The latest exhibition at 13th Street Gallery is one that I only was able to visit briefly (if twice, in several days) before the latest lock down came into play in Ontario. Recovery is a show of three artists, but I say – without negativity – that it’s more so two, as both Cynthia Chapman and Geoff Farnsworth are sharing new works with us, whereas Matt Bahen has several familiar pieces on display. The manner of installation in the space does favour the first two, as they occupy larger swathes of the gallery: but if you’re familiar with Bahen’s paintings, they’re layered and textured, and the scenes demand a focused attention, to enjoy and appreciate all the details (whether narrative or painterly).
In light of that, I found Farnsworth’s newer works (in some instances pieces I’d not seen before, and some are pieces that in their creation stretch over several years, so the artist has revisited and reworked them into something ‘new’) and Chapman’s paintings (with her further exploration of paint as texture, edging and inching towards an almost sculptural coating of a flat surface with thick pigment) to be more of interest.
There’s also another factor to consider in my response to these two artists: with lockdowns, I’ve been unable to visit galleries, or other cultural spaces, and thus have revisited shows and artworks that are already safely on display, and been able to engage in more of an idea encapsulated in Slow Art Day. In light of that, I find myself responding to Chapman’s works with her older paintings that I’ve previously offered thoughts about very much in my mind. The same is true with Farnsworth’s paintings here: his recent exhibition at the Pumphouse is still fresh to me, and thus not being able to absorb the quantity of artworks I normally can has made me more critical – in both a positive and more demanding manner – than otherwise might be the case.
It’s from this space, this place I’m standing, that I offer that Farnsworth’s works are of an exterior reality, whereas Chapman’s are of an interior one. Farnsworth depicts figures and places with a painterly hand that is abstracted, but that also combines sites and people (immediate or historical, living or dead) in a manner that ‘smashes’ them together, so that time becomes fluid, and non linear. Chapman has no interest in formal representation. She’s mining abstraction, and the newer works are emotive, perhaps very personal, responses – or even encapsulations – of her state of mind, or her emotional state. In titling this response ‘what’s left to remember you by / thoughts like silent raindrops fall’ I’m combining, like concrete poetry, the names of two works by the artists that are very different. And yet those two pieces seem to have an evocative, almost sad overlap in intent and reminiscence of a time before COVID 19. Or perhaps they’re making a contemporary statement about how it ‘feels’, in paint, as we continue isolation, continue to negotiate anxiety and try to envision (and hope) for a time ‘after’ all this….
There is a gluttony to Chapman’s paintings in the application of paint that makes Farnsworth’s strokes and colours seem sparse, even though they’re clearly not. The excess of layering by Chapman almost drowns her surfaces, and make Farnsworth’s more measured marks (which often are anything but gentle, but sharp and sure – many of his figures have almost violent dabs and blots of rich colour that should fracture, but help form them instead) seem more restrained. But this ‘gluttony’ – I don’t use that pejoratively, as you can get lost in the textures, especially with the larger works, and I am a fan of Marcel Barbeau‘s similar style – is more appropriately termed an indulgence. In conversation with Chapman, we talked about the various lock downs (of course) and how her palette has shifted to a more ‘happy’ one, with pastels and lighter, brighter tones. But it’s worthwhile to contemplate, as I did on a second visit, how many of the brighter colours seem to ‘fight’ through a slather of grey that seems to ‘suffocate’ them. Even those more ‘positive’ tones are ‘struggling’; a subtle, perhaps subconscious suffocation that is a more accurate manifestation of Chapman’s state of mind, and ours, as we mark a year of COVID.
Farnsworth’s images evoke a contrasting response. Whether his image of the Welland Canal (as I’ve spent the majority of my time in Welland during lockdowns, and Geoff and I have safely visited with each other there, even recently taking a long walk along the aforementioned waterway), or the work whose title I pilfered for this article (Thoughts Like Silent Raindrops Fall), there’s less of an attempt at forced hopefulness that we see in Chapman’s colours. However, when I stood in front of Thoughts, I’ll admit to ‘hearing’ Patti Smyth’s song Farwell Reel: ‘But I don’t know why but when it rains it rains on me the sky just opens and when it rains it pours.’
There’s more a stoic contemplation in Farnsworth’s images. But formally there’s great overlap in palettes, between the two artists, yet they go to the same well and bring back different water. And, of course there’s also an element of hope, especially in Farnsworth’s numerous paintings that act as a historical ‘snapshots’ of his daughter, Skye. The most recent of these is a dynamic but also edifying portrait that hints at strength, possibility and a future to be anticipated, not dreaded.
