But this rigour could be seen as revolutionary, one requiring a major historical shift from an art of representation to one of presence, that is, the direct experience of the object standing before you. (Julian Bell, What is Painting? Representation and Modern Art)
I’ve been re reading the painter and art historian Ad Reinhardt lately. This isn’t solely because his ideas are landmarks that the larger art world has still not fully wrestled with (such as how ‘Art is Art, everything else is everything else’, a vexing but interesting assertion), but also because when encountering the latest exhibition – Full Spectrum: A Life in Colour – at 13th Street Gallery, an idea of Reinhardt’s rose to the surface of my mind. Reinhardt wanted to reduce – or elevate, edit as you will – painting to a universal state, where it was solely painting, and where iconography and symbolism were pictorial tropes (or crutches, he might aver) which distracted or misled from what painting, at its core, is, or should be, now. His ‘now’ was post WWII America, but let’s not pretend that the Western canon of abstraction and painting doesn’t still hold a powerful sway, even if art historians and arts writers like myself have a pugilistic and skeptical approach to what is called ‘Modernism.’ One of his many insightful – even half a century later later – comments is the following: “The artist is responsible for [their] history and [their] nature. [Their] history is part of [their] nature. [Their] nature as an artist is part of [their] art-history.” (Excuse the unwieldy ‘they’ over ‘his’, but let’s not be Georg Baselitz, and pretend the only ‘good’ painters are men, hmm? A recent show at 13th, with Cynthia Chapman, is the most immediate disproving of that…)
This isn’t just my usual tangent that will take an elaborate, elliptical swing back to relevance with the art being discussed. Paul Sloggett and Dan Solomon – the two painters in Full Spectrum – are interesting contrasts to this ‘assertion’ by Reinhardt. Solomon’s works are very painterly, eschewing any subject matter except painting. The swirls and whorls, the bursts and splashes, the elaborate mark makings that Solomon spoke of as ‘handwriting’ are all intrinsically about their execution, in paint, and how they are made. This is like an indexical story of the artist, what Reinhardt might grudgingly admit was ‘pure abstraction.’ The ‘grudging’ is more Reinhardt than Solomon, as Reinhardt once commented that his works, when he was in group shows, were often hung separately, as they asked ‘hard questions’ of the other artists, and he relished that adversarial intellectualism and oppositional aestheticism. But Sloggett, on the other hand – while employing paint in a manner that displays his status as a mature, accomplished painter – employs some recurring symbolism, and some motifs and signs (reminiscent of Ron Boaks’ works from the previous exhibition, with his Spirit works) that offers ground upon which to project and suggest narrative, on the part of the viewer. Perhaps this is also related to how Sloggett seems to ‘excavate’ in paint, with surfaces that are excised out as often as they are built up, in gooey texture. Several works, if you angle to observe from the side, suggest forms that were ‘pulled up’, and you can see layers of ‘construction’ from these roughly pulled abscesses.
The text for the show is sparing, and that’s appropriate, as there’s many works, and language is an unnecessary hurdle (says the art critic, ahem) here. To quote: ‘Solomon and Sloggett share a love of bold colour. Their vivid, experiential paintings celebrate life, the natural world and their connection to landscape.’ As you enter – the large, barn like space is split between the two painters – you’ll also see brief but further elaborations on their ideas and practice.
Daniel Solomon offers the following: ‘My paintings are a celebration of life, expressed through light, colour and movement. The images in these paintings are abstract although they have connections to landscape, the seasons and the natural world.’ Sloggett’s is slightly longer: ‘…the joy of colour is in the experience of colour, in its ability to establish mood, a time of day or season, or to convey a notion of place or location, a flavor or taste, the way that a song can make you recall a previous time or past experience. Maybe it is due to a touch of synesthesia but for me colour is palpable.’
