956, at 21, in the lobby of a movie theatre, which was about the only place in Toronto for a novice to make a public debut in those days.

The Retrospective begins with his first fully mature work of 1959, the year in which, incidentally, he shared a second show with Joyce Wieland and began his long association with Avrom Isaacs as his dealer. He recalls that at that time he was much struck with Motherwell's painting; the evidence of March 30, 1959 suggests that he had found models closer to home and excellent ones in Jock Macdonald, Robert Hedrick, and William Ronald. (9)  He is already capable here and in Thank You, Mr Artaud, a 1960 canvas full of newly fashionable drips, of making strong but not yet entirely independent visual statements.

For the next few years the compulsion to find his own artistic personality, what he has persistently called his Raynerism, impelled him to constant experiment. The results often enough seemed more eccentric than convincing, but a surprising number of these works have now achieved a degree of ripeness that makes the best of them truly persuasive. He was always conscious of the problems he was creating for others in his endlessly vigorous efforts to resolve his own; this is why he has so often said that art without jeopardy would never interest him. He created more problems out of sheer prodigality: in his use of whatever materials came to hand, especially when working in the northern bush, in using too-flimsy notebooks for his huge archive of ideas and in his love of surrealist paradox he made lots of pictures and assemblages that cannot survive, but which had the value of chances and challenges explored.

The space restrictions of the Retrospective don't allow us quite enough information about what lay behind the work of that first decade. We may offer as examples the strong spiritual preoccupations of its first phase, with their, for Rayner, typical extension into the fascination of comparative religions and symbolisms; the suspicion that he might be a sculptor, (10)  which perhaps explains his rebellion against the conventional frame, his need to break through or forward from the surface and the frequent experiments with some very risky forms of assemblage. The resolutions of such daring ventures as the triangular Little Egypt (1962), Moon Fly (1964) and The Lamp (1964) come triumphantly in such later works as Fujiyama (1970-71), Rockslide Rapids (1972) and Persian Book (1974). Rockslide Rapids, with four hunks of real granite attached by wires to the front of a large, beautifully painted canvas, is a sort of Giverny-on-the-Magnetawan, an unimaginable but splendid transformation of the spirit of late Monet into an offering for Manitou.

Persian Book and Frog He Would A-Wooing Go (1976) introduce prime examples of another enduring element that is important both thematically and for its design values: the incorporation of calligraphic details. These and the marked rhythmic character of much of Rayner's work may both relate to his avocation as a jazz drummer, but they also exemplify the persistent allure of experienced and imagined textures of the Islamic and Japanese worlds — sources for the form, colour and movement of paintings that may otherwise be either virtually nonobjective or 'Canadian content' in their references. Rayner does visually what Boulez has done aurally, enriching a Western syntax with borrowed Eastern or primitive phrases as accent notes.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the show of current work and the three 1978 canvases in the Retrospective is the evidence that after nearly 20 years of fairly consistent revolt against the restrictions of the standard rectangular form and the flatness of the normal support, Rayner has firmly decided that these basic conventions of Western art of the past 500 years are not after all foolish. Every last canvas is rectangular, not a single one has any part cut away or through, nothing has been glued or wired on: everything is done on the grateful surface with paint, even if the ways in which the pigments are manipulated may be highly unconventional and sometimes truly inventive. Many remember the delightful frog prints that caused mild scandal in 1965. Rayner had managed to persuade a live frog dipped in blue paint to create designs on paper by printing its own image as it jumped. Now he enriches parts of his painted surfaces by a sort of subliminal printing with such found objects as scrolled bits of cast-off sewing machines.

Long contemplation of Persian rugs is, as noted, one of the relaunching power points for the adoption of a pair of rich design sources. In one, the familiar bordered type of prayer rug with an unfigured long space at one end for the prostrate orant ['a figure in the attitude of prayer', Compact OED] serves to suggest the pictorial divisions of his canvas. He also makes use of the patterns of such other generally symmetrical types as the Backshayesh garden carpets that hint at pools of water in a sandy parterre and employ a different, much lighter gamut of colour. Of the three new paintings that conclude the Retrospective with a proper flourish, one is an outright carpet painting that, just as family traits can reappear recognizable but greatly strengthened after some generations, is seen to be the direct descendant and heir of March 30, 1959. Called idiosyncratically Infinate [sic] Compass (1978), it is no portrait of a rug but a distillation replete with Raynerisms: a subliminal central form, water, calligraphy, diamonds and double pyramids, breakthroughs, a painted 'frame', intense colour, white slashes of self-approval. Most of these quirks and characteristics are evident in the two 1978 paintings reproduced here, Dervish Singer and Turk-quoise (in the latter case as though the painting were a huge blow-up of a small detail in Infinate Compass). The 'Singer' of this title has nothing to do with the quavers and acute atonalities of Middle Eastern song: what appears to be a formalized calligraphic pattern of dance steps in white is the impression of the baroque sides of a discarded Singer sewing machine printed onto the stained ground. The tornado cloud that fills the central space, as though spinning dizzily on a Damoclean point over an invisible victim, has the advantage of being at once as wholly unrepresentational as one school could desire, while irresistibly suggesting to the artist and myself the obsessed gyrations of the legendary mystic of the apt title.

