Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more, perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless. – Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky
Biscay Bay and Beyond, the current exhibition on display at 13th Street Gallery, was not what I expected. This is a sentiment that manifests in a few different ways, but all centred upon the works of David Bolduc and Blaise DeLong that are in the space. From a formal viewpoint, the two artists’ works are separate, each having a ‘side’ of the larger space: but that’s less about being apart than beside each other, as during their marriage ‘Biscay Bay was the place were David Bolduc and Blaise DeLong would escape to from the city. This exhibition honours their time together and will exhibit a survey of works by both DeLong and the late Bolduc.’ So, there’s an immediate allusion to a shared experience, with an intertwined narrative. The works, however, are very different, with Bolduc’s use of colour that’s both intense, and sometimes very thickly rough (as with Peari (Skull) or Garden), and DeLong offering works that are a more pastel palette, and employing a loose geometric composition – though the ‘squares’ often bleed and drip into each other, as in works like Palmyra or Cadiz. There’s a subtlety to DeLong’s works: several, running along one wall, are in blues and adjacent ‘cool’ hues, reminiscent of shimmering light and reflections on water. This is unlike some of Bolduc’s works, that are more abrupt in their explosions of colourful dabs and blots, sitting atop a background that is often softer and scabby with lines and brush marks, like an unfinished ground for the focus of the works to ‘stand’ upon. His large work Chakra (1974) is one of these, with an earthy umber and then tubular glops and worms of pure colour. Another piece, Yellow Noon (2006 – 2007) is as textural as colourful, with a surface built up and built upon, indicative of Bolduc’s tendency to rework and repaint pieces. His process was ongoing, sometimes reaching backwards to older works, to make them anew on the same canvas.
When I began this response by saying this exhibition wasn’t what I expected, part of this was that DeLong’s works were more engaging to me than Bolduc’s work. This is despite his nearly five decades of painting (he died in 2010), and his significant influence on several generations of artists who work in – and outside of – paint. Bolduc’s paintings at 13th Street are somewhat uneven: while the textured ‘forest’ of black paint, seeming to undulate or ripple off the surface of Black River Light (2008) entices you in closer, where you can also see the thread like streams of green, or the white dots in the lower part of the ‘scene’, other works lack this strength to hold your eyes so well.
But before I delve deeper, here’s more of the gallery didactic: “Bolduc’s paintings are often punctuated by a centralized image which creates a duality and dynamic equilibrium within the painting itself. Both colour and form are essential to sensation and meaning in Bolduc’s paintings. The figure’s iconic position in the center of the painting is rich with the possibility for metaphor.
Blaise DeLong travelled extensively with her late husband, David Bolduc, setting up studios in Paris, Essaouira, Zancudo and Biscay Bay NL as well as in Montreal and Toronto. DeLong’s frenetic grids speak of the geometry of urban architecture, while vertical and horizontal rhythms resonate landscape. She describes her work as a meditation, an effort to distill experience.”
It’s also worth noting that Bolduc was intensely influential to others of the ‘Toronto Modernist’ painting scene. A recent exhibition at 13th street that featured the works of Paul Sloggett and Dan Solomon was a formidable example of this aesthetic. Bolduc’s paintings are often immediately recognizable, with his often ‘flatter’ spaces ‘split’ – or ‘realized’ with – a splash of colours: emphatic, expressive gestures like a textured scar. Writer and curator Jeffrey Spalding has described Bolduc as an “exotic and eccentric modernist” whose “colourful abstractions extend the modernist language of Jack Bush, Robert Motherwell, and Jules Olitski.”
In conversation with Roald Nasgaard (considered by some to be an authority on abstraction in Canada, but a bit dogmatic for my tastes), several years before he died, Bolduc offered the following: “I’m interested in taking a nothing colour and giving it some bite to make it warmer. I’m not trying to be innovative. I’m not trying to make an object you haven’t seen before. Colour is all that I am working with.” But in looking at Bolduc’s vivid legacy, there’s also a sense of a personal history where “both colour and form are essential to sensation and meaning in Bolduc’s paintings.” In that respect, Bolduc and DeLong’s paintings at 13th Street are conceptually – as regards their relationship – impossible to divorce from each other. In interacting them, they speak as extensions, or elaborations of each other.
Both of these artists’ works are situated within the larger issues of memory, legacy and sentiment (not sentimentality, an important distinction). This exhibition is a dialogue between the two, offering a glimpse into their relationship, a decade after one has left us. That’s why the gallery space, allowing meandering back and forth, or to slip between the dividing walls, or (as I did at the opening) be standing among Bolduc’s work while catching a glimpse of DeLong’s, espying it between the movable walls, functions well. The visitor can dart between and among the works, so as to be ‘within’ their conversations, and stand ‘within’ DeLong’s ‘memories’ and the painted ‘reminiscences’ of Bolduc, both his own and those on the walls we can consider.
Many of the names of the paintings are places, insinuating back to the idea of travel: Jaipur (where Bolduc seems to have some of the ‘softness’ of DeLong’s works), or Bermuda, or even more vague hints, such as Long Time Gone or Where Was That can be seen as painted ‘snapshots’ of Bolduc and DeLong’s trips abroad, moments rendered in paint. But other works hang outside of this: DeLong’s Mintoaur, a smaller work with a rich cacophony of colour that should perhaps clash, but is harmonious, or Bolduc’s Red Night, with its warm reddish orange on yellow.
As I said, I actually enjoy, and found myself drawn to, DeLong’s works more so than Bolduc. It’s also the first time I’ve experienced a significant sampling of her work, but it more than held its own with Bolduc’s selection. This is worth mentioning as Bolduc is more ‘well known’, and gender disparity, in what is considered, vetted or dismissed, has been, and still is, a ‘factor’ in Canadian painting, if not the wider ‘scene.’ Oh, the ‘art police’, to quote a conversation I enjoyed at the opening reception, with their assumptions and such, can be acknowledged, if then dismissed, perhaps.
Biscay Bay and Beyond is the latest chapter, I like to think, in the series of exhibitions at 13th Street Gallery that offer the visitor potential meditations on not just contemporary painting, but also the history of abstract painting, in Canada. Thus seeing Bolduc’s works offers a new manner to contemplate Sloggett and Solomon, from a past show, who were within Bolduc’s ‘circle.’ Conversely, DeLong’s works are like ‘gentler’ Cynthia Chapmans, with colours and marks less ‘aggressive’ and more poignant and considered.
There’s an idea from Maurice Merleau-Ponty, that ‘any theory of painting is a metaphysics’ (the branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things, including abstract concepts such as being, knowing, substance, cause, identity, time, and space). That, upon repeated visits to Biscay Bay and Beyond, is something that went through my mind while standing in front of these works, about shared experiences and memories, captured and interpreted through paint and colour and form (almost like a synthesia). But if I’m to leave you with a final suggestion, for a ‘place’ to stand when you’re experiencing Biscay Bay and Beyond, it would the words of Peter Dijkstra : “An abstraction is one thing that represents several real things equally well.”
Biscay Bay and Beyond is on display at 13th Street Gallery until Saturday December 5, 2020. The gallery is located at 1776 Fourth Avenue in St. Catharines, and gallery hours Tuesday to Saturday 10:00am to 5:00pm, or by appointment. All images are courtesy 13th Street Gallery and the header image for this article is Blaise DeLong, Cadiz, 2005.