John Brown at Olga Korper Gallery, Toronto

yellow head (2015)

oil on panel

image courtesy of the artist and olga korper gallery


          Toronto artist John Brown’s large new picture entitled Yellow Head is animated by vivid, even hectic, energies that cook within (or beyond) the surface. The work’s colours range across the hot spectrum from mass-media yellow to the distressed pinks and reds of lacerated skin. Drawing with these culturally high-charged hues, Brown portrays a nude man who stands quietly in the midst of busy painterly incidents, erasures, occlusions. The source of the figure, I learned on a studio visit when Yellow Head was being made--its occasion, its anchor in the world outside art--was a photographic plate in a modern medical textbook on pathology.




image courtesy of john brown

          The photo is interesting in its own right, not because it is unique or “artistic,” but because it has been composed according to an ideology of the body widely believed, I assume, by mainstream Western doctors and by the medical researchers who write textbooks.

          In this materialistic accounting, the self is an electro-chemical mechanism most readily intelligible when viewed “positively,” “objectively,” in strict isolation from all the evanescent, mutable codes and meanings of culture. To be an appropriate subject for scientific illustration, the man in the photograph had to be stripped of all clothing, even though his sick spot, indicated by an arrow, is apparently confined to a leg below the knee.

          Nor have his investigators allowed into the tight vertical frame any other  signifiers--apart from his circumcision--that might hint at who he is, where he comes from, what he believes, or when, since the invention of photography, he exists. Even nudity (which can be eloquent) tells us nothing in this instance, since his body’s flaccid fabric, with its puddling middle and weak shoulders, does not match any popular ideal or counter-ideal of male beauty, classical or modern. He merely stands naked, ordinary before the camera, without props, furniture, or background--without a name or address or story.  

          He is one of Foucault’s “unimportant men” who suddenly become visible (as in a photograph) when illuminated and transfixed by power’s headlights.


image courtesy of


          In Yellow Head, John Brown lifts the anonymous man from the photograph---and gives him a genealogy. Portrayed in painting, the man now has a place within the modern history of depicting naked, insignificant, non-idealized men, which descends to the present from Egon Schiele and the German Expressionists, through Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud and the variously passported neo-Expressionists who came of age around the year 1980, when Brown’s career was beginning.

           Unlike Schiele’s typical watercolours, however--I am thinking especially of a nude male, standing inert and perhaps bewildered against a blank background, from 1910--Brown’s picture presents a dignified figure who calmly poses, arms crossed (a  gesture of aloofness?), but alertly, actively.

          He presides over a humming scene. In the surfaces all around him (both before him and behind him in shallow space), splashes of black and tatters of fleshy colour collide, subside, appear and disappear--imagery that, like the figure himself, comes with a story rooted in the longer story of painting. Rendering the man in art has given him a task, context, a history--a world--that medical photography (and the power that sets up the shot and releases the shutter) had taken away.

          He speaks; or is about to speak.





          Fashioned in Canada in 2015, Yellow Head is political. The nude in art always is. The unremarkable man in the textbook plate has been transfigured by painting into a complex, sensuously resplendent character--that luminous yellow, that incandescent red--who nevertheless declines to be svelte, fit, modern

           Because the politics of gender and the ideology of nationalism are forever entwined, the appearance of such a man in art can even be comprehended as political in the usual, public sense: The figure’s frankly non-aggressive, unsentimental maleness is an affront to hyper-masculine Canadian identity of the sort encouraged, for example, in many ways by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives during their (now mercifully ended) decade of federal rule.

          In this novel imagination of Canada, gone, or at least muted, was a traditional (essentially biblical, and profoundly valid) understanding of heroism as defence of the defenceless, and valiant sacrifice for peace. Now, Canada was a swaggering male, a square-jawed, chiselled soldier enforcing international conformity to America’s notions of itself, of the world, of maleness.

          Steady amid so much painterly commotion, poised equidistantly from both braggadocio and diffidence,  the standing figure in Yellow Head is having none of this.






