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Features / May 10, 2013

Kim Dorland: Beautiful Stuff

Kim Dorland typically works on half a dozen or so paintings at a time. Occasionally he seems unwilling or unable to lavish attention on any single canvas for very long, as if working on one painting serves mainly to prod him into doing something to another painting. Last spring, though, during the first of several visits to his studio on the western edge of downtown Toronto, he concentrated on a painting in progress that hung on a wall alongside some other unfinished pieces.

“I’m really thinking of building up the eye sockets to a point that is basically ridiculous,” he explained. “I want this weird, material element where certain parts are so thick it’s disconcerting.”

The painting in question was of a considerably larger-than-life (or, if you prefer, death) silver skull, set against a black background. The studio, a partitioned space in a sprawling old industrial building, was a decent size, but it felt cramped. (He has since moved to a more open and better-lit space across the hall.) There were paintings, most ranging in size between pretty big and even bigger, in various stages of completion, everywhere: hanging from walls, leaning on walls, leaning against other paintings, lying face up on horizontal surfaces. A few mounted, taxidermied animal heads lurked about: a rabid-seeming, nail-studded bear strung with bloody-looking strands of painted yarn; an untouched elk; a side-by-side pair of moose heads, one painted, one not, snouts pointed at the ceiling. Dorland’s worktable was (and remains) a picturesque jumble of paint-bearing tubes and bottles, and jars sprouting bouquets of brushes.

“This is the good thing about having paintings that fail,” he said, leaning down to scoop up a roughly spherical blob of paint in his latex-gloved hand. The pan on the floor from which he extracted the blob held an ungainly, multicoloured mound of oil paint, most of it recycled from thickly impastoed pieces that he’d decided, as he often does, to scrap and scrape.

Without fuss or deliberation, he slapped the blob into the skull’s empty black eye socket. The next step—a crucial one in the battle against gravity—was to fasten the protuberant eye blob securely to the canvas.

“This is my trade secret,” said Dorland, grabbing a power drill from the worktable and fitting a screw into its business end. He proceeded to bolt the eye blob into the socket, which took all of a second or two. The head of the screw was visible in the middle of the blob, but Dorland didn’t seem to mind. “I actually like it when the screws show,” he said. “I’ve never really hidden that fact.”

The skull, which was completed a couple of visits later, isn’t just any old skull. It belongs to Tom Thomson—or, rather, it was inspired by the forensically tangled story of Thomson’s skull, as related in Roy MacGregor’s book Northern Light: The Enduring Mystery of Tom Thomson and the Woman Who Loved Him (2010). Dorland has worked on a few paintings of that iconic set of head bones lately. “There’s the famous image of Tom Thomson’s skull that was in the paper when Roy MacGregor’s amazing book came out,” he explains. “It’s just such a beautifully graphic, interesting image, and I love what it says about Canadian history and the myth of Tom Thomson.” Also, Thomson happens to be tied with Van Gogh as Dorland’s favourite painter, dead or alive. “He’s an artist that I admire so much, who I think is heads and tails above his peers,” says Dorland, “and whose work I think about a lot.”

Dorland’s work on the silver-on-black skull painting coincided with the early stages of a very different set of paintings created for his most recent solo show, which appeared last fall at Toronto’s Angell Gallery. Called “I’m An Adult Now,the 12-piece exhibition took its name from a mid-’80s left-field hit by the Pursuit of Happiness, but the title also signalled an artistic coming of age. “I think it’s the tightest, most restrained, poised show I’ve ever done,” says Dorland. For his part, Jamie Angell, the gallery’s director, says, “My reaction was a sense of pride that the exhibition as a whole could easily have carried itself in an international museum. There was a cohesiveness in how each piece related to the others and told a story.”

Based mostly on a series of photographs taken one evening in Toronto’s High Park, the show included depictions of Dorland and his family—his wife, Lori Seymour, whom Dorland has painted often, and, for the first time, their two young sons. Most striking was the pervasive redness of the show. That chromatic theme was announced to overwhelming effect by the show’s magnum opus, Red Forest #2 (2012), a large, 2-by-3.5-metre oil painting granted a full room and viewing bench just inside the gallery’s entrance. The piece’s title is both inarguably accurate and woefully inadequate. The forest is indeed red—pulsatingly, brilliantly, almost violently red—taking a subtle turn toward orange as the trees recede into the distance. Fluorescent slivers of greenish-yellow sky are visible through the dense foliage, providing the only respite from red even as they clash with it. There’s plenty of detail in the nearer trees—ridges, knotholes, gnarls, the horizontal, normally black striations in birch bark—but it’s all rendered texturally, through impasto, not through contrasts of colour and shade. Equally imposing is the somewhat smaller Picnic Table (2012), which lorded over the gallery’s main room. A copse of red trees surrounds an actual miniature wooden picnic table (built by Dorland) that juts out from the centre of the canvas. Here, the trees are sparser and the more abundant sky is a pale, dusky pink.

