The Canadian Art Database

Ihor Holubizky

Don Jean-Louis

December 2000.
[ 2,378 words ]

Don Jean-Louis arrived in Toronto as the second wave of post-WWII artists began to exert a presence in the city and nationally; the so-called 'School of Isaacs' emerging from the ever-inquisitive program of pioneering contemporary art dealer Avrom Isaacs. If not a displacement of the resilient Group of Seven and their mythology, and in its wake the vociferous Painter's Eleven, artists such as Michael Snow, Joyce Wieland, Dennis Burton, Graham Coughtry, Richard Gorman, and Gordon Rayner played a significant part in the formation of a contemporary Canadian art practice.

Jean-Louis began exhibiting at The Isaacs Gallery in 1961. He formed friendships and affinities with the 'second generation' of Isaacs artists including Ted Bieler, Anton Van Dalen, Les Levine and Christiane Pflug. While not having the advantage of being identified with the 'baptism of The Scene', their work was a collective sign and indication of the richness and diversity of art practices (Van Dalen and Levine were to move to New York by the mid 1960s).

Jean-Louis's drawings in the early 1960s focused on the particular which was 'underfoot'; an encrypted topography of seed pods, leaves and grass. He quickly received critical attention and exhibited in many of the major annual invitational exhibitions in Canada. In 1963 he was selected for The Contemporary Art of the Americas and Spain, an exhibition which travelled to public galleries in Madrid, Venice, Paris, Rome and Stockholm. Kathleen Fenwick, Curator of Prints and Drawings at the National Gallery of Canada, took an immediate interest in the work of the then-emerging artist. She purchased drawings and included Jean-Louis in the prestigious Lugano International Exhibition in Switzerland in 1964. Another patron was Douglas Duncan, who was a supporter of emerging contemporary artists through his Picture Loan Gallery in Toronto. He acquired several of Jean-Louis drawings for his collection which were donated to various public collections in Canada when the Duncan estate was dispersed by the National Gallery.

The Toronto critic and professor Arnold Rockman — a regular contributor to Canadian Art magazine — also championed the early work. He wrote of Jean-Louis's affinity to the pre-modern visionaries such as William Blake, with his idiosyncratic essentialism and the potential of reflecting art in science without over-stating the association with technology. Such critical attention was remarkable and uncommon at the time as the preoccupation was with Pop imagery coming out of London and New York, washing over the decks of Abstract Expressionism.

Jean-Louis's large-format 'Interior' works on masonite, done in 1964, were orchestral formulations of his more modest-scaled drawings. The composition of one — Interior, Corner, Mind (collection of the Art Gallery of Hamilton) — reveals the manner of surrealist invention (such as the interiors of René Magritte), without copying the obvious pictorial fabulation. The interior walls become a view outside the illusionistic space of painting and a path out from its constructs. Here, Jean-Louis explored the possibility of nature, history and culture coming together; work which had the reductivist and monochromatic characteristics of reductive modernism interwoven with the irrationality of symbolist-surrealist imagery.

An equally 'characteristic and anomalous' canvas is Grass Painting #3, 1963 (collection of the Art Gallery of Hamilton). Like the 'Interior' series, the pictorial space addresses the nature of painting. In the centre is a bundled grass pod painted with the 'hole' of the sky; a sky which is not present in the pictorial space as ground. This image device (illusion) is underscored by a skewed sliver of sky running along the top of the work, in effect to declare the raw (but treated) canvas as ground and painting (the object). Manet's 1880 'asparagus' still life of 1880 comes to mind — the stuff of the everyday made emblematic — but also Lucio Fontana's Concetti Spaziali canvasses of the 1950s and 60s. By cutting and perforating the surface of his works, Fontana presented a 'view' behind the canvas and heightened awareness of surface and topography. In Jean-Louis's Grass
Painting #3
there is a dual proposition — a view beyond the (presumed) surface and subject of the painting (nature), and a view back, as in a mirror.

