Painting Modernity

[Jasper] Johns recognized that one’s knowledge of reality is at best fragmented, impure and incomplete. He may incorporate attributes associated with the traditions of abstract art, still life, portraiture and trompe l’oeil realism but in the final analysis his art belongs to none of these traditions because he refuses to subscribe to the ideologies and belief systems inherent in each of them.” John Yau, The United States of Jasper Johns

I once told a #karaokemodernist, when he whinged that I ‘hate painting’ that, I, in fact, just hated his ‘painting’ (I did make air quotes, as I spoke to him). This came to mind recently when I encountered, like stepping in leavings on a sidewalk, the slosh from someone who jabbered about ‘moderns’ and had – perhaps, being charitable – read one or two things about the highly contested (and very engaging within that arguing) dialogue of Modernism.

Years ago, I was also a panellist for a fine show titled Rewilding Modernity, and two of the strongest voices from that exhibition – both female curators – spoke of their ‘pugilistic approach’ to Modernism.

The panel I sat on was an interesting mix wherein the participants (Barry Schwabsky among us) couldn’t even agree on what that term meant. Schwabsky (an interesting critic out of the U.K.) had a Eurocentric focus, feeling the need to offer a history of the term. I countered this with Slavoj Žižek’s idea that ‘we’ in the ‘West’ are like the character in the film Memento, who know something important happened but can’t exactly remember what, though it casts a shadow over our amnesiatic efforts).

When I visited an exhibition at 13th Street Winery in this new year, with the straightforward title of Modern Masters, these (of course) contested narratives were in my mind. The list – and the breadth – of the artists on display are challenging, not just to the visitor, but also to each other. I often consider Ad Reinhardt, a fine painter and art historian, who joked that his works were often installed separately from other artists working in abstraction, as his aesthetic asked hard questions of the other paintings. I see this as a good thing, as conversations – or again, arguments – happen within the gallery space, and the viewer is ‘caught’ between and within them. This – as many of the paintings are visually arresting and enticing – is a wonderful thing.

Cynthia Chapman, And So On, 2019.

The works exist within a few loose frameworks. There are pieces by Riopelle or Joyce Weiland (her work, March, is as playful as much of her paintings), that date back decades, and some that are as recent as 2019. There’s a Karl Appel (who co founded Cobra, and his Two Heads has splashes of yellow on white) and a Nichole Katsuras (Decision Before Dawn has chunky blues, looking like they’ve burst out of the black). Cynthia Chapman’s And So On also offers flickers of colour on a darkened field, whereas Jean McEwen and Kazio Nakamura are more frenetic in their application of colour. There’s also discourse between the artists / artworks: Henry Saxe does it most directly, with his Homage a Riopelle (and Homage a Borduas, as both are argualy among the first rank of painters of their generation, not just Canadian). The time span of the works also offers potential to see how some of the artists here directly, or more ephemerally, influenced those who came after them. The quantity and power, in the larger sizes of works on display, make it an experience that can be overwhelming, and the viewer should give themselves over to, letting the colour and forms wash over them, almost. Julian Bell in the book What is Painting? Representation and Modern Art offers an idea, from the (in)famous action painter Jackson Pollock: “I think they should look not for, but look passively…it should be enjoyed just as music as enjoyed.” Bell elaborates on this: “In other words, there was no prior context to the painting itself. The viewer’s eyes would submit, and the painting would act.”

Henry Saxe, 2nd Fence, 1962.

Most is abstracted, and very large. The space is something of an ‘art barn’ (I say without prejudice) so its a massive space that allows the pieces to ‘breathe’, if you will. Some names will be familiar to you, others may not. As well, though primarily two dimensional, several very solid metal works break into the physical space (and can, perhaps, be seen as emissaries of the outdoor art collection ‘straying’ into the gallery space proper). Doug Bentham is the most prolific representation of this (his works are less impressive, however, than Ball #20 2nd Variation or Le Loup Garou by Doug Saxe, who also has some vivid painted works on display).

Some of the work was passable, some was puerile and some was pulchritudinous. The press release describes this as a ‘blue chip’ collection but its too uneven for that (though I saw an Otto Rogers I enjoyed, Tall Tree On Cliff Edge, which despite having seen much of his work on the prairies, was never the case before Modern Masters). Clearly, it is all work that has sold for a fine price, but even though a work like Michael Adamson’s The Sun, The Sun may be expensive, it’s still mimicry of Hans Hoffman.

Jean Paul Riopelle, Et Vert, 1966.

With the heavy weight given to abstraction, I’m tempted to bastardize a line from Clement Greenberg’s comments that photography is hard because it is so easy: he meant that because the process was predetermined, in ‘taking’ images, that the artist had to push themselves towards more criticality. Abstraction, in eschewing story telling, stands solely on a formal ground: if it fails to interest visually, it fails. More John Yau, about American master Jasper Johns, but relevant here: “The desire for immediacy is overwhelming…One of the issues painters must face is how to locate this desire in a medium which cannot overcome its own physical presence; they must grapple with what that presence could mean in a secular world where no belief or ideology is central. For while painting is no longer a way to show the viewer that the earthly world is connected to the heavens, so we can believe that we can be released from what we are and become what we dream, the desire for release remains unabated.”

David Bolduc, Wing Chun, 1980.

This is not to say that there aren’t artists here who offer landscapes translated and transformed, but the strongest works exemplify that “..painting…is based on the fact that only what can be seen there is there. It really is an object…What you see is what you see.’ (Frank Stella, who defined hard edged abstraction in the last century). David Bolduc’s Wing Chun is very ‘there’, in this sense. Don’t stand in front of it expecting, but just experience it.

Modern Masters is on display at the Gallery at 13th Street Winery until the middle of March: go see it, and go see it often, as I’ve barely offered a taste of what’s on display, and the show is as diverse as the space is tall and wide and full of works. The gallery hours are 10 AM to 5 PM, Tuesday to Saturday, and it’s located at 1776 Fourth Ave., St. Catharines. As well as the gallery space, the outdoor artworks are worth a visit, as they sometimes work within, or challenge, the landscape. The header image is Kazio Nakamura, Reflection ’83, 1983.