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Liz Wylie

John Meredith
at The Isaacs Gallery, Toronto, February 13 - March 6

Vanguard, Vol. 16 #2, April/May 1986
[ 730 words ]

John Meredith's work has always been idiosyncratic, enigmatic and difficult. A senior Toronto painter, part of the 'generation' sandwiched between Painters Eleven and Bush's shrubs (David Bolduc, Alex Cameron et al.), Meredith is more myth than reality to his public. As clichéd as it may sound, his reputation is that of a loner and recluse who neither talks easily nor allows himself to be pinned down about his work. The paintings themselves have defied interpretation and classification. The definitive text on the artist is still Marie Fleming's sensitive and perceptive essay in the Art Gallery of Ontario's 'Fifteen Years' catalogue from 1974.

Over the years and throughout their variations, Meredith's abstract paintings have been intriguing and powerful, alluding to all kinds of experience, yet within a modernist purview. In his first show of new works since 1983 and, incidentally, the inaugural exhibition in the Isaacs Gallery' s new Queen Street West space, Meredith has turned to the figure. This is less surprising than it seems, since Meredith trained in drawing from the live model while a student at the Ontario College of Art in the 1950s. Many things have changed in 30 years, however, and the posed female nude is no longer seen by many as the neutral, content-free subject it once was. The revision feminism has made of art history alters one's view of any such works in the 1980s, making them hard to accept as serious painting. Although Meredith's nudes do not exploit women overtly, they somehow seem anachronistic in their attitude.

The nine paintings, done over the last two years, each depict a nude woman. She is not personified in any way, but seems to serve exclusively as a vehicle for painting. Most of the concentration in each canvas is on the figure, and the obliterating and obscuring of anatomy by line and colour recalls De Kooning. But the works are instantly recognizable as Meredith's; his distinctive palette and the black 'ciliated' lines (Marie Fleming's term) are still present.

There are a few technical problems in the pictures, mostly to do with space and surface, which both seem unresolved. In contrast to the artist's abstractions, there is nothing to define the picture plane works so that the figure floats away from the viewer, sitting back in an indeterminate space. Some cropped limbs would have solved this, but in each work the nude is well within the edges of the canvas. The figure tends also to visually lift away from the grounds and so has been rather obviously glued down with black ciliated lines. In addition, too much contrast exists between the dense work on the figure in each painting, and the loose, open backgrounds.

Really, the central problem, from which these others stem, is that of scale. As in his previous work, Meredith painstakingly blows up small watercolour sketches to arrive at his large-scale canvasses. His abstract paintings always seemed to work at any scale, but this no longer seems to be the case. In smaller works, the problems of space and dense / open contrast would not be as apparent. Perhaps these pieces would be best seen in their original state as watercolours, somewhat in the mode of French postcards, to be held in the hand and flipped through.

Despite these flaws, the works are engaging to a degree. There is great evidence of a painter's enjoyment in them, particularly in the variations among the posed models and in the architecture of face and body. Meredith' s distinctive use of colour is still successful: never harmonious, it is often acidic and jarring in its combinations. Sometimes remnants of the open-ended, subliminal imagery from his abstractions linger on I the background: a half circle / mandala behind one reclining figure and a line indicating a horizon / headboard / moon behind another.

Meredith' s work has always been surprising. It has never looked like anyone else's painting, sometimes not much like painting at all. That has been part of its excitement. If this figure series is not his best work to date, there is still no reason to doubt that the artist will not produce something radical and brilliant next.

Vanguard, Vol. 16 #2, April/May 1986

Text: © Liz Wylie. All rights reserved.


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