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Features / August 23, 2013

The New Old Abstraction: Contemporary Canadian painters look back to earlier examples

Reports of the “return of painting” have circulated for so long, it’s hard to escape the suspicion that the end of painting was never more than a convenient alibi.

The story goes like this. In the mid-1960s, performance, site-specific installation and other “dematerialized” actions began to challenge the dominant format and medium of late modernism: the problematically styled “man-size” painting celebrated by formalist critics. But despite faltering vital signs, the early 1980s witnessed an irrepressible revival of painting. The conceptually savvy neo-Geo movement articulated new critical positions through strategies of parody and pastiche. Meanwhile, neo-Expressionism was seen by some as an unwelcome reassertion of Ab Ex machismo, or a “neo–Avant Garde” fatally compromised by its easy assimilation to an insatiable market. Since the collapse of the ’80s art market, returns of painting have played out between the Gog and Magog of neo-conceptualism and neo-Expressionism as a seemingly infinite cycle of endgames.

In recent years, one trend to emerge that does not map neatly onto this pattern is the work of new formalist painters such as Tomma Abts and Thomas Scheibitz, whose spiky or biomorphic forms look with a newfound sincerity and modesty of gesture beyond the late-modernist citations of neo-Geo to earlier referents in the history of abstraction like Constructivism and Vorticism. In much of this work, the vocabulary of early modernism is refracted through the lens of moderne graphic design or retro home decor as a commercial phantasmagoria of mediated surfaces and preselected colour harmonies, but without succumbing to the irony associated with postmodern precedents. Often it seems as though these painters are arranging the fragments of modernist abstraction to compose a memento mori to modernism itself: a still-life meditation on the inescapable mortality of art and its styles.

In keeping with this trend, it comes as something of a surprise to learn that a growing number of contemporary artists in this country seek inspiration from specifically Canadian histories of modernist abstraction. It is surprising because, with the conservative modernism of the Group of Seven remaining our collective point of reference for early 20th-century Canadian art, the very concept of “Canadian modernism” can only strike many as a contradiction in terms. Yet, in looking to the products of history with fresh eyes, artists Jay Isaac, Morley Shayuk, Lauren Hall, Patrick Howlett and Francine Savard challenge us to rethink our relationship to our recent past as well as to the contemporary trajectories of abstraction.

The 2004 video Swamp Beasts, a collaboration between Jay Isaac and artist Robin Fry, documents a performance in which the two conspirators, draped in rags and covered in the detritus of urban life, roam the streets and malls of Toronto as the undead avatars of founding Canadian abstractionist Bertram Brooker (1888–1955). Brooker—whose 1927 exhibition of abstract paintings at the Arts and Letters Club in Toronto was the first solo show of abstract art in Canada—was, like Isaac, a multitalented figure. In addition to making pioneering art, Brooker was an advertising executive who influenced a generation of ad men with innovative marketing theories that fused art and business. The portrait painted by Isaac and Fry (who claimed to be acting under directives issued by Brooker himself) is a dense palimpsest of animistic motifs and consumer imagery. It is redolent of the artist’s late paintings—which (informed by French philosopher Henri Bergson’s theory of creative evolution) depict a metamorphosis of flora—and accompanied by a brooding voice-over of metaphysical poetry by the artists and Brooker. For anyone accustomed to the frosty landscapes of the Group of Seven, this is unfamiliar territory.

The sophisticated knowledge of historical Canadian art communicated by Swamp Beasts is typical of Isaac’s work, which often combines elements drawn from disparate periods and styles as well as from high and low sources into what the artist terms “a fantastical folk aesthetic.” “I don’t want something to look fresh,” Isaac comments on the historical dimension of his work. “I want all of its history to be present.” Despite the highly mediated quality of his paintings, Isaac has consistently been at pains to distance his work from the irony that characterized so much painting produced in the 1990s, defiantly calling for a non-conceptual art of sincerity.

Isaac cites his life-long exposure to commercial systems of objects as a constant inspiration—first through his father’s antique business in Saint John, and recently through the antique/object shop Symbolist, which he ran for two years. “I haven’t figured it out yet,” he says, “but I know it comes from the valuation of objects and from handling objects—thousands and thousands of objects.” From this hands-on engagement with things of all kinds springs what Isaac terms “a still-life mentality” that, in line with the aesthetic articulated by Brooker 80 years ago, does not recognize distinctions between fine art and commodities.

