Hamilton Hamilton wherefore art thou?


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Paintings in Flux

I envy painters who can make a drawing then translate that drawing to a painting. In all the years I’ve been painting, that approach has been foreign to me. In fact I don’t make many drawings at all.  For me it’s all one. When I’m on, drawing is painting, painting is thinking.

The fact is that even after all these years I feel like I’m starting at the beginning every time I go to work in the studio. It’s still a big mystery to me.

I have several paintings going in the studio right now – various smallish sizes – and I have them all over the place down there. It’s almost overwhelming to me. Some I’ve been working on for a while. Others I’ve just introduced into the mix.

I walked down there the other night and thought what the hell am I doing in here? This is, however, not unfamiliar. I often go into a group of paintings with a bunch of preconceived ideas about the next paintings, and the first thing I do is kill off all those preconceived ideas. How can you get anything done like that? I don’t know.


The Mystery

I notice I become increasingly inarticulate when it comes to talking about my painting, almost as if I don’t want it to be infected by words. Words can sully a painting and cling to it and drag it down.

A few painters have a gift for words as well as paint. Francis Bacon is one of those:

“The creative process is a cocktail of instinct, skill, culture and a highly creative feverishness. It is not like a drug; it is a particular state when everything happens very quickly, a mixture of consciousness and unconsciousness, of fear and pleasure; it’s a little like making love, the physical act of love.”

Yeah. Like he said.

Ornette Coleman by Eugene Knapik, 1997.
Ornette Coleman by Eugene Knapik, 1997 (private collection).

