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Reviews / September 8, 2011

Ben Woolfitt: Getting Personal

Canadian Embassy’s Prince Takamado Gallery, Tokyo
Ben Woolfitt, <em>It is my hope...</em>, 2007. Ben Woolfitt, It is my hope..., 2007.

“Musings: Drawings and Paintings” at the Canadian Embassy’s Prince Takamado Gallery in Tokyo is artist (and art-store founder) Ben Woolfitt’s second solo show in Asia, the first being his exhibition at the Bangkok University Gallery in 2005. The Tokyo exhibition includes four large acrylic paintings and numerous drawings, a good portion of which are two-page spreads removed from the sketchbooks that Woolfitt habitually carries on his numerous travels. The 55-page trilingual catalogue includes a text by Dennis Reid, former chief curator of the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Woolfitt’s art is a relatively unusual hybrid, with striking aspects of both modernist and postmodernist practice. The modernist aspects were apparent in his first public-institution solo show at York University’s Founders College in 1969 and in his first commercial gallery show at Olga Korper’s Gallery O in 1974. His rejection of any but aesthetic concerns, his bearing down on the medium with his own methods of laying down paint and his devotion to a very personal selection of materials all attest to his admiration for such high modernists as Hans Hofmann, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski.

A distinctly non-modernist mixture of the literary into Woolfitt’s art began around the time of his mother’s death in 1980. The artist thinks of the 1981 etching Number 2 (not in the Tokyo exhibition) as a kind of last letter to her. Postmodernist aspects came to the fore in Woolfitt’s art during the mid-1990s as he responded to the slow, painful loss of his sister, Shirley, to cancer in 1996 and to the death of his father in 1999. In his catalogue essay, Reid observes that Woolfitt’s drawings came to incorporate a good deal of writing and were intensely “diaristic” in their genesis, with “evidence of the artist’s aspirations, anxieties, his deepest feelings and concerns, all laid out for our consideration.” The drawings incorporate such comments as “I found it,” “My… but where is she?” and “The markings of yesterday are still there,” and these observations have been used to title the works.

The great German critic Julius Meier-Graefe looked for the loves and hates of the artists he wrote about, and that quest enabled him to write with great insight about Vincent van Gogh, whose hopes and torments are so often writ large in his art. But Woolfitt’s drawings have a much cooler emotional valence. Despite the personal turmoil that sometimes lies behind them, these are typically serene and relatively untroubled works, with a glowing luminosity (sadly not observable in reproduction) that stems from Woolfitt’s frequent use of metal leaf. By happy coincidence, his work has more affinity with that of the celebrated 17th-century Japanese poet Matsuo Basho. The central concept of Basho’s poetics, according to scholar Makoto Ueda, was sabi, an “impersonal atmosphere in contrast with grief or sorrow”—a concept similar to Western ideas of aesthetic distance.

And yet, if these works have their tranquility, it’s been hard won as the product of intense concentration on the art of making—waxing the ground with oil pastel, frottaging various objects, rubbing in powdered chalk, graphite and metal leaf. He works on canvases laid out flat—typically several at a time—and uses trowels, knives and cloths to apply one layer after another of glossy acrylic gel medium to which he has added a little pigment. There may be as many as 120 layers of paint by the time the canvases are finished, and the resultant surfaces convey both a strong sense of shifting interior light and a trace of past actions and previous states now scarcely apprehensible. In this, Woolfitt shows an affinity with the well-regarded Spanish/Catalonian artist Antoni Tàpies, who so often evokes time with crumbling materials and traces of various human activities.

To Reid, Woolfitt’s paintings are “remarkable works of art” and the drawings are “an even more profound accomplishment,” the product of “a master.” Given the outstanding works in this exhibition, it would be hard to disagree.