Painting Physically: Evolving Legacies

Evolving Legacies, the latest exhibition at the Gallery at 13th Street Winery, is a significantly less dense show than the previous one, and this serves all three artists (Matt Bahen, Cynthia Chapman and Kyle Clements) very well. I remember seeing specific works by Chapman and Clements in the Modern Masters show, but here there is more space for the works to breathe and be less crowded. Details and textures and subtleties emerge: especially in Chapman’s paintings, where the marks become flowing yet choppy waves of colour, balanced by nearly ‘raw’ scrapings of paint to expose what’s beneath. Her work, with the installation that has works by the artists not intermixed, but presenting as a succinct visual statement, allows for this focus. Clements has equal space to Chapman, and his works are also presented so that you might stand in the centre and be surrounded: Bahen is off, somewhat, but this doesn’t diminish his artwork. In some ways, the arrangement brings relationships between the colour palettes and usage by Chapman and Clements into dialogue, whereas Bahen is not so intense in his palette (perhaps not as overtly). However, his use of oil – thick, almost sculpting landscapes out of the paste, in a manner that is more subtle and specific in colour, perhaps being more about the shape of his brushwork – is not dissimilar to Chapman.

Before I come to works like All I Can Do Is Paint (Chapman) or Waving Flag (Behan), I offer the exhibition statement: “Modernism has much uncharted territory. The artists featured in this exhibition strike out new paths for themselves. Their work speaks effectively of the art of today with its devotion to the nature of creative expression.” I’ll offer a response to that, or a rejoinder, or a completion, of an idea, if you will: “Modernism is a continuing phenomenon, not to be conveniently ticketed and laid on the reference shelf. There are still problems unsolved (some of them, perhaps, insoluble).” (That’s from Howard Putzel, as cited in Mark Rothko: Toward the Light in the Chapel by Annie Cohan-Solal, and Rothko was one of the most significant abstract painters of the mid to late 20th century). And before I truly begin to dig into the painterly works – and I’ll be honest, Chapman dominated for me, though Behan was strong, and Clements had several very interesting aspects – I’ll offer one other point. The term ‘modernism’ has been employed regarding this show, and with the previous one at 13th Street as well: but it’s a contested term. Professor Derek Knight and I had a very enjoyable conversation at the opening reception re: that term and its historical weight, baggage and usage. I’ll speak in collage again about ‘modernism’, using the words of Catherine Lampert from her excellent book on the painter Frank Auerbach: “[T]hese art historical distinctions can be too crude.” All three of the artists on display are much younger, for example, than Derek and I, and so how their paintings – a very specific place to ‘stand’ re: modernism, instead of photography or sculpture – are very different, in their execution and implications. A curator I worked with often spoke of modernism as being in a ‘fallow’ state, for some time, and that, using a gardening analogy, might be best left alone to form in a different way. That is an idea to consider here, in Evolving Legacies, and most definitely not in a pejorative sense.

When Push Comes to Shove, 2019, Cynthia Chapman.

Chapman’s paintings are lessons in colour: the aforementioned All I Can Do Is Paint has subtle wine undertones in its ‘base’, with lighter blues that migrate across the canvas. Wildflowers, a diptych that is suggestive of some of Riopelle’s St. Lawrence River works, is more muted in tone, and from further back, suggests a more pastoral scene. First Snow, with its colour palette, does something similar to works like Let It Bleed: colour is used in a seemingly ‘pure’ form, in ways that would suggest that they should clash and fight, but instead achieve a harmony. This is not to say that they’re the ‘same’: First Snow has the softness of a winter scene, whereas Let It Bleed leaps off the wall, with the blocks of blues and yellows seeming to float on the scabby surface of a ‘bloody’ plane, with marks and strokes that suggest we’re looking down upon a river, or flowing current, of ‘blood.’ It’s both rich and a bit revulsive (in an enticing way, for me, at least).

Waiting For The Dust To Settle, 2019, Cynthia Chapman

This richness of the paint is present in Matt Behan’s work, though he presents more narrative scenes. Along The Way is a lonely, disconcerting vignette, with the fence and barbed wire, with scraps of clothe ‘blowing’ in the wind. A more restrained use of colour is broken here and there with bright elements, and this is a recurring formal aspect of his works here. Waving Flag might be from the same locale as Way, suggesting an in-between space, a no man’s land that is vaguely threatening, where the ‘flag’ is more about abandonment and loss, what’s left behind in traversing these threatening spaces, than any more ‘positive’ notion of ‘flag.’ But the paint is thick, and Behan seems to almost sculpt out the landscape, then incise into it, and the goopy, thick, excessively physical nature of his oils offers the same presence as Chapman’s works. You can stand slightly to the side, and see how far out from the surface both artists ‘build’ their work, or get closer and see that they construct layers and then also scrape or slash into them, making the oil paint in both cases a tactile, textured skin: a blanket or coating that is uneven, and in both cases forms a composition that is as sculptural as it is ‘superficial’, in colour.

Along The Way, 2018, Matt Behan

In this respect, Kyle Clements’s images are not as ‘thick’, but an interesting nature of his works that converses with Chapman and Behan is that many of his urban, neon (perhaps mostly night) scenes reveal the bare, stark white, almost naked – considering what else is on display – picture plane. Large expanses of ‘negative’, almost blinding white space, or flat geometric forms of deep flat black, or pale, almost translucent blue, come together to ‘form’ city scenes. He sometimes dots and dabs and leaves ‘trails’ of colour, smaller and seemingly ‘random’ (up close) that become part of a larger whole (from further away). This returns us to how the more ‘spaced’ installation allows for the individual elements of the three artists’ works to be contemplated and considered with more focus (the almost sexy, visceral globs and gluts and chunks of paint seemed to invite me to move in close, to smell them, and I did keep my hands in my pockets, to stifle the urge to touch the inviting strokes and swathes).

A Path Well Worn, 2017, Matt Behan

Evolving Legacies offers three very different ‘evolution’ of what modernism may have been, may be, or perhaps (never) was, in a context of Canadian art history (or beyond). This vagueness is its strength, as one way in which it does validate the ‘modernist legacy’ is that these are, for the majority, well made and engaging objects. Go see it.

Evolving Legacies, at the Gallery at 13th Street Winery, runs until Saturday, March 28, 2020, which is at 1776 Fourth Avenue, in St. Catharines. The header image is Let it Bleed, 2019, by Cynthia Chapman. If you visit on a sunny and pleasant day, spend some time with the outdoor artworks as well: Floyd Elzinga, who has been nominated in the Established Artist Category for the 2020 St. Catharines Arts Awards, has a sculptural installation titled Hey Baal outside of the gallery, far to the left of the building.