Dalhousie Art Gallery
Halifax, Nova Scotia
Halifax is a small harbor city in the province of Nova Scotia, in Eastern Canada. In the 1970s a bunch of American artists, led by Garry Neill Kennedy, came and took over the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD). Previously a happily parochial institution with loyalist tendencies, NSCAD had developed little interest in the ongoing convulsions of modernism. The new faculty and administration brought Halifax to the cutting edge of the international conceptual art movement. The practices of artists like Kennedy and Gerald Ferguson (who both still teach at NSCAD) were in line with the internationally occurring dematerialization of the art object, and their engagement with painting issues was rigorous and complex. For the last thirty years Halifax has been host to the deconstruction of modernist ideologies that never successfully took root here. This is not an easy town in which to mount an exhibition of Abstract Paintings.
Enter Hungry Eyes, recent work by eight mid-career abstract painters based in Ontario, Canada and New York, curated by the painter Monica Tap, a NSCAD MFA and Assistant Professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario, for the Dalhousie University Art Gallery. Playing out postmodern strategies of sampling and pastiche, these paintings take what they want from Ab-Ex, Pop, and Process art. Showing a selective interest in the baggage carried by these movements, Hungry Eyes casually equates them with the everyday detritus of popular culture. Though many of the works are individually able to squeeze and shimmy out of the commercial nihilism which so much abstract painting currently trumpets, they share an unambitious relationship with history, presenting themselves in terms of play and pleasure, that are in many ways at odds with local attitudes towards painting.
Julia Sass’s (NY) paintings, presented in awkward and spellbinding pairs and clusters, succeed, more than anything else in the exhibit, in challenging this formula. Addressing well worn problems of surface, color, composition, and mark with humor and energy, she propels herself through issues of pictorial space and surface tensions to the point where they begin to self destruct. Sharing Sass’s sense of urgency and seriousness, David Urban’s (ON) large, heavily impastoed paintings explore the metaphysical ramifications of composition, textural fields, and form. His references are not to popular culture or obvious "school" of cues; rather, he seems to be seeking genuine dialogue with the issues of early twentieth century abstraction. Urban’s lumbering fields of gray and pink, broken and framed by slack dark bars are the only paintings in the exhibition that aren’t pretty, and I’m surprised by how archaic that makes them look.
Elizabeth McIntosh (ON), on the other hand, directly challenges the power of high modernist aesthetics. Mimicking the iconic bullseyes of Kenneth Noland in her "Circles on Stripes 1," McIntosh has cut away the weight of history and seriousness that surrounds them, shrinking, multiplying, and reforming them as a happily clumsy decorative field. This kind of gesture, the critical revisioning of modernist abstraction, is an easy hit, often repeated in Hungry Eyes. These moves are weakened by a location that never felt in a direct way the hegemonic weight of the practices being deconstructed, but which has rather sought for some time to find ways out of the circular trap of repetitive critique.
This problem is particularly acute in the works of Paul Campbell (NY) and Jordan Broadworth (Ontario). Looking at their process paintings prompted a feeling of malaise approaching exhaustion. Their invitation to follow actions without outside meaning through to their obvious conclusion as repetition was not a particularly attractive one. Campbell’s works, painted by mechanical toys remote controlled by the artist, are "good idea" paintings. They remind me of the work of an ex pro hockey player I went to school with who spent two years shooting paint covered hockey pucks at unprimed canvases, producing dead ringers for the carefully stenciled paintings made by of one of his instructors. Good ideas were not enough in either case, despite any initial delight they may have produced. Formal innovation and exploration in these cases seem always subjugated to a conceptual framework that can barely survive its own limitations. Broadworth, in his untitled oil paintings, carries out a rigorous investigation of figure and ground, there and not there, veils and blockages, through an ordered schedule of application and removal, a total divestment of gesture. Unchanging application by syringe of a carefully controlled trademark curve plays between the layers of a blocky monochrome, squeegeed off in places to reveal a striped underpainting. Competing with the viscous and unpredictable qualities of paint itself through surgically controlled application, Broadworth has won the battle. The result has the soulless and totalitarian propriety of the right questions being asked over and over again.
Broadworth’s paintings display a consistency of form also seen in the work of McIntosh and Dan Walsh (NY). All three artists produce paintings within closed systems of their own design. Walsh, like McIntosh, employs bright colors and simple repetitive forms, but in contrast to McIntosh’s circles, which seek simply to fill the space of the canvas in a reasonably efficient fashion, Walsh’s squares and rectangles respond more decorously to the edges of the canvas, echoing it in utilitarian rows and grids. Walsh and McIntosh have effectively reduced the grand metaphysics of the modernist field to the scale of useful or decorative objects of a size to be grasped and handled. Jane Fine’s (NY) paintings, on the other hand, don’t care about modernist fields. Perfectly frivolous pretties, they offer the uncomplicated and boundless pleasure of shoe shopping with a full wallet, standing hungry before an open buffet, fucking a generous stranger. Like these pleasures, Fine’s paintings do little to fulfill the needs behind immediate hungers, but they do allow me, when I abandon them, to do so without any sense of guilt or personal loss. "eifoinbysetwin," a large painting by Stephen Charles, initially offers the same lures, but the endless obsessive variety of it’s surface, its tracks and dots and buzzing chromatic brilliance are overwhelming. It could be a structural representation of every single telephone conversation going on in the world right now, the movement of sound in space. It could wipe me clean away if I look at it too long. For a long time the next painting had to be the last painting in order to maintain a place in the history of dissolution by refinement. These painters, shrugging off the grand march of history, inevitability make every painting somewhere in the middle, easy and unassuming in its relationship to what came before, and with what will inevitably come after.