| Andy Patton
A Certain Kind of Blue
Gairloch Gallery, Oakville Galleries, Oakville, Ontario, Jan. 7 — Feb. 19, 1995
From the catalogue
[ 4,316 words ]
After breakfast we drive back north on Highway 25, turning right into the abandoned driveway that leads up to the silo. Half-way we decide to walk the rest so that the truck will not get stuck. The place where the farmhouse once was is windswept, with no protection. There is nothing but bare flat fields around us, punctuated by a few trees, fences, and the odd clump of a farmhouse with outbuildings. The wind is blowing hard into our backs from the north west. My socks and boots quickly fill with snow, creeping up my ankles, and the path toward the silo turns slightly treacherous as it leads over old rocks, boards, and cavernous snow-covered holes. Kim steps into the silo before I dare to. You couldn't tell how deep you would go. What were we doing?!
Andy had been working as a nomad for a while, seeking out dilapidated industrial sites, such as the ruined warehouse in Georgetown or an abandoned brick factory outside Hamilton. Unlike the unfinished turnpike in the Tony Smith story, Andy would find sites in various stages of entropy, although sometimes he also chose a private or relatively un-public place, such as an artist's apartment in Toronto or a Catholic college in Windsor. Entering illegally, or insisting on anonymity, he had painted walls in the manner of 'frescoes', but only with one colour, to be seen by just a few people, sometimes only close friends. In a sense, the anonymity of these projects (nothing was to indicate that they were art) was not far removed from a series of works he had done in the late 1970s: a series of anonymous posters for Toronto streets. Come to think of it, perhaps they shared more than anonymity. Some of these posters, seemingly mass-produced forms of advertisement or public announcements, consisted of verbal descriptions of the site in which they were placed; a later series continued the project in the form of images of the postered site into which they were inserted. The self-referential nature of both types of posters not only eclipsed the expectation of a message, but also called attention to the reader's reading (looking), to the particular locale, the context of advertising, and the inexorable movement of city traffic as it is driven by, amongst other things, advertising. A series of later works for gallery exhibition formalized this break. Taking the form of light box advertisements involving a photographic image with caption which seemed designed to dispatch meaning — as it does in the directive, mediating sites of magazines, billboards or other print media — the caption called attention to one's desires or expectations as one got entangled in an implicating ambiguity instead. '. . . You are strong. . . stronger even than the poor... but you cannot stop. . .' If this particular 'message' inscribed within itself the relentlessness of goals, schedules, plans and ends, then Andy's 'message' suspended the reader in the peculiar break of questions and decisions: should I, can I stop, or should I go on going, keep going?
Inside at last, the sky above is a uniform grey - though it feels rather more 'blank' than a colour. I am thinking of the West Coast, Robert Irwin, James Turrell, when at moments it seems like a flat cap, or a scrim ceiling that filters an icy light into the silo. But then it arcs, the result, I'm sure, of the perspectival effect; of the receding, narrowing parallels of the interior of the cylinder which the eye completes — not in lines that come to a point, but in a round cupola, assuming the shape then that the silo had when it was still in use. The abandoned tower that one can see from the road, but that no one ever seems to visit — one might also think of it as a kind of break in the stream of things. It itself had stopped in that 'between', in a temporary bracket, but more extremely, since it no longer had a purpose; with many fewer words and greater physical displacement and distance, now but an interposed silence of a colour off the beaten path — among abandoned ruins, the cyphers of the break within the economy, twice over. It is the remnant of a farm whose lands now belong to a group of investors and speculators who had meant to develop a subdivision before the bottom fell out of the real estate market in the late 1980s. They are waiting, obviously, for a better time to sell.
