Faces and Fluid Forms: Farnsworth at the Pumphouse

Geoff Farnsworth’s exhibition of paintings at the Niagara Pumphouse is like a breath of fresh air, during COVID. Farnsworth’s work is all about contrasts, so though some of the works – most likely his expressive and evocative portraiture – are hopefully known to you (from past exhibitions at Bolete or Niagara Artists Centre), there’s also several works that push beyond his usual oeuvre, with more atmospheric scenes. 

Destruction (Fry Truck, Lundy’s Lane), 2010

Several of these landscape, or more abstracted scenes, exhibit Farnsworth’s affinity – or the influences he’s incorporated into his own painting – for historical artists, like Joaquín Sorolla. Another piece he specifically cited in his talk (for its more flowing and acidic colours) as dating from when he shared a studio with artist William Griffiths. So, there’s a comforting ‘acquaintance’ with Geoff’s aesthetic (also in how you may recognize or know the people Farnsworth has rendered in hue and rough strokes), but also several works that push your expectations. 

Dundarave Beach, 2011

This is one of the far better shows to be seen at the Pumphouse: but the Pumphouse is a confused beast, regarding their responsibilities and mandates. Mark Skeffington, (apparently the ‘exhibits chair’) ‘exhibited’ a dullardly ignorance at the reception (if you were at the opening and saw the two of us exchange barbs, with me responding to his smug idiocy, this isn’t a surprise to you. If you want to keep apprised of what they’re showing, as they were among the first spaces to re open after COVID, you need to track it down yourself, as they generally ignore the responsibilities they have towards their artists to publicize their shows. This was a problem before COVID, and offering banal idiocy (as Skeffington did) to one of the few people (in myself) who tries to give your artists coverage is a self defeating strategy. But based on the stumbling, obviously unprepared ‘commentary’ he subjected us to (I could have introduced the show more eruditely, even if drunk, ahem, compared to Skeffington’s bumbling), at the reception, one might ask if more professionalism is lacking in other ways, at the Pumphouse. 

But enough of that regrettably necessary upbraiding. The work is fine, and worth a visit.

Farnsworth offers for our enjoyment many smaller portraits, that are very delicate, like tiny cameos, that can be held in your hand. The faces often fill the picture plane, and his palette and hand is as strong as ever. That the exhibition is titled Colour Worker is apropos and also amusing, as Farnsworth often shares works in progress on social media, and the transformation, through the building of layer and form and tint and tinture, makes them seem very different from where they began. His words: “My paintings explore a relationship between figurative and abstraction in order to meld unconscious probing and stylistic innovation with a meditative figural base. It is important to me that the paintings work well as collections of shape, colour, texture, and energy, while also building a compelling image. Working with people and objects from my personal world, I focus on maintaining a balance between plan and accident, known and unknown, restraint and exuberance. My figures look out as much into mindscape as landscape.” This latter point is notable, as not only are there ‘locals’ among his portraits, but several authors that you may or may not be familiar with, from Vonnegut to Kawakami to many others. In this sense, when engaging with these ‘faces’, you see the writers in terms of their writing as to how ‘we’ know ‘them.’ With Farnsworth’s amusing and somewhat unique ‘imagination’ of Christopher Walken, the somewhat ‘realistic’ upper part of his head gives way to a rough and raw, toothy even, ‘maw’ in place of a mouth, that immediately brought to mind Walken’s uniquely gravelly deadpan. 

Mieko Kawakami, 2020

There’s a bit of a fracture, with Farnsworth’s work, when you see yourself, or see someone you know (whether in your immediate social circle, or someone who ‘exists’ for you, perhaps, in a different way, through their words – like Vonnegut, who is surely an icon to many). Other ‘imaginary portraits’ do the opposite, for me: though I know Radiohead and the music of Thomas Yorke, Farnsworth’s portrait of him is a fine work without all that, with gentle use of colour and flowing lines, more so an image of an older man comfortable in his skin, or paint.

Hal Foster talks of Cindy Sherman’s self portraits as seeing yourself being seen, or thinking that you don’t look like ‘that.’ But there’s also a wonderful dissonance – or contested narratives – in how Farnsworth ‘captures’ a moment with his subjects (that seems to be passive a word, however. For example, the image he’s painted of myself, in this show, is so exact, so much capturing a moment, that I immediately remember the conversation we were having at that time, and the expression on my face that Farnsworth has so perfectly recorded in paint is perfect, to that dialogue. 

Bart Gazzola, 2020
Thom Yorke, 2020

Unsurprisingly, I’ve been reading and researching a great deal, as I so often do, about art history, but specifically about painting. This has been spurred, perhaps, by the many fine exhibitions at 13th Street Gallery, where I’ve been able to see the work of artists like Sloggett or Solomon or Chapman, all working within the vibrancy and vagaries of abstraction, and trying to work out, still, what painting might be, can be, or should be. In rereading Hal Foster’s The Return of the Real, he speaks of Alexander Rodchenko‘s painting Pure Colors: Red, Yellow, Blue (from 1921, so nearly a century ago) that Rodchenko declared as ‘the logical end to painting’ and asserted that narrative had no place, anymore, in painting. This is, of course, untrue but not to be dismissed. It needs to be understood. Perhaps through the lens – pun intended – of how painters were still defining themselves in response to the revolution of photography, that both freed them to define ‘painting as painting and nothing else’ – to bastardize abstract painter and theorist Ad Reinhardt. Or perhaps, in opposition, to how many painters – women, artists of colour, and so many NOT included in the official canon – had not been yet ‘seen’, or told their stories, so don’t dismiss narrative because your story is the default one, assumed to be implicit. But in engaging with Geoff Farnsworth’s Colour Woker, we see a relational discourse about painting and portraiture that, while it draws on what has gone before, also offers much that is new and exciting.

Colour Worker: Geoff Farnsworth is on display at the Niagara Pumphouse until October 31st, 2020. Concurrently, Geoff has works on display at the Jordan Art Gallery at 3836 Main Street, Jordan Village. I chose to see this as one larger show, as the ideas and intent stretch across his work, and both shows are fine examples of the possibilities and potential of paint and portraiture. The header image for this article is titled Walken, 2020, and all images are courtesy the artist. More work by Geoff Farnsworth can be enjoyed here.