Some published articles and reviews, 2005-2015

untitled (2015)
image courtesy of Paul Petro Contemporary Art

 

André Ethier at Paul Petro Contemporary Art, Toronto

          As recently as early 2014, when André Ethier last showed his oils at Paul Petro, the small oblongs of Masonite could still, on occasion, be awful in an intriguing way, like the behaviours of Freud’s Rat Man--puzzling, crudely libidinal, obsessive, screwed up. But by then the artist had begun to curb the the aggression and oddity that previously fuelled his painting project. He had acquired a new resource, Matisse, and his art was becoming “kinda French”--a phrase he uses for both himself and his product--and being softened and de-kinked by Mediterranean breezes.

          With New Grapes, Ethier’s summer, 2015, display at Paul Petro, this transfiguration of his painting’s sense from raw to cooked, from stress to luxe, calme et volupté, was largely complete. The colours were dry and mineral, but fragrant, like scented face-powder. The grape bunches, dense foliage, fruits deposited on fin-de-siècle tables were lush, succulent, at their peak and not even slightly past it. A bearded gentleman--Ethier once told me that all his male figures are self-portraits--relaxed in a flourishing garden. The prevailing atmosphere was sunny and sub-tropical. There was not a cancerous nose or rotting vegetable or livid bouquet in the show, or much else to remind gallery-goers of Ethier’s usual painting in the first decade of this century.

          But in a couple of works, a character reappeared from Ethier’s earlier tradition of self-portrayal as urban bum. He is a hairy hobo in dark glasses and dressed in striped pyjamas (or a prison uniform), who is found cavorting in gravity-free space with clones of himself, and, once, lounging improbably, and quite out of place, beside an opulently arrayed table in a fusty parlor.

           In the latter painting, the two personae that Ethier has assumed over the course of his 15-year career--the earlier one angry, the later one peaceable; one bitter, the other generously sensuous; one resentful, the other almost respectable--met and recognized each other. If their rendezvous seemed forced and slightly uncomfortable, it was because the painting united in a single frame two sensibilities (or creative strategies for engaging the world--one critical, one decorative) that normally disdain each other.

          What is to be made of the change in Ethier’s art during the last few years? Is it--to use a “kinda French” word, since no plainer English one means what I want--so much cultural embourgeoisement? And if so--so what?

          Considered as craft and knack with materials, his picture-making has never been better. The best of his compositions are vigorous, profane as a beach holiday, inhabited by modern painting’s durable symbols of heterosexual arousal, including grapes swollen with sap and naked, ripe female bottoms. Were I a more rigorous feminist than I am, or were I an admirer of only those painters who abstemiously reject every inherited conceit and figure, I might dismiss Ethier’s new art because it gladly, unquestionally aligns itself with the sensuously relaxed aesthetic regime of Matisse, and adopts even the topics--still life, the domestic interior, the female figure--that Matisse treated so memorably.

          But being neither much of a feminist nor an avant-gardist of any sort, I generally appreciated what Ethier did in New Grapes. In my view, the frank, rapidly but deftly drawn paintings there have earned a noteworthy spot in the heavily crowded field of contemporary artworks that claim to be fertilized by Matisse.

          That said, I missed, in New Grapes,  the obnoxiousness, the toxic colours and sick cartooning which had interested me keenly when I wrote my 2013 essay on Ethier for Canadian Art. (Text here.) These obstreperous qualities were already disappearing by that time, but enough downright orneriness remained in the work to reward close attention.

          At first glance, this orneriness seemed driven by a will to frustrate almost everybody’s expectations about what “good art’ should look like. I do mean everybody: toney formalist and post-modern critics, friends of “normal” painting and fans of photography, art-world leftists and rightists, feminists and the new-media crowd and, of course, your Aunt Harriet. If some writers for the dailies liked Ethier’s neurotic, emotionally wasted pictures, it was probably because, as I and my fellow journalists know, the uppity always make good copy.

