Extreme Painting: Report from Montreal

Works by Chris Kline

Photo: Richard-Max Tremblay

Courtesy Galerie René Blouin

       “Archaeologist of morning”: This lovely phrase was invented 40 years ago by Charles Olson to avoid calling the poet a “writer”--a term he disliked--and, on the positive side, to indicate what he believed the enterprise of poetry should be: an ongoing excavation of the ancient sites. scattered across the geography of imagination, where the stories, songs and narrative architectures of the world’s civilizations emerged.
       As I learned from the most involving works in the galaxy of Montreal exhibitions presented this summer under the general title of Extreme Painting, some contemporary Canadian artists, though not all those represented here, have taken up what we might call an archaeology of twilight. It’s not Olson’s great dawn-time that fascinates them. It’s rather the long dusk of modernist form-giving that extended from 1945 to around 1980: the era of Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, Conceptualism, Neo-Expressionism, and of the innovative variations on these strategies developed in Montreal during the period. This was the final time, that is, when the strong fairy-tales of Western art history and criticism made sense to artists as compelling narratives in the making of canvases.
       In this group of shows, for example, the Last Painting--perhaps the most provocative, versatile character in late modernism’s brilliant mythology--makes several appearances. Among the most notable of these is the suite of ten sombre monochrome paintings on paper (1999) by Fernand Leduc, 94, whose roots lie decades deep in the fertile soil of advanced Montreal abstraction. The serial nature of this work lends it a familiar modernist pathos, the sense of heroic exertion in the endless task of trying to bring painting to a conclusion that is always just out of reach. 
       Several younger artists here return to this primal scene of hoped-for and always frustrated consummation, painting the same abstract picture again and again. The atmosphere of a lost world gathers close around the three painted wooden elements of Mathieu Gaudet’s Parages (2010) and other serial pieces in these shows.
       But a few artists, while accepting the modernist logic of the Last Painting, have sought a position beyond it, one long ago mapped out by Conceptual Art. Jacques Marchand, for instance, forthrightly severs his connection with historical painting by dispensing with paint altogether, and covering his large canvases with handsome skins of beach sand and pigment. Chris Kline pushes this reductive (and very modern) break with history to a farther limit when he rids his work of both canvas and paint, and stretches unpainted, translucent dressmakers’ poplin over unadorned frames. Kline’s pensive constructions, devoid of most traces of the traditional studio’s noble materials, leave only dimly visible stretchers to remind the viewer of his art’s continuity with painting’s venerable history.
       The gestures of Marchand and Kline and numerous others belong to what I am calling the archaeology of modernism’s twilight. In using this term, I mean no disrespect to the artists or their work: The career of modern painting during the period when the grand art-historical story still had full authority is full of implications that can be fruitfully teased out and amplified indefinitely. That said, Extreme Painting would be disappointing if it featured only the results of such digging in the rich ground of the twentieth century--if it did not also present evidence of thoughtful engagement with the very radical urban culture of the twenty-first.
       As it happens, such evidence is prominent throughout Extreme Painting. It is found in the anxious stylistic nomadism of Justin Stephens, in Kim Dorland’s catastrophic portraits and brutalist landscapes, in Patrick Lundeen’s fetishistic mask-shaped canvases--facial disguises, one imagines, for the elaborate shape-shifting rituals people perform on the public stage of everyday existence. The extremes in our experience of highly sexualized mass culture, and our own sexualities, are registered in the muscular ecstasies of Allison Schulnik’s paintwork, the hyperaesthetic exquisiteness of Wil Murray’s abstracts, in Andre Ethier’s neurasthenic, distraught figures. The abrupt, disorienting shifts of scale, the ceaseless collisions among economies of information, that characterize contemporary metropolitan life are mirrored in Benjamin Klein’s contentious, fiercely intelligent pile-ups of imagery and conceptual gaming. And Janet Werner’s laconic women are the strangers we run into on the street-- sketchily remembered, if at all, and only then if we spin some fiction or erotic fantasy around them.
       The work I have too-briefly alluded to argues effectively, persuasively for the primacy of painting among the modes of artistic communication about what matters--after a generation during which painting was largely marginalized by photography and especially the digital image. None of this art is easy; but neither is it difficult to understand or shocking, as modern painting once surely was. Most of it is chronologically new, but not new in the explosive sense in which the historical avant-garde understood that word. Rather, we recognize in this painting an urgent, insistent presentness--an openness to the enormously absorptive, centripetal present, in its peril and excitement--and a certain existential twisting (like our own) within cultural structures and mentalities that have all the inherited prestige of the West behind them, but that are increasingly ill-fitting vessels of contemporary desire, apprehension, sensibility. 
       The most engaging artists in Extreme Painting (like the most engaging poets, architects and designers in our time) are not showing us ways out of our discontent, for there is no way out: The bridges both to the past and to the future have been dissolved by the bright, corrosive mist of pure modernity. Stranded, like the rest of us, in the present, these painters propose models for feeling, responding, creating at the churning speed of culture. This is their gift, and the gift of Extreme Painting.

A list of Montreal galleries participating in Extreme Painting can be found at http://www.galeriereneblouin.com.  The exhibitions have been coordinated by gallerist René Blouin and painter Benjamin Klein.


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