A body of paintings exhibited at Toronto’s Paul Petro Contemporary Art in spring 2010 directed a similarly recursive, still-life gaze at abstraction itself, taking its historically determined surfaces as the basis for fresh arrangements of colour and texture developed through an intuitive process of self-reference and muscle memory: “When I was making those abstract paintings, the thing I was observing,” says Isaac, “was what was happening on the surface of the paintings. And then I painted based on what I was looking at.”

Toronto-based artist Morley Shayuk posits an analogously non-linear dialogue between abstraction past and present via the paintings of Brooker’s associate Lionel LeMoine FitzGerald (1890–1956). Shayuk discovered the austere but weirdly domestic modernism of FitzGerald’s Doc Snyder’s House (1931) while leafing through a copy of David Silcox’s The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson (2003) in search of readymade subject matter. Initially unfamiliar with the Manitoba painter’s biography, Shayuk was drawn to formal parallels he observed between the paintings and design elements in the contemporary suburban environment. “The snow-blue in Doc Snyder’s House looked like the blue in Cineplex Odeon,” he recalls. Subsequent research on the Prairie artist unearthed deeper continuities between the natural and the artificial as played out in FitzGerald’s work and the strip malls of suburbia, which formed the basis for an unlikely spiritual quest. Shayuk’s artistic journey also responds to Lawren Harris’s fabled pursuit of a mystic North: “Harris talks about going up north and the vastness of the space. It sounded to me like Newmarket—cold, vacuous and creepy.”

The matter-of-fact texture of FitzGerald’s hermetic paintings provided Shayuk with a readymade pattern within which to intervene, and ultimately exorcize, the uncanny menace of the mundane implicit in urban sprawl. “I can actually crank it,” says Shayuk, in reference to the deadpan facture of FitzGerald’s canvases. “I saw that you can step in and do it yourself—like laying bricks.” Shayuk’s 2010 sculpture untitled appropriates the stucco textures of commercial land development to stage an allegory of alchemical purification reminiscent of the spiritual aspirations of FitzGerald’s abstractions: “I got tired of being angry at the landscape that I was also a part of and driving around in. I thought: what if I could take something commercial and big and dumb and use it as a metaphor for the small and the personal?”

Another emerging artist whose work reveals an absurd juxtaposition of history and the everyday is sculptor Lauren Hall. A 2010 body of work by Hall—who is currently Glasgow-based, but grew up in the Kitchener area—revisited the iconic abstract forms of Lawren Harris through the mock sublime of Robert Smithson’s trippy travelogue Monuments of Passaic (1967). The shaped canvases and Styrofoam-and-polystyrene “painterly” sculptures that resulted reference the simplified landscapes of corporate logos or planned communities—a distilled vocabulary suggestive of the Group of Seven painter’s reductive forms. Unlike Shayuk, Hall’s dialogue with Harris did not grow out of a process of historical research: “I recognized Lawren Harris in what I was already doing,” she states. Like many artists of her generation, Hall sees abstraction as part of the wallpaper of contemporary visual culture. “Harris is just always there, like pop music or the suburbs.”

Recalling the ersatz imagery produced by the tourism industry, Hall insists that Harris’s landscapes aren’t real places: “Maybe that’s why Canadians see them as a sort of national ideal,” she muses. “Because they can’t be accessed.” Interested in how ideas of comfort and the sublime communicated by travel advertising and historical landscape painting are replicated by ordinary people through home-improvement schemes, Hall, who works with inexpensive materials purchased from Home Depot, notes: “I’m interested in people building utopias in suburbia. Everything I make looks ramshackle.”

Hall circumvents the qualities of irony and parody informing the work of earlier postmodern artists through an unapologetic embrace of the comic. It’s the sense of the unexpected in comedy that fuels Hall, who says that much of her work resembles the structure of a joke, “where strange objects come to be.” SCULTURE CLUB, Hall’s ongoing collaboration with artist Susy Oliveira, proposes a laugh-out-loud dialogue with historical sculpture that began as a ludicrous transformation of the iconic contents of Constantin Brancusi’s Paris studio into piñata replicas. Hall and Oliveira are “trying to make an object that already exists”—an endeavour that recalls the weirdly still-life quality of the abstract paintings produced by Isaac and Shayuk. For Hall, the non-sequitur humour informing SCULTURE CLUB is also a comment on the lack of continuity in contemporary sculpture. While painter peers confidently engage with the history of their medium, many emerging sculptors graduate from studio programs lacking the basic skills of their trade (casting, modelling and so on). SCULTURE CLUB uses this state of disjuncture to its advantage, by seizing on the conceptual potential of banal materials and everyday sculptural forms.