Joanne Tod at the Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

Semaphore (2014)
oil on canvas
image courtesy nicholas metivier Gallery

          An empty, flat-ceilinged modernist office corridor stretches straight away from the viewer, between one wall that is interrupted by doorways and another fully glazed, toward a distant portal. An illuminated red exit sign, a small red device (for sounding an alarm? for unlocking the exit, perhaps?), a glass-fronted cabinet of emergency equipment in the wall with the doors--these appliances indicate that the viewer is standing on the verge of institutional space, regulated by fire marshals and the administrators of public safety codes. The shiny linoleum flooring is suitable for constant, though not punishing, traffic. On the evidence, we suspect this hallway is in a genteel institution: a yellow abstract painting decorates the wall facing the broad, tall windows.

          Carefully rendered from a snapshot taken by Tod with her cellphone’s camera, the painted picture is, on the face of it, explicit and unamused, reportorial, quotidian.  The interior that opens before the viewer seems innocent of drama and irony, symbolism and surprise. The canvas seems to depict a brightly lit, clean, deserted office hallway--end of story.

          But this is oil painting, which is never a single thing--which is always about something, or many things. Whatever else is at work within it, I think, Semaphore is about an aspiration that has haunted architectural art from the Renaissance down to the present of Joanne Tod. It is the yearning to represent the quiddity of space, the stillness, muteness, elusive eternity of built forms, in ways that free the artist and her work from the commotion, romance, clutter, allusiveness that oil painting has always invited.

          Painters cannot achieve perfect disinterest, of course, but photographers can. And it is to a certain condition of contemporary photography--the immaculately descriptive, useful, professional shot of the sort encountered in illustrated architectural magazines--that the desire of Tod’s canvases reaches out. This desire does not, cannot, attain its object, and the traces of innumerable brushstrokes, the faint, almost sub-visible wavering of the place portrayed, give away the image’s origins in handwork and the studio.

          That said, the aesthetics invoked (the angel called for, longed for) in Semaphore is that of photography, not painting; and photography is where we have to look to understand Tod’s picture.

           In an suggestive essay prompted by a church interior by Gerard Houckgeest, the Dutch architectural painter and contemporary of Rembrandt, Susan Sontag names a key element in the aesthetics of photography: “to make what is not visible, what lies just outside the visual field, a constituent--dramatically, logically--of what we see.” Tod’s painting of a neat, clear hallway equipped with emergency devices, like an architectural photograph, functions metonymically, calling to mind, “dramatically, logically,” contiguous spaces beyond the image’s visible boundaries: the rest of the building, the whole campus governed by regulations and traditions and conventions.  

          But just as Tod’s painting implies a world “just outside the visual field,” so the hallway is hollow, devoid of students, teachers, staff--anyone, and anything apart from the yellow painting. Sontag notes, of Houckgeest’s pictures of near-empty churches, how all such vacated places “become ‘metaphysical’ interiors in de Chirico’s sense; that is, they speak of a necessary absence of the human. They cannot help but suggest this pathos, this sense of enigma.”

          Tod titled her show Slipstream. Curator Tom Smart, in a text that accompanied  the exhibition, defined a slipstream as “the drawing effect behind a moving object that occurs when the wake of displaced air or water is moving at the same speed as the object. For Tod, the slipstream encapsulates the idea she is expressing in these paintings: visual momentums meant to lure us farther and farther into the compositions.”

          When gazing at Semaphore, the viewer’s eye was indeed “lured” down the corridor toward the open door at the end by the strong force of conventional perspective and by slightly unnerving spatial recession in which every feature of walls, ceiling and floor, from near to far away, is exactly in focus. The dominant impulse of lthe viewer--or at least this viewer---however, was not to surrender to the invitation of the converging lines, but rather to stop and scratch my head and wonder at what had just happened. The corridor was suddenly (not merely) empty, the atmosphere was freighted with what Sontag called the “pathos” and “enigma” of absence--as if a stranger with whom I was pleasantly, warmly conversing a moment ago had, without warning, abruptly broken off the dialogue, turned and disappeared through the door at the far end of the hallway.

Serpentine fire (2015)
oil on canvas
image courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery


cadmium hall (2014)
oil on canvas
image courtesy nicholas metivier gallery




Benjamin Klein at Art Toronto 2015, 23-26 October

Booth S8

Metro Toronto Convention Centre
North Building
255 Front Street West, Toronto

Until It Ends There Is No World
Oil on canvas
72" x 96"

In her booth at this year's Toronto international art exposition, Montreal dealer Joyce Yahouda showcased Canadian artist Benjamin Klein's forceful new oil paintings. I spoke with Klein about his work in mid-October. --JBM

What is your project?