The 'Paradise' of the rubric for the Isaacs Gallery show is as complex as anything else in the Rayner cosmology. He sometimes uses the word to describe the vicinity of Charlie's cabin on the Magnetawan. If this automatically suggests, in his case, joys that belong to his early childhood, and therefore a paradise lost, the evidence of the show conveys a strong sense of paradise regained.

The painterly qualities, marvelous colours and the range of imagery of every single one of these large canvases leave the strongest impression of an artistic personality that has reached a high plateau of mature development. The personal marks are abundantly present but fully assimilated to the primary purpose at hand. There is at the same time a pictorial unity regardless of 'subject' that says firmly: all the experiments, the sudden shifts of direction, the dogged determination, have succeeded. Old themes are still here in variations, enhanced by all the intervening experience, as in Aquarium No. 4 (1978), or made more fascinating through combination with others, as in Aquarium Carpet (1978) or Slalom. The latter has a furious but contained energy that, like Dervish Singer, should keep it for a long time to come on some fortunate wall.

Rayner doesn't forget that the promise of paradise is balanced with a conditional threat: a sinister hint of the lurking serpent or avenging sword makes itself felt now and then. This is true, I think, of Curtain of the Orient (1977). The rippled irid 'curtain', which has neither window nor wall to support it, stands in space as solidly as the mighty, pale gate of Miro stands in the Maeght garden at St. Paul de Vence. It opens to a tormented Persian night where there rooms against a grapy sky an ominous shape more sword than minaret. This portal also reminds in its hinted meaning of the outer face of the Paradise Gate shown us by Masaccio in one of the seminal works of Renaissance art, the Expulsion of the Brancacci Chapel. Because of the tall, narrow, dark centre space and the border of various redemptive blues and the reds of fresh-shed blood, this otherwise enigmatic 'design', so full of overtones, echoes and portents, relates to the current theme of Persian carpets.

The two night paintings command special attention. Night on the Nile (1977) evokes a still-to-be-visited but vivid dream-Egypt in which an overlap of pyramids above a curve of river or dune looms like burning coals out of a Stygian darkness. We see them through a grid of brilliant points of light, nearly 50 little lamps or a field of stars. In composition this is a startling variation on Summer Lattice (1978); in mood it is truly on the opposite side of the world. Far more impressive, but virtually impossible to reproduce, is A Bedouin Abed (1977), a fantasy which descends from the Raynfalls of 1973 and to which the punning title is only an afterthought. Here is a brilliant surrealist dream of the most painterly richness. It is a deep, velvety, silent night in the desert. We seem to be in a tent, gazing through a curtain of jewels like the beaded fly nets of any Arab bar, but transmuted to a glory fit for Aladdin. An infinite, featureless landscape extends dimly beyond. There is a heap on the ground outside: one of Rayner's introductions of an indeterminate form, there simply to provide a strong contrast, shiny against matte. Ah, but it has a big foot like an early Coughtry, or a device used by Rayner himself in the late 1950s. Aha! — a ragged bundle of a Bedouin blissfully in his own paradise of sleep. Across the bottom, like a caption but inscribed in yellow with the startling potency of the writing on the Babylonian wall, is a mysterious phrase in a calligraphy resembling cursive Persian.

The performance over the years may now and then have been rough. It is now at all times doing its master's bidding. He has got through the gate of a paradise of his own imagining. The secret way there has involved many twists and turnings and false leads. But it has taught him not only to paint what he wants to see for himself, what is beyond the ordinary visible, but to make those visions visible to us. Rayner takes you places you never would have got to unguided and some you would never otherwise have heard of.

artscanada #226/ 227, May - June 1979.

Text: © The Estate of T. A. Heinrich. All rights reserved.

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