Solomon’s works are alternately ‘lighter’ in their application of paint, employing acrylic as thought it’s watercolour, with mists and hazes of colour that resemble stains, sometimes sharp, often soft. But then an image will have a glut, a rich thick gob of colours that looks more like icing to be consumed, rich and perhaps clotting like cream. Large vertical works like Outburst or Dreams To Remember, mostly minimal in their spare use of paint, have an eruption of colour and texture near the top, like a rough sun or repressed frenzy that’s escaped. Many seem to capture an explosion of colour upwards (The First Night of the Year, Heat on the Rise). But several are more reminiscent of handwriting, such as Black and White in Colour, or Black and White in the Blues, which bookend one wall of Solomon’s portion of the gallery. In conversation with Solomon, due to the nature of the aforementioned ‘handwriting’, I asked if he worked in a more flat, as opposed to an upright, manner, which is true. In this respect, the two works I just mentioned become more like signatures not so much run amok as a continuation of a gesture, where the loops and whorls override the sense of handwriting, less constrained by communicating a preconceived ‘symbol’ than allowing the marks to be more responsive and improvisational. As well, the lighter, sometimes translucent use of colour in ‘backgrounds’, akin to watercolour as I mentioned earlier, also indicated a ‘flat’ – as though a page in a book – approach. The colours are allowed, or encouraged, or directed, in their ‘ebb and flow’ by Solomon, with the paintings being planes upon which they move. The hues and tones hint at a ‘watery’ – in application, not in colour and vibrancy – flavour.
In this respect, Solomon’s work is all about paint. Sloggett, alternately, has inserted – or sometimes, based upon the textures, perhaps ‘removed’, like chiselling or incising out – patterns that move ‘beyond’ the canvas. There are recurring motifs (mesh netting, or a more architectural linear structure, that intersects with some of his textured, layered surfaces, or emerge out of them). There’s more of a suggestion of ‘space’ in Sloggett’s scenes (even using that word, implying that the elements are assembled, as opposed to emerging or receding in paint, as with Solomon, acknowledges that). The Colour of Ideas, or Rebar City (Toronto), or May are all examples of this build up of surfaces and symbols, or a very controlled ‘gouging’ of the same out of the paint. Even pieces like Arctic Ranger (Free Radical #5) or Free Radical #1 exist both as towering blocks of colour (an abstracted architecture, standing alone) or a ‘stripe’ of square ‘buttons’, evoking military decorations. But they’re also the ‘closest’ to Solomon’s abstracted works, with less implicit space and more ‘flatness’: surfaces built up in paint, and more paint, then paint is removed, all ‘building’ a ‘space.’
To return to my ‘guide’ in this, Reinhardt asserts bluntly that “if I do a mark on a canvas I cannot be doing something else.” There’s a simplicity to that, applicable both to Solomon’s gestural ‘handwriting’, and Sloggett’s sometimes rough, sometimes refined, hand. An idea I’ve brought to many exhibitions at 13th Street, where abstraction and modernism are almost physical presences in the gallery (or are, in fact, in the paintings on display, like ideas encapsulated, imperfectly or with individual ‘hands’, in objects) is another from Julian Bell. Bell’s comment: ‘In other words there was no prior context to the painting itself. The viewer’s eyes would submit, and the painting would act.’
Although there’s clear similarities in their works, and linkages to be made formally between them, there’s also a hint of a conceptual opposition, or perhaps more accurately, a soft divergence in terms of what the two artists consider painting to ‘be’, based on what it ‘has been.’ In this respect, having the works ‘separated’, and thus allowing you to stand amidst and enveloped by their respective individual aesthetic visions is an excellent installation gesture. Solomon explores painting as painting (yes, another Reinhardtism, if you will) while Sloggett teases and toys with symbols, that recede and emerge, offering an intersection – or confrontation, gently – with Solomon’s aesthetics.
This exhibition, titled Full Spectrum (in a nod to the reliance and skill in colour, by both artists), with works by Daniel Solomon and Paul Sloggett, is on display at 13th Street Gallery until September 12th, 2020. To cite the gallery web page: ‘Both professors at OCAD University (Ontario College of Art and Design), this exhibition of their art will stimulate and dazzle the senses. With years of experience both artists remain fresh in their approach to finding subjects that exploit the richness and depth of colour on canvas.’ The gallery is located at 1776 Fourth Avenue, St. Catharines, and their hours are 10 AM to 5 PM, Tuesday to Saturday. All images were taken by the author, and the header image is a detail of Dan Solomon’s work Outburst, from 2011.