To represent another world, one that resists representation. I have been painting a liminal, nocturnal world populated by ambiguously self-conscious bug-like creatures that resemble real world ones, but aren’t really like anything from where we are. They are things I can’t quite get an understanding of, I explore open possibilities about them, their identities and places.

          I paint entirely from imagination, an ambient quasi-reality in the act of coming into being, and perhaps also ending, like a subatomic event or particle explosion. I see these things as the beginning and the end of a discrete universe, similar to ours in some ways, but not in others. This is in part a spontaneous kind of envisioning, but also the result of a process of reflection and planning. Thinking things through slowly and allowing certain moments of vision to have priority both play a part.

          In truth I go through some weird things trying to figure it out and do it. This process releases a kind of energy that bears on the nature of reality, its fabric, rather than on its appearance or its normal “rules”. In other words something like a relativistic and quantum state applies, rather than one that conforms to classical mechanics. But this manifests only aesthetically. I make no scientific or supernatural claims, and effectively believe nothing.

For whom do you paint?

People who are excited and intrigued by representations of things that are normally invisible, parapsychology, dream logic entering into conscious life, phantasmagorias and visions of a sort of spirit world, are likeliest to see my work the way I do. Thinking of it formally and enjoying it is as such is fine--it is just paint, after all--but I believe my paintings are doing something else, too. They aren’t about proving a point or belonging to a system.I think of what I do at least ideally as a communicative act that is communal in nature and equally available to everyone.

What do you consider success?

A successful painting for me is hard to describe, because its effects are non-verbal in nature. The experience and memory of altered perception as a consequence of it to start, although of what exactly I wouldn’t try to predetermine for others. I find the fact of art uncanny in itself, almost as though it does and doesn’t exist per se, and the place where those states meet is where the magic happens. So a successful work manifests that in some way. When I think about Giorgione’s Tempest, I see what I mean.

Giorgione, The Tempest  (c. 1508)
Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice


What imaginary forces are at work in your painting?

All the ones I have. They don’t have a name.

What can painting tell us that writing can’t?

I believe that making imagery by hand is a primeval activity, something most children are driven to do and fascinated by, and there just are some people who never lose that drive. For them painting is a generative form of universal communication, which can be asked to say anything. But it is a habit native to our species that simply and literally cannot die, unless we all do. The death of painting is a metaphor, a useless and destructive one, but the life and existence of painting is a fact of human existence as much as our need for expression and communication through music, dance, or literature.

          By the laying in of color and the delineation of space painting engages automatically, by human volition, the visible aspects of electromagnetism and of gravity, two fundamental forces of the universe. My belief is that in so doing it gives us a valuable experience that nothing else can. Color is a fundamental way that the universe reveals its nature to us. We are both within its fabric and in the act of observing it, and that’s painting’s domain.

Where, inside or outside visual culture, do you find sustenance?

I find cultural sustenance in every artistic stream, they all flow to and from the same source. I paint, but I need music and writing just as much as art.

With whom, among contemporary painters, do you feel kinship, a sense of common purpose?

Every painter who seriously pursues the form knows how naively and pointlessly dismissed painting has been. We all get in the ring and fight, and so all deserve the same respect from that perspective. That said, I feel particular connection to painters who work urgently, by which I don’t mean in a frenzy or “automatically.” I mean the ones comfortable being honest about the emotional territory they want to explore, allowing that to show meaningfully.

What have you learned from your recent painting?

That I have to let it surprise me. Otherwise, it doesn’t work.

To read more about Benjamin Klein and his project, click here.


Ghost In You
84" x 59"

Sweeter Than Ever
60" x 50"

Time to Kill
60" x 48"

40" x 50"

36" x 48"



Stephen Andrews' Abstracts: Some Afterthoughts    


butterfly effect 5, oil on canvas (2014)
image courtesy of paul petro contemporary art

Coming to the end of Stephen Andrews POV, the 15-year survey shown this spring and summer at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the visitor landed in a room hung with six of the artist’s recent abstract canvases. Toronto Star critic Murray Whyte, in his review, described  the paintings he found there as “beautiful but eerie.” “I call [the room] my Rothko chapel,” quipped Andrews to Whyte, “except I’m not a depressive.”

          While anyone would be foolish to make much of Andrews’ off-hand remark, it’s hard not to hear diffidence in the joke--as if the artist meant to charmingly, but pointedly, deflect the conversation with Whyte away from things he didn’t want to talk about.

          If that were the case, nobody could blame Andrews for his reticence. The final gallery was a surprise, begging for explanation of the sort the artist may well have been unprepared to give. (Perhaps he was as surprised as everyone else.) The essays and interviews in curator Kitty Scott’s catalogue only hinted at what such an explanation might look like. At first glance, anyway, little in the painting done before a couple of years ago--the fascinating, politically charged, restlessly energetic narrative art-making that dominated the show--seemed to lay the ground for the sedate non-objective images in the last room.

          I can’t say I know what this work was about. Andrews may have to do a lot more of it before its creative logic becomes really obvious. But I can say that these six paintings were indelibly stamped on my mind when I first saw them, and I returned to the exhibition before its late-August closing to look at and think of them again.

          Why did I go back? Not because these paintings were “eerie.” In fact, more secular, materialistic, anti-symbolist artworks have never been made.  Each image in the series called Butterfly Effect--a reference, a wall-text said, to chaos theory, of which I know nothing--were simply composed of a few large overlapping oblongs of translucent oil glaze. These shiny rectangular expanses, we learn from the catalogue, were created by pressing paint-laden pieces of Mylar on primed canvas, in the manner of a monoprint. Thus, the expressive, signature brushstroke on the picture plane--so important to many painters these days--was suppressed.

          Which is not to say the coloured rectangles were featureless. The transference of glaze to canvas was attractively imperfect, leaving blotches, stains, puddles and other casualties on the surface. Only machines are capable of flawless performance, Andrews has noted, and he intends to expose frankly the fact that an accident-prone human, not a mechanical device, has made his art.

          But machines screw up, too. The agitations visible in Andrews’ paint-work were less like mistakes made by beginning (or clumsy) watercolourists than like the false registration, smudging and smearing and tearing that happen when an automated printing press goes haywire. The blemishes on the surface of these paintings, that is, recalled errors in a technical procedure, not the foibles of the human hand. They were reminders of the fallible realities, rather than the progressive myths, of the age of mechanical reproduction.

           Nothing insisted on the connection of these paintings with printing technologies more firmly, of course, than Andrews’ choice of colours--which also linked these recent pieces back to his work before now. The palette was a version, in luminous oils, of the flat, spiritless ink-hues used in four-colour printing. The colours of the so-called CMYK model are cyan, or greenish blue; printer’s magenta, a purplish red; and intense (“process”) yellow--with black, though not a colour, usually added as the fourth element (“K”) in the series. Kitty Scott believed that the cores of the Butterfly Effect canvases, where the cyan, magenta and yellow overlays coincided, were “black.” They were not, as Alexander Nagel correctly observed in his catalogue essay. The mixture of the three colours produces a turbid, thick, unresolved darkness, not true black, which has to be added if outlining is wanted. As far as I can tell, Andrews never applied real black paint to any of the Butterfly Effect paintings.

          In their migration from printers’ ink to luxurious fine-art oil, from workshop to studio, from magazine kiosk to museum, the hard-hat pigments that constitute cyan and magenta and process yellow almost attained middle-class respectability. Almost--but not quite. I think Murray Whyte was mistaken when he called the paintings “beautiful.” It made them sound bourgeois, which they weren’t. The works asked for other adjectives--ones more appropriate to creatures that have emerged on the vexed frontier where Pop Art meets Minimalism, where colour-field abstraction meets mass production. Words such as: imposing, as large machines often are. Or queer, insofar as they burlesque the Abstract Sublime and ironize the macho (and exhausted) post-painterly languages of the transcendent, Or cool, in the slang sense, and in terms of philosophical temperature. Or interesting, the way every photograph is.



linocut on non-archival pages from the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary
edition of 15
image courtesy of barbara edwards contemporary art


William Kentridge at Barbara Edwards Contemporary Art, Toronto.