Other ingredients now and then make their way into his art, but more than anything Kim Dorland loves paint. “It’s beautiful stuff,” he says. “It’s inherently beautiful. If I were a photorealist painter I’d have a lot more money, but I’m fascinated by the material and how you can make it work, scrape it and move it, and it always has this blood-clot viscosity. But I’m also paying homage to a lot of my influences.” As one might expect from an artist who’s been known to pile paint up into sculpture-like outcroppings that protrude eight or nine inches beyond the canvas, Dorland leans toward painters who revel in the textural potential and the substance of paint. Off the top of his head, he mentions Georg Baselitz, Willem de Kooning and “the British guys,” Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach.

“I remember the first time I saw an Auerbach in person, here in Toronto,” he recalls. “It was just unbelievable to me. I’d never seen anything like it, the way the material looked and felt. It was sort of icky. It was almost too much for me to take. I really loved that experience.”

Though he jokes about being a “dinosaur,” Dorland is not at all ambivalent or apologetic about his chosen medium. He seems sincerely unconcerned about the barrage of death notices painting has endured over the last few decades. “I just never really cared about that argument,” he shrugs. “If painting stayed where it was back when I was at school, it’d certainly be dead. Because basically painting turned into an illustration of theory and it was just totally dead and boring. But even in the digital age I don’t think it can ever die, because sometimes you don’t want a computer screen. You want something handmade.”

Giving form and content to Dorland’s obsession with paint is his insistence on narrative, which tends to be rooted in his own experience. Dorland matter-of-factly describes his hardscrabble upbringing as “white trash.” His mother was only 17 years old when Kim was born in 1974, in Wainwright, Alberta. “I grew up very poor and basically had zero prospects. My mother kicked me out of the house when I was 16. She got a new boyfriend; she thought he would save her life. And then she went totally nuts. I moved in with my girlfriend at the time and she saved me from the path I was on.” Dorland says he hasn’t spoken to his mother for 20 years. (His father, whom he also hadn’t seen for a long time, died four years ago.) The girlfriend, Lori Seymour, is now his wife.

It was around the time when Dorland started dating Seymour that he took up painting. She didn’t specifically encourage him in that direction, but he credits her for giving him the confidence to choose and pursue painting as a career. He earned a BFA at Vancouver’s Emily Carr Institute of Art + Design. (Interesting aside: one of his teachers at Emily Carr was Ian Wallace, the renowned conceptual photographer; despite the apparent mismatch, Dorland describes Wallace as “psychotically smart” and says that “the influence he had on me and my thinking about what I wanted to do has affected me to this day.”) In 2003, Dorland got his MFA at York University, in Toronto. After graduating from York, he still had a lot to learn, mainly about himself. He dabbled in abstraction, realism, various styles. “It was convincing,” he says of the casting-around period, “but inside I felt like it wasn’t what I was after. And then it kind of came to me what I was after: I wanted to tell my own story.”

The watershed work, from Dorland’s own perspective, was The Loner, an acrylic painting from the summer of 2005. It depicts a young, forlorn- looking man standing in the middle ground, facing the viewer, dressed in blue jeans and a chequered jacket. Half of his face and much of his body are obscured by a slightly tilting, leafless tree in the foreground. Behind him is a sparse scattering of young birches, and beyond them a thick, almost abstract forest, the trees little more than vertical streaks of earth-tone paint. Above it all spreads a satanic sky the colour of overripe watermelon. Though it might take you a while to notice (it helps to have Dorland point it out), the man’s right leg is truncated a few inches below the knee—a strange detail that, judging from the figure’s posture, denotes an amputation more metaphorical than literal.

“It was basically a self-portrait of me when I lived in the Prairies,” Dorland explains. “And the scale, the colour relationships, the amount of abstraction—that’s kind of where it all came together. It’s the first painting I painted with fluorescent in the backdrop, which is crazy. The difficulties that raises, I can’t even tell you. There was just something about that painting where I was kind of uncomfortable and wasn’t sure what I thought of it. But the more I sat with it the more I knew that it was the first one. It all worked in that painting.”

