Abstraction's Bold New Face

BY Douglas MacLean

As a student at the Ontario College of Art in the mid-1970s, I produced some innovative abstract work with a floor polisher as my brush. At that time, however, the phrase on everyone¹s lips was, ³painting is dead.² So I moved on to video work.

I mention this primarily because, of course, painting never died ‹ although it certainly had its ups and downs during the past three decades. Travelling across the country lately, I¹ve been surprised by how alive painting is. In particular, I am excited by the bold, new face of pure abstraction.

Seven Western Canadian artists who have recently caught my attention ‹ I think they represent abstract art¹s current vitality and experimentation ‹ are Saskatoon artists Marie Lannoo and Jonathan Forrest; Medicine Hat¹s Clay Ellis; John Eisler and Mark Mullin in Calgary; Bryan Ryley in Vernon and Camrose Ducote in Vancouver.

Lannoo, Forrest and Ellis were featured in Spell, a 2005 exhibition at the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon showcasing 12 painters who are exploring abstraction by focusing on new concepts and practices.

John Eisler and Mark Mullin in Calgary represent abstraction¹s new face. Eisler¹s paintings emphasize sensations of our high-speed society, with its signal overload of high-speed internet, fast cars and music downloads. Mullin, who presented a major exhibition of new work at Calgary¹s Paul Kuhn Gallery in March 2006, plays with fluctuating diagrammatic elements combined with solid forms. His complex paintings, constructed on five-inch-deep stretchers, are simultaneously energetic and meditative.

Mark Mullin has established himself as a presence in the Canadian art scene in the few short years since completing his MFA at Concordia University in 1999. Citing the compelling ³narrative engagement² of Calgary-based Mullin¹s imagery in his 2002 Lost Horizon exhibition at Artspace in Peterborough, Ontario, Maria Brendel suggested that, conceptually, the paintings incorporate ³science, literature, play and magic.² In 2003 Mullin had solo exhibitions in Vancouver and Toronto, and in 2004 he was a finalist in the 2004 RBC New Canadian Painting Competition. In a Galleries West web review focused on his March 2006 A Sudden Change in Pressure exhibition at Paul Kuhn Gallery in Calgary, Kay Burns noted Mullin¹s ³fascination with the diagrams used to explicate mathematics and physics ‹ and the notion that such complexity can be simplified into lines, circles and graphs.²

The two British Columbians who I think fall into the category of new abstract artists ‹ Bryan Ryley and Camrose Ducote ‹ both show influences of older abstract painters in their approach. I see this as a positive; in abstraction, it is very hard to say something is ³brand new.² If we can find references to other artists and older works ofart, does that make any of their paintings less original?

Not in my view. Influences are there for the taking, and successful artists realize the benefits. Jonathan Forrest has seen the work of Saskatchewan artists William Perehudoff and Robert Christie flourish, wane and yet survive. Certainly Forrest¹s devotion to colour exploration owes a debt to their influence. Possibly we can connect Clay Ellis¹s embedded pigments to paintings by Larry Poons and Jules Olitski, and maybe his thick plastic forms to Edmonton painter Graham Peacock.

Why should any of that information lessen our admiration for the endeavours of today¹s artists? Instead, I think it extends painting¹s concepts and opens the doors for new ideas. The Cy Twombly or Antoni Tàpies markings that appear for me in the work of Camrose Ducote are really a blessing. Both artists were brilliant in drawing with paint, and if indeed Ducote has looked at and admired their works, that¹s great.

How do these seven artists (I won¹t be tempted to call them a group) demonstrate a resurgence in abstract ideas? What I see in Jonathan Forrest¹s stencilled placement of slabs of saturated colour is a revelation: fresh, celebratory and joyful. I¹m looking forward to his exhibition at Vanderleelie Gallery in Edmonton June 24 to July 6.

The haunting colour transparencies created by Marie Lannoo, seen at Newzones Gallery of Contemporary Art in Calgary three years ago, made me want to swim into the glossy spaces she created. Her use of colour reflection, especially the outside edges of her canvases that transmit nuanced colour onto bare white gallery walls, exhibits sensitive and experimentally innovative perceptual ideas. Lannoo has a show entitled See Nothing, See Everything at the Kenderdine Art Gallery in Saskatoon until July 14.

Clay Ellis, who previously focused on formalist metal sculpture, now works inventively in moulded polychromatic acrylic and urethane, creating tile-like volumes of thick, alluring colour that sometimes appear contained in a frame and are wall-mounted, and occasionally are displayed as double-sided freestanding sculptures. Each has an elegance that one would not think possible in a plastic medium. His Farm Jazz series combined the joy of music-making with the freedom of painting, and his Postcard series, shown at Vanderleelie Gallery in November 2005, included many sincerely beautiful works.

The gestural energies of John Eisler¹s paintings catch me up in their momentum and speed me along, offering just enough line-breaks to pause and enjoy the riot of colour screaming across the smooth surface of his work. Mark Mullin¹s off-beat colour palette, and his mixtures of hard and soft paint surfaces that challenge with a push-pull urgency, are similarly hard to resist.

When I first saw Bryan Ryley¹s large ³cross² paintings in his Four Corners show at Paul Kuhn Gallery in the fall of 2005, my art memory drew references to Quebec painter Jean McEwen. While McEwen worked with cross formats in the 1960s, I am intrigued by Ryley¹s current pursuit of the cross as ³form subject.² There is a refreshing newness about his striated lines and flat, overlaid colour.

The appeal of Camrose Ducote¹s paintings lies in the quality of her drawing ‹ an etching-like intimacy successfully translated to large formats ‹ and in her muted surfaces punctuated with shots of pure colour. Ducote¹s latest paintings, active and aesthetic triptychs exhibited in Split at Vancouver¹s Atelier Gallery during March 2006, remind me of art from the past.

Searching out these new works has inspired me to continue to look for more and other ways abstract art is gathering energy again. I¹ve also been encouraged to revisit abstract art¹s history, re-learning its successes and failures.

Both of these endeavours are part of a larger reassessment of painting in general, which is perhaps not a bad thing. In my book, painting has not only survived, it is becoming even more alive in Western Canada¹s abstract art.

Douglas MacLean of Canadian Art Gallery is an art advisor and private dealer.

Published iin Galleries West Magazine Summer 2006 edition.