Farnsworth: The Figure is More Than it Seems

It’s not disrespectful to Geoff Farnsworth to say that I had ulterior motives when I asked him about being the artist that The Sound featured in the latest in the series highlighting visual artists in Niagara. They all are, after all, positive ones. Geoff’s artworks have engaged me since I arrived in St. Catharines, especially his portraits and his liquified manner of working with paint, and I knew that he’d just moved into the new Niagara Artist Centre Studio space on St. Paul Street, and I wanted to check out that exciting space again.

This is a space that has just been “opened” by Niagara Artists Centre [NAC], and that right now has several significant artists (Bruce Thompson, for example) already working therein. I’m just mentioning it here as there will be further events that happen there, but it’s a site to add to your list of artistic spaces in St. Catharines to watch. Props to NAC in expanding what they do, but also in terms of expanding opportunities for local artists (I hear that there will be a component where artists will sell works, so remember to buy more art…).

On the day we talked, Farnsworth had several pieces in a two-person exhibition with Justin Pawson in the NAC Dennis Tourbin space, had paintings on display at the restaurant Bolete in downtown St. Catharines, and was, as usual, producing new works and sending works to and fro to various galleries that represent him, in Ontario, Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver. A graduate of the Art Students League of New York, Farnsworth has an extensive exhibition record: currently, he teaches at Niagara College.

His work is often portraiture, or more accurately, portraiture is an essential component to his art. His use of paint defines his practice as much as any imagery. Several of the pieces at NAC (Sartori in Red and Blue, Amygdala Unit or Semi Bionic Nude Resting Her Head on a Dream Bird) display this facility in how he captures faces and expressions in his “models.” The faces of the “twins” in Unit are as similar as they’re unique from the other. Dabs and dollops of colour build up the faces, strokes that seem heavily and simultaneously refined. These painterly mucoid thicknesses surround the twins, in a background as deeply dark as it is frenetic.

When compared to the works in the downstairs dining room of Bolette, Farnworth’s subjects don’t emerge from the minimalist backgrounds so much as congeal like ectoplasm from it. His facility in interpretive portraiture is alluring .

Another figure (at Bolette) gazes downward, a predominantly blue face and dark hair emerging from a lighter, almost viscous pale plane. Others showcase Farnsworth’s use of hue and colours that are primarily amenable to each other, but then spiked by a splash of brighter, almost violent contrast. A woman reclines beneath an arc of ice cream cone orbs, gazing out impassively at us from behind dark framed glasses with canary yellow hair (Ice Cream Koan). She’s diagonal to another woman, soft salmons and off white grey blues, sitting with spoon and bowl in front of a harsh blue streak cutting the background. But she seems oblivious, to us and the expressive scene behind her back: another piece is evocatively titled Skye Eyes Wide Shut, a calm piece that angles from Smashing the Ancient Vase, a more scribbly vibrant work.

Several small works (easily held in your hands) that were in the NAC studio space, though less overtly expressive than the larger paintings, have a wonderful immediacy (his daughter’s disgruntled face in one, all grimace and pouts, or a figure across a table in another, whose mass was clear in the thick rough globs, fast and sure in execution that capture a moment and the model’s attitude perfectly).

Full disclosure, oh readers: Farnsworth has offered to paint my portrait, and I suspect that the opposite of what might happen with Francis Bacon or Lucian Freud, where the subject might be wary of how you “come out” will occur. His depictions have an ethereal nature that still seem very grounded in the person he knows, and is trying to capture an experience.

When Geoff and I were arguing about Adorno and Rothko, Art and History, he cited the following lines as they relate to an influence, Max Ernst, whom wore many hats in the spheres of surrealism and dada: “A painter may know what he does not want. But woe betide him if he wants to know what he does not want! A painter is lost if he finds himself. The fact that he has succeeded in not finding himself is regarded… as his only achievement.”