There’s a repetitive nature to both artists’ installation, here. It’s a new experience to see so many of Farnsworth’s portraits – especially his large ones – in such a massive space, where you can stand between their gaze, from wall to wall. Several of his landscape works are also given more room to breathe. The figures become more alive, and more like individuals you’re meeting in the gallery space.
Chapman’s style is unchanged – except for a few ‘looser’ works – significantly since I first encountered her paintings. But here, in Recovery, I choose to interpret her pieces as capturing shifting moods and emotions. It’s less of an issue that the works seem almost interchangeable in terms of brushstrokes and the physical application of the paint. I’m still engaged by the colours. Some are trying to surface, others are drowning in monochromatic waves, and other splurts of blue or red are forcing their emergence from a slathered greyish slough (the latter a painterly manifestation of anxiety and depression, during the times of COVID, trying to suppress ‘hope’). This is an extrapolation, even beyond the usual ‘amenable object’ narrative I enjoy ( even from someone like myself, who’s been accused of being ‘the most subjective critic I’ve ever met’ by someone equally so, but perhaps simply unaware of it). But this isn’t entirely unfounded: the titles of Chapman’s works allude to such sentiments. And in a back area of her space, there’s several older works that are darker, in tone, and that suggest an emotional resonance that is less ‘hopeful’ than the brighter, lighter works. It’s not unreasonable to see some of these as remnants or realizations of a different state of mind, for Chapman. Abstraction – pure abstraction, if such a thing exists – is often about conveying the emotional, or mental, state of the painter, and as Robertson Davies once had a character observe, it can be like staining a canvas with part of your psyche (if that sounds messy, you understand it….and in works by Chapman titled Let It Bleed, or What’s Left To Remember You By, with their intense hues and rough thick strokes suggesting immediacy and unfettered emotion, in play with their evocative titles, this feels like an appropriate interpolation….).
I’ll end this by citing the brief statements from both artists. Chapman : “Beauty is very much broader than just to the eye. It is our whole, positive response to life. An artist is fortunate in that his work is the inner contemplation of beauty, of perfection in life. we cannot make anything perfectly, but with inner contemplation of perfection we can suggest it.” She’s quoted Agnes Martin, here, who was a Canadian artist and someone whose writings about art have been getting a wider audience of late. Martin was a very minimalist artist (in technique, not so much any association with the various movements that speak of Minimalism). She was an artist who was interested in interior worlds, experiences that were true to herself, and not necessarily validated or even shared by others. Martin’s works often illustrated a personal sensibility: and the manner in which I’ve approached Chapman’s paintings here echoes – or acknowledges – a similar approach on the part of Chapman.
Farnsworth, however, has a different space he occupies with his paintings: “My paintings explore a relationship between figurative and abstraction in order to meld unconscious probing and stylistic innovation with a meditative figural base.” His figures emerge or sink into their landscapes, with colour, form and mark making blending and blurring and bleeding them together. Farnsworth hints at narratives, and his portraits are both painterly but also capture an essence of his subject: just as some of his landscapes have an airy, ephemeral sense (such as Study of the Welland Canal) or even a vaguely threatening, stormy one (Seekers in a Teal Landscape). Farnsworth’s paintings have often been about the joy in contrast, whether figure to abstraction, or subtlety to excess, and display his brilliance at marking out a territory that incorporates conflicting, yet still harmonious, elements.
When the gallery reopens, visit Recovery in person, as the works are very physical. Experience the shift back and forth between Farnsworth and Chapman’s spaces. Bahen’s work is closer to the office space, and installed next to several works by Floyd Elzinga, that are also worth your time.
Recovery, which opened April 3rd, is now extended to May 29th, at 13th Street Gallery. Both Cynthia Chapman and Geoff Farnsworth have a variety of works on display, and Matt Bahen is also exhibited as part of this show. My decision to focus solely on the push and pull between Farnsworth and Chapman’s paintings is not a comment on Bahen’s paintings, but simply favouring a critical approach that was attractive to me. If you’re interested in visiting the gallery, as limited capacity is allowed at this time, visit their site and contact them for details. All images are courtesy the gallery and copyright of the artist. The header image for this article is a painting by Geoff Farnsworth, titled Montebello O.J., 2021.