Around that time Dorland also began using more paint: layering it on, building it up, and then layering on some more, sometimes squeezing paint straight from the tube onto the canvas. The motivating force was a reaction as much as anything. “Everybody was imitating Gerhard Richter and Luc Tuymans. I adore both of them—I think they’re magnificent painters—but all of a sudden everything was based on the photograph and painting was some kind of response to the photograph and it was photography, photography, photography. I literally just started piling on the paint because I wanted to remind the viewer that they’re not photographs; they’re paintings. It’s really simple, but that was the thought in my head.”

A few years ago, Dorland’s paintings were predominantly images, drawn from his youth, of dead-end suburban life in the Prairies: shabby bungalows, trailer parks, pickup trucks, alleyways lined with graffiti-inscribed garage doors, hapless teenagers loitering under railroad bridges. Then, allowing for some overlap, came the more rustic, Group of Seven–inspired forest scenes. (His work has been displayed at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, the gallery north of Toronto largely dedicated to the Group of Seven’s art.) Yet the woods Dorland depicts are seldom as pristine or idyllic as those of his forebears: the trees, if they haven’t been logged down to stumps, are likely to be defaced by death-metal graffiti or obscenities. In a big painting called Clearing, from 2009, the sylvan setting is littered with photo spreads torn from a smutty magazine. Something a little unsettling lingers among Dorland’s trees. At times, as in Sasquatch, also from 2009, things get outright scary: holding a dead rabbit and gussied up with bits of real fur, the reclusive forest monster, as rendered by Dorland in its life-size, super-impastoed glory, looks as if it has just emerged from a radioactive mudbath and forgot to bring a towel.

The tug of war between the tawdry and the transcendent, the drab and the garish, the beautiful and the grotesque, abstraction and figuration—and, in the application of the paint itself, flatness and three-dimensionality—is at the crux of Dorland’s art. “I was really taken with not only the thick impasto and the gestural side of his work, but also the kind of push-pull aesthetic,” says Mike Weiss, whose New York gallery, in Chelsea, has put up two well-received solo shows by Dorland. “I like the way he can get into the psychology of a place, and the way he draws on his experiences and memories. He’s very confrontational. The idea of the bogeyman or the Sasquatch or bikers or people who leave graffiti behind—they become almost folklorish characters. A lot of his work has a magical, nightmarish quality. There’s kind of a kitsch element mixed with this fearful quality.”

That fearfulness was especially evident in a sold-out 2010 exhibition called “New Material,” Dorland’s solo debut at Mike Weiss Gallery. The exhibition’s name was a pun of sorts. On display was new material in the sense of recent work, including an entirely new Sasquatch. But it was also the first time Dorland unveiled taxidermy-based pieces, and it showcased paintings that incorporated other non-paint materials to an unprecedented (for Dorland) degree. “At that point I was definitely interested in adding a sculptural element to the work and seeing how far I could push the surface out,” he says. “I was doing work with screws and fur and glass. There was a piece called Crows (2010) and a lot of the black crows had feathers actually coming out of them, painted.”

The dark tendencies of “New Material” were just as apparent in “Nocturne,” a show mounted in early 2011 at Angell Gallery. “I think he took it that one step further by exploring the woods in the evening,” says

Angell. “Some of it was ghoulish; some of it was animals in the woods late at night. There was an image of his wife having an out-of-body experience. It had a fairytale element to it.”

In contrast to the often-literal darkness of “New Material” and “Nocturne” (and let’s not forget Tom Thomson’s skull), Dorland brightened up his paint- ings for “I’m An Adult Now,” though it would be a mistake to equate brightness with cheerfulness. A sense of loneliness and melancholia emanates, for instance, from Him #3 (2012), a depiction of Dorland’s elder son, Seymour, standing silhouetted between the long shadows of two trees. A blazing white sun sets in the upper-right corner of the canvas, suffusing everything in shades of yellow and orangey-red. One reason Dorland had previously been reluctant to paint his children was a concern that sentimentality might gain the upper hand. Presumably, that fear has been laid to rest.

“It’s a weird show. A lot of people have said it’s kind of a depressing show,” Dorland said during a studio visit shortly before the exhibition opened. He was having a mild case of pre-show jitters, feeling a little uncertain about how “I’m An Adult Now”—which turned out to be a success on all fronts—would go over.

“I would like to be a more cheerful person,” he added, with a rueful laugh. “It’s not going to happen. I’ve accepted who I am.”

This is a feature from the Spring 2013 issue of Canadian Art. To read more from this issue, please visit its table of contents.