Another artist for whom the ethereal canvases of Lawren Harris provided an unlikely point of departure for investigating the discontinuities between abstraction past and present is the London, Ontario–based painter Patrick Howlett. Although the icy palette and austere forms of Harris seem to haunt much of his pithy production, Howlett’s conversation with the Group of Seven painter is most explicit in a 2008 body of work, the higher you get the higher you get, which he began making during an artist’s residency at the Banff Centre. Like Hall, Howlett did not self-consciously set out to cultivate historical references; he retrospectively recognized Harris in work he was producing, and then devised an aleatory process incorporating a combination of Internet searches and Photoshop filters. “Filters create cubist forms, the way they reduce and simplify images. It seems to have affinities with a modernist reductive project,” states the artist. “That’s what interests me: teasing those things out and wondering what meaning those forms have today.”

For Howlett, those meanings emerge from the tenuous connections between imagery, language and classifications generated by Google. The artist’s process involves image searches based on snippets of historical texts that all somehow relate to the theoretical foundations of modernism. “For instance, painting something like the training of the soul (2008), which is a phrase from Harris—I did a Google Image search of the phrase, during which the image that came to mind was a windshield wiper in an ice storm. That led to thinking about whether this training of the soul is like being blinded and then seeing a little bit through the storm, and whether making a painting follows a similarly dangerous course. All those ideas get turned over in making the painting, although the relationship between language, image and the decisions I make is never direct.”

Unlike the artists discussed so far, Howlett’s re-engagement with abstraction does not eschew theory, although his points of reference tend to be more strictly philosophical than those of an earlier generation of conceptual painters. Henri Bergson—who inspired Brooker 80 years ago—is a deepening wellspring of ideas for Howlett, who is particularly interested in the philosopher’s nuanced approach to history and the image. Bergson’s notion of the “virtual”—that which is neither actual nor potential, but the unresolved becoming in-between—is an apt descriptor for Howlett’s sketch-like objects, which operate as filters of histories that remain perpetually in process.

The paradoxical temporality of the image in Bergson’s writings is also an ongoing point of reference for the iconic abstractions of the Quebec painter Fernand Leduc—whose hard-edge canvases inspired a dazzling 2001–02 series by conceptual painter Francine Savard. Like Howlett’s work, Savard’s Un plein un vide paintings deliberately confound clear-cut associations between language and image. An accomplished monochrome painter herself, Savard deliberately avoided Leduc’s more recent monochrome production for this series, looking instead to earlier biomorphic abstractions in search of abstract figures that could be decontextualized from their fields and appropriated as “artifacts” in their own right. This process was inspired by a chance encounter with a text on Leduc’s work by critic Jean-Pierre Duquette: “I thought: this is an inspiring vocabulary,” recalls Savard. “It tries to tell us what the paintings are all about.” Using Duquette’s lexicon as a guide for selecting readymade forms from Leduc’s crisp compositions became a way to “discuss with myself which form and which colour to apply,” says Savard. “I did not want to apply the formulation of the author, but to decide for myself. In the process, I discovered how difficult it is to make a form.” Savard insists she “could never do that myself,” underlining the distance separating her work from the spontaneity of Leduc’s constructions, despite their shared formal identity.

When asked about her fraught relationship to the Plasticien tradition in which her practice is rooted, Savard emphasizes that “The conceptual dimension of my work makes it very different from the Plasticiens, not only in terms of style (palette, et cetera), but also philosophy.” An encounter with Leduc—who has exhibited alongside the younger artist, while also expressing reservations about her unauthorized appropriations of his work—further clarified Savard’s thoughts on the divide separating her paintings from their historical referent: “He quite rightly called them ‘quasi-objects’—I like that a lot.”

As with Isaac, Shayuk, Hall and Howlett, abstraction returns in Savard’s practice as the uncanny object of fresh techniques of manipulation. These artists are representative of new trends in painting that treat abstraction and its stylistic discontents as artifacts that—like the elements of a traditional still life—express the paradoxical temporalities of art and memory.

Explore more work from these contemporary abstract artists at canadianart.ca/newabstraction.

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