Jean-Louis' on-going interest in the topography of nature and phenomena led him to explore a variety of materials, perceptual situations, and their metaphysical transposition. At the time he also became interested in the writings of J. G. Ballard, not for the reasons of science as plausible fiction, but the vision of electro-plasmic life and electro-magnetic energy taking on a visible form. In 1966 he began a series of vacuum-formed uvex objects (some incorporating neon), with shapes based on Gestalt theory. These works were widely exhibited in the late 1960s (but mistakenly identified as a 'pop-ism'), and included in the Ontario Centennial Art Exhibition which travelled province-wide from 1967-1969. The exhibition purchase selections were made by Bryan Robertson, the Director of the prestigious Whitechapel Gallery in London England. Two of the key works from this series are in the collections of the Vancouver Art Gallery (Airflow) and the Art Bank (J. G. Ballard's Pool)

The potential of 'progressive' organic form — a radical development of the idiomorphic uvex works — enters into the 1969 video installation, The Nature of the Media is to Expose. It was oneof , if not the, first interactive and immersive art & technology work shown in Toronto. Four foot diameter distorted mirrors were rested along the walls, acting as panoptic image 'collectors'. The environment of the television studio in the gallery was a shock for the time, but allowed for a moment of reflection and a reflexive document as passers-by acted out the unconscious of the everyday. The 'information' was shown in a live closed-circuit broadcast and taped for a subsequent related exhibition. The statement of his 'company' E.ID (Environmental Identity) 'formed' for the occasion also speaks of the information-oriented focus of art practice at the time:

...concerned with the identity, nature and function of any given number of people, products, things, colours and sounds at any rate of speed, and their interrelationship under any given condition...scale considered.

Globe and Mail art critic Kay Kritzwiser wrote, 'The floor mirrors are convex and concave, and some are twisted into additional shapes, according to Jean-Louis's design. Their strange flutings engulf the viewer and give back fantastic shapes from a cool, glittering moving world.'

The two-part installation appeared concurrent with the first critical examination of conceptual art — the Information exhibition at MoMA, 1970. Though not linked at the time, The Nature of the Media is to Expose can be compared to the strategies of artists working within a quasi-public domain and agencies of culture-as-business; Iain Baxter's N.E.Thing Co., Les Levine's Museum of Mott Art, the British collective Art & Language, and even the cultural strategies of the then-embryonic General Idea (in particular, the idea of a media-inflected and reflected narcissism).

In 1973 Jean-Louis examined another facet of nature; behavioural installations which incorporated plant material, wax, light and sound. He allowed states of transformation to take place; the light provided illumination and melted the wax which, in turn, re-ordered the collected plant material over a period of time.

From the mid-1970s to the early 1980s Jean-Louis worked with light-active composition. Different hues of neon and argon tubes were joined and mounted on walls where they mixed against the wall or surfaces of painted canvas and coloured spinnaker sailcloth. A chromatic phenomenon resulted which was neither pure light nor paint.

This lead to large-scale transformable neon installations and public commissions at the Federal Government of Canada Building at Sheppard and Yonge St., and the C.I.L House (both North York and extant). The commissions summarized many of his concerns with light, architectural space and the metaphysical. The Federal Government commission — a series of neon / argon tubes mounted over sheets of draped coloured fabric — occupies a 300' span of an atrium space. The title, Neon Be On Sail On Argon, drifted from literal description to onomatopoeic prose, a hallmark of Jean-Louis's linguistic plays. In contrast, his C.I.L. commission is an intervention 'drawn' into various sites and architectural features in the lobby space. Jean-Louis's public art commission for the Canadian Embassy in Beijing, completed in 1993, saw a return to models in nature (from his early drawings), based on the form of maple keys. These were enlarged and constructed in the manner of architectural space frames descending within the Embassy atrium space.

Entropic information-gathering was the focus of Jean-Louis's 1980 installation entitled All the N.E.W.S. between November 7 and December 7. The 'heart and brain' was a United Press Canada tele-printer disgorging newswire copy continuously for four weeks and set inside a setting of constructed house, barn and fence. The flattened vernacular architecture was a link between the tranquillity of pastoral life and the chaotic map of global news and information.

('N.E.W.S.' is also an anagram for the cardinal compass points. There was also a demonic side; the barn when viewed 'head-on' has the appearance of Darth Vadar headgear).