          By 1975, when William Kentridge began his exuberantly prolific career in Johannesburg, the technological artifacts and appliances he was to illustrate in drawings, sculptures, films and prints were already, or soon to be, obsolete. This feature of the subject-matter has been noted by numerous critics. The artist himself commented on it in a 2002 issue of October magazine.

          In a short, jotty 2013 version of this text, Kentridge describes in scatter-shot fashion his liking for old-fashioned devices. For example, he observes, of Bakelite rotary-dial telephones,  a fit between the object and his preferred drawing medium: “The blackness of Bakelite and the darkness of charcoal seem made for each other.” He believes “all mechanical technologies are coherent in a way that electronic technologies are not….There is something directly ‘drawable’ about mechanical as opposed to electronic technology.”

          Biography, too, plays a part in his choice--perhaps a greater part than he acknowledges in this text. “There is a certain familiarity and reassurance in a Bakelite phone, for example, which has to do with the certainties of childhood (the phone that I depict is one from my own childhood).”

          Stepping back from his immediate history, he remarks on “this persistence of the old” in  his art (and in expressive culture), which, he believes, has the power to contradict colonial mentality. “A refusal to move with the times is also a refusal to accept the neat precepts or preoccupations of the metropolitan centre--far off, and often mistakenly assuming that its concerns are the only ones appropriate to everywhere else.” Portraying a digital phone would be “very much about fashion, style and temporality.” As Kentridge understands the gesture, portraying a rotary phone, a manual typewriter or a reel-to-reel tape recorder in an age dominated by digital media is counterstatement against empire, resistance to the juggernaut of modernization.

          Or at least to certain kinds of modernization. He is not a reactionary. Both before and since the end of apartheid in the 1990s, he has supported the evolution of his South African homeland into a modern, liberal, multicultural society.

          Which is to say that Kentridge has picked and chosen from modernity’s offerings--accepting, for instance, one of modernity’s political formulations (social democracy) while rejecting, both as subjects and as means of art-making, the ever-new gadgets produced and marketed  by late capitalist industry.

          Everyone who dwells in a city shaped by political, cultural and technological modernity, of course, makes an accommodation with this mixture of complex forces, and lives within the terms of the contract.  Some tolerate computers, but not network television, atheism, mass-produced food or another offspring of secularization. Many cherish representative government as a concept, but do not vote. There are people who will not own a smart phone, and Kentridge is hardly alone among contemporary artists in his reluctance to represent one.

          In fact, his preference for obsolete telephones, writing machines, recording devices and espresso-pots is perhaps best read as a manifestation of the archaism that has been endemic within modern art and modernist culture since the birth of modernity itself. Start looking for it in the present era, and you will encounter the long gaze backward in the eyes of countless urban Westerners, both layfolk and artists. This gazing into the distance is a defining disposition of the age. The transcended past is regarded constantly--at times with affection (camp), or with hunger for more vivid affective life (primitivism in all its varieties), with desperate nostalgia for a presumably lost frankness, simplicity, integrity (fundamentalisms of all sorts, including materialistic ones)--or, in the case of Kentridge, with yearning for “the certainties of childhood.”

          Such yearning is not dishonourable or necessarily pathological (whatever Freud thought), and it can be, and is in Kentridge’s art, vigorous and wonderfully productive.

          But more than the security of boyhood’s busy, intelligent, warm Jewish household--his parents were distinguished anti-apartheid lawyers during the final decades of the old regime--is denoted by the familiar, old-fashioned typewriters and telephones he presents.  The objects are not rendered with optical certitude, as they would be in a manufacturer’s catalogue. Kentridge’s restless delineation of out-of-date machines--his rapid, risky manner, the urgent sketching and scrawling-- registers, not objective solidity, but an acutely keen consciousness of their (and his, and our) existential fragility.

          Artists learn this sensitivity and resonance early, if at all. Kentridge appears to have acquired these traits by the time he emerged, aged 20, on the Johannesburg arts scene. One of the “certainties of childhood,” of growing up with passionate opponents of the racial state, was the constant awareness of contingency that must have pervaded life at home--the family’s awareness of itself as something opposite South Africa’s official social imaginary, the recognition of uncertainty as the only certainty. Be that as it may, the grown-up artist’s prints--often gawkily funny, sometimes excessive, sometimes as laconic as Chinese ideograms, touched by a certain melancholy--speak of deep experience with uncertainty, which can be another word for freedom.