As a site in limbo, Andy's choice of the ruin, the perishable and immaterial nature of the work (its potential disappearance due to weather or designation for another purpose) now reminds me of a book he had lent me a while back. Titled Love and Garbage, by Ivan Klima, the cover advertised the novel as a sweeping panorama of Czech life in the last derelict days of the old communist regime. Then, I had wondered why. . . why this book, why now? I could not quite make the connection until this moment, as I am writing, recalling that the novel's weary protagonist is a writer who has temporarily become a road sweeper who also meditates on love, garbage, and Kafka. Some of it I hadn't liked, but pervading the text was a sense of disillusionment which struck certain lines of thinking, certain conclusions that resonated with aspects of Andy's own work: its decided withdrawal from 'adding more creations.' (2) Perhaps, even more generally, it resonated with the 'blue' or melancholic aspects of modernity. (3)
In Klima it is a sense of irritated distance... an exhaustion of strength, pleasure and patience at once, which resigns the writer from any sense of striving impatience or impassioned haste: passive, even weak, (too weak to make a decision about his tired marriage and a new mistress who is a 'sculptress') his resignation, however, is also active. It puts all striving into question, and to 'go on' is no longer possible with any conviction. The weariness of 'what does it matter. . .' is of an exacerbated physical and mental resistance against a world 'groaning, choking with a multitude of creations,'. . . 'buried by objects and strangled by ideas which all pretend to be necessary, useful or beautiful and therefore lay claim to perpetual endurance.' (4)
As the London Review of Books put it, Love and Garbage is a 'fine, disconsolate novel.' It is haunted by the spectre of a world that could not stop its inexorable, relentless going, in which I recall not only Andy's interpellation 'You are strong . . . stronger even than the poor . . . but you cannot stop,' but a passage from a recent essay as well:
Some things have changed since our last visit in the summer. Then, we had celebrated the completion of the silo work with friends invited from downtown. Now, at the bottom, moss or algae has eaten Andy's blue paint into an irregular pattern up to the height of our knees. The green and dark greys make the fresco-like blue painting ancient — as if it had always been here — with speckles of blue now porous and blistering. No restorer would ever be asked to save it, just as this silo will never be rebuilt. But the middle section of lighter, nearly fluorescent blue is still luminous, heightened by the receding light into a dark blue section that comes to an abrupt halt about half-way up the silo. The edge of the blue seems etched into the concrete, and it strikes me as an odd surface for painting, or rather, for Andy's painting: slightly uncertain in its movement, not definitive or gesturally assertive, not bold. As a surface for the ink-like blue — a very ethereal, dematerializing, transparent colour — the contrasting concrete has a particular force: the blue is superior as an illusionistic surface, but here it is bracketed, held under tense pressure from the weight and physical reality of the concrete. Rough, with pebbles, the granular density and grey-brown colour of the ruin, with rusty re-bar rings exposed at certain intervals, reminds me of military bunkers on the coast of Normandy in France along the English Channel, where, for a few years, we spent sometimes foggy, rainy summer vacations. Strange, in a way, that this had been chosen by my parents as a place for our holidays — for us Germans. A dismembered war-ship lay buried on the beach. The bunkers, dysfunctional, witness of teenage seclusion and summer romance ('Bertrand aime Céline' crossed out and replaced by 'Jeannette'), embedded in the sand that itself was sparsely covered by dune grass were remnants of a distant, imagined and mediated apocalypse; yet more visible here in France than anywhere at home.
I was still curious, thinking out loud what it might be like if the blue went all the way up to work directly against the changing colours of the sky at the rim of the silo. As it is, the painting seems incomplete — a perhaps intended tentative, as opposed to heroic, intervention. The blue is bracketed off as 'painting', stopped short before it might become a complete environment, before it might touch the sky. Then I imagine what this might be like; spatially disorienting, perpetually changing, weirdly alive, difficult to pin down. As it is, the colour of the concrete, which sometimes turns orange through the after-image of the blue, is in mute tension with the painting. Most of the events happen in the vicinity of the blue-closest to our bodies. Kim's rust-orange touque, almost the complementary colour of blue, and his red jacket, are setting off flares of bright hues of blue that I try to catch as they move with every movement of my eyes.
In response to my critical question concerning the seeming incompleteness ofthe work, Kim just chuckles. (As though I'm being pedantic.) He points to the snowflakes that are spiralling down criss-crossing each others' paths in a constant, ornamental pattern; in fact, they keep us from looking up beyond the painting's blue horizon, since they would sprinkle cold watery flakes into our eyes. 'It's alright!' he keeps saying, and how he likes the blue surface of the concrete, the pebbles, the sand, the granular appearance. I am thinking of Yves Klein's blue, actually not just his blue but the sponge paintings, with their bulbous and globby surfaces. I am squinting, trying to figure out what the colour 'looks like', now that snow has settled on many of the pebbles that stick out along the vertical surface. The latter form a pattern: the white caps have all settled to one side of the concrete protrusions and together they make a large, elliptical field — like the shape of a shadow — in this round interior. 'Clouds,' Kim says. When I ask him what the blue looks like, he says it's a landscape painted as backdrop. It's true; rough and patchy, slightly transparent, the indigo-blue surface looks like the world seen from the great height of a transatlantic jet. But then he corrects himself, 'it's like Paterson Ewen's routering... the roughness of it. It's snow routering — and a little bit like... like the one with all puffy cotton balls.' 'Gershon Iskowitz,' I say, thinking of the artist's paintings at the AGO; the Painter of Light, as Adele Freedman had called him.
The context, the site, the painting, the colour fray into all sorts of historical connotations. I can see the tower as a lonely gothic ruin in the midst of a wild, harrowing Northern landscape; or, in the monochrome expanse of the painting, the non-objective tradition of the avant-garde, from Mondrian to Malevich, from Rothko to Newman. For certain, Andy's work touches on the Northern Romantic tradition, (7) the seeming emptiness of Caspar David Friedrich's Monk by the Sea, and the near-to-nothingness of Mark Rothko's paintings of the 1950s and 60s, sharing a sombre, luminous void. (8) It's as close to the scale of the Abstract Expressionists, their move off the easel 'into some sort, some kind of wall — wall painting,' (9) as it is to the role of colour and light, and the immense fecundity of 'blue' in European painting. . . Giotto's blue, which I've only ever seen in slides or book-reproductions of the Scrovegni Chapel; or even earlier, the blue of Galla Placidia's mausoleum in Ravenna — a royal jewellery box, a fantastic interior treasury — of which I recall more the texture of the mosaic and the ornamental pattern of stars in the celestial ceiling than what kind of blue coloured the entire interior; the Blue Rider's blue, such as in the paintings of Franz Marc for whom it was 'severe and spiritual' while for Kandinsky it was horizontal, restful, and heavenly; (10) and most of all the predominance of blues in European Symbolist art, culminating in Picasso's Blue Period, where it has become a cliché of sorts, exalted as containing nothing short of the 'mystery and misery of existence.' (11)
Even while these references flood my mind, they seem tangential, remote even, some entirely displaced; they do not settle where Andy's particular kind of blue — that is, his way of painting blue — belongs. If it is close to Yves Klein's electric ultramarine it is not identical with it. It does not have the same rich, powdery, velvet-like density of surface, where the pigment resolves into a depth-defying void. (12) It is less substantial than it is transparent; indigo-coloured and ink-like, it is painted to appear as a peculiar blue light: a dimly transparent dusk where night might either fall or recede. But there is nothing natural about it; it is not a painting of dusk in nature as much as it is a kind of pure depiction of a state of light. By variously layering more coats on top of one another to produce a darker blue, it is the darker blue which seems to disappear into deep space. The lightest areas are the least painted and, through the underlying opacity of a white surface, appear closest to the eye — as though an artificial or natural light source was concentrated there, filtering through and radiating outward from beneath a dark blue, sometimes fluid, water-like density, and at other times patchy, impressionist, aerial scrim-like surface. It is an insubstantial blue. Perhaps it is not even a colour. Perhaps it is only the condition on account of which light appears, or disappears... whereby light can be seen as such.
On the way home the northern, slightly desolate, but no longer really rural Ontario landscape makes me think of Klima again. Bespeckled by the odd monster home with four-car garages, six bedrooms, bathrooms with Jacuzzis, extra large entrance halls with cathedral ceilings, this landscape already bears the traces of all the speculator and development-affected, domesticated, commuter-driven, urban vicinities of Toronto. Andy's painting distinguishes an indefinitely suspended space, one which — precisely in its tangential, ephemeral placement and lack of pretence to endurance — constitutes a response to conditions that might be thought of as blue as those of Klima's writing in the last days of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia.
Adorno observed that the demand for the unity of theory and praxis often resulted in the precedence of praxis over theory, or action over thought. In Russia, and in the orthodoxy of other countries, this demand became the instrument that permitted the status quo to establish itself in horrifying fashion. The only meaning that the demand for praxis retained was this: 'increased production of the means of production.' The only criticism that the demand for praxis still tolerated was that still 'people were not working hard enough.' (13)
The weariness in Klima's writing might be seen as a form of resistance against the effectiveness of the criticism of non-action. In Andy's work, an agitated tiredness against advertising's interpellations has taken the form of an interior space of a ruin suspended in blue light; or rather, has taken the form of an indeterminate experience in a remote location on a wintry January day. Klima writes:
From the catalogue Andy Patton: A Certain Kind of Blue
Text: © Andy Patton. All rights reserved.
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