The newswire copy was bundled at the end of each day and posted along a gallery wall, accumulating as raw and news (a sly reversal to Claude Levi-Strauss's 'civilizing' theory of raw and cooked food, by providing 'raw food' for thought). Major events mixed with human interest stories in a non-hierarchical fashion. The installation also included a Unifax machine used for receiving newswire agency photographs. Jean-Louis manipulated the incoming images with 'off-on' controls, thereby creating a 'machine-made' compression and aleatorical, fragmented compositions.

Consistent with the conceptual and phenomenological underpinnings of his work, Jean-Louis's pigment and canvas works in the mid-1980s (he hesitated to call them 'paintings'), formed a relational chain, from the early seed and grass drawings to the video-mirror collectors of The Nature of the Media is to Expose and the accumulation of information in All the N.E.W.S.. Critic Gary Michael Dault wrote in Canadian Art (Summer 1990):

These large-scale paintings in black latex and aluminum powders in solution, mute fields of metallic glow rhythmically punctuated by recurring blips and faults of darkness, are not in the least about colour or composition or any other of the concerns of orthodox painting.

The material phenomenon in the paint works comes to the brink of a photographic record. The silver pigment — like silver in vintage photographic prints — functioned as a chemical agent and equally light dependent for resolution, though in a different fashion. During the making, Jean-Louis used the heat from lamps directed at the surface to alter the evaporation process between water and emulsions, the urethane and silver powders. Consequently, the works have the appearance of a photograph and in turn, they are a picture of something. The 'attachment' of a metaphorical-referential title was a deliberate strategy to initiate these readings. In Topographer's Antediluvian Dream (1985, collection of the Art Gallery of Hamilton), a silver-painted rock sits on the ground in front of the canvas. The rock is the 'link' to the real world and the title-as-text, a type of verification of its 'pictorial' nature. Other works considered paint within the realm of coded scientific information such as spectrographs. A key two-part work has the enigmatic title of Photograph of my very first breath and Photograph of my very last breath. (1985, collection of the Art Gallery of North York).

(See Lola magazine No.1, 1997 (Toronto) p.75-76 for illustration and review).

The 1980s paint works provide a counterpoint to the slippery discourse which emerged out of late modernist painting. In spite of generic similarities of making incisions and the monochrome, Jean-Louis does not partake in the 'resolute luxury' of a material presence such as David Craven's Arabesque and Geometrics paintings of the mid-to-late 1970s. Neither does he presume the philosophical 'ground zero' as proposed by Ron Martin. (Ironically, in his 1992 works, Martin mixed sand with paint to give the canvas a 'raked' appearance and eliciting a referential-topographical reading). An important connection can be made to the realm of 'non-painting' and the work of English artist Mark Boyle whose 'Tidal' series of the 1970s record the ebb and flow of ocean tides on sea shore sand; sharing a concern with nature, phenomenon and surface mapping. As well, there is an affinity to Kazuo Nakamura's 'structure' paintings of the 1950s. Nakamura described (in conversation) his oil and string 'abstracts' as representing the 'unseeable', having come across scientific photographs of nuclear particle traces after the work was done. This notion of spectrographic image has appeared with increasing frequency in the past decade; the 1990 paintings of Jack Goldstein, and recently the computer-generated jet spray canvases of Australian Rosemary Laing.

Don Jean-Louis's work of the past decade has taken many twists, turns and returns, yet remains within a directed and coherent conceptual chain and vocabulary. He has continued his interest in morphology, exploring the potential of Photoshop software to gently nudge 'snapshots' out of the colloquial and in turn evoke the compositions of his organic-systemic drawings. The new body of small scale co-dependent drawings and paint work — an inventory or journal of cell-like structures and related 'minutiae' — give visual credence to the proposition that technological tools and the mark of the hand, as it relates to the mind's eye, can be interchanged without a corresponding 'loss' of content or saturation.

An endquote can be drawn from Vannevar Bush (a member of the Manhattan Project who began developing analog computers in the 1920s); a comment on the manner in which Don Jean-Louis has explored the boundaries of nature, ethics and behaviour, and cognition.

The human mind operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain. It has other characteristics, of course; trails that are not frequently followed are prone to fade, items are not fully permanent, memory is transitory. Yet the speed of action, the intricacy of trails, the detail of mental pictures, is awe-inspiring beyond all else in nature. (Atlantic Monthly, 1945, 'As We May Think')

Text: © Ihor Holubizky. All rights reserved.

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