          But had our curiosity been grinding away in the right gear, we might have hesitated a long moment before visiting either blame or praise on Ethier’s early artworks. For in their bluntness and brashness, in their grating strangeness, these tableaux, portraits, still-lifes, hysterical or desperately banal genre paintings insisted on their right to be given time, to be taken seriously, to be about something. They smelled like the bitter ash of brains burnt out by consumerism, the culture of disposability, mass media’s numbing of affect. They offered glimpses of the ordinary urban world, its things and marginal people, as seen by this century’s citizens, especially young ones, who had been numbed, discarded, exhausted by the seethe of mass culture.

          At least I think it’s mass culture that did them in. Perhaps I am merely projecting onto this art my own theories and preoccupations. For his part--in the painting itself, I mean--Ethier declined to identify the forces that had infected his times with dry ennui, hungover torpor. Instead, throughout the years before his adoption of Matisse’s manner, he created a series of pictures--some of them unforgettable--that document a despairing spirituality common enough in the urban West. If he found no cure, so be it: painters do not need to be saviours. What he did--the art and evidence he made and showed--was good enough.

 

--August, 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Things: Ed Zelenak

A visit with the well-known Ontario artist on the eve of his career-spanning survey at Museums London, spring, 2015. The freshness of a certain materialism

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Catalogue essay,  Museums london, 2015

 

Glories of Islam

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About Johnson Chou

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canadian interiors, spring, 2014

Absolute 

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Infrastructure

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Canadian art, fall, 2012

Space Shots

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canadian art, 2011

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catalogue essay, battat gallery, montreal, 2011 

Hylozoic Ground

Canada's presentation at the Venice Biennale's twelfth international exhibition of architecture, summer and fall, 2010. 

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Canadian architect, 2010

Extreme Painting

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Magna Graecia

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International architecture and design, winter, 2009

Thomas Nozkowski, Urban Painter

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Picturing the Dead: Jack Burman

In his brilliant photographs of the dead, Toronto artist Jack Burman portrays with dignity and gravity the victims of imiperialism, poverty and forgetfulness

Canadian art
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Modernism in Wychwood Park and Forest Hill

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International architecture and design
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Answers: A fiction about John Brown

An interview, partly imaginary, partly true, with the Toronto painter John Brown: in which the artist tells of his struggle to paint, to live in his skin, to live in the world of wars and strife

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Gehry's Gift: the renovated Art Gallery of Ontario

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Azure
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Ydessa Hendeles’ Photographs

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Ciel Variable 78
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The Liberal Sky

Richard Rhodes' depictions of skies and clouds over the Grand River valley in southwestern Ontario affirm a progressive view of the human universe.

The Kitchener-waterloo art gallery
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The Garden of Subjection: Jeff Wall

The artist turns critic in illuminating essays on contemporary art and culture: a book of Wall's writings published by the Museum of Modern Art.

The Walrus
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Peter von Tiesenhausen: Sightings

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The Michael Gibson Gallery
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Recreating CAMH

The architectural transformations of Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health from Victorian madhouse to 1970s hospital, and now to a twenty-first century urban village for treating the afflictions of the spirit.

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Finding Karin Davie

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Canadian Art
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The Crystal at the Royal Ontario Museum

Daniel Libeskind radical redefinition of the traditional spaces of museum exhibition: a review of his addition to Toronto's venerable showcase of the arts and sciences.

Azure
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God and the Secular City

The writings of three Christian thinkers who have engaged the secular city, and the possibilities they open for an authentic urban spirituality.

The Catholic Register's 2007 Henry Somerville Lecture
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High Definition: The New Skyscraper

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Walking off the Map: Iain Sinclair

A contemporary English psychogeographer discovers London and other sites by pacing them off, translating his experiences into arresting prose.

The Walrus, May, 2006
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Stirring Culture

Reflections on a series of lectures on contemporary culture by leading Canadian and international thinkers in Calgary. The lineup included such well-known figures as designer Bruce Mau, artist and educator Tim Rollins and urbanist Charles Landry.

The alberta college of art and design
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Alan Glicksman and Painting

A long note about the artist's people and animals: figuration and expression in the era of the photographic

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engine gallery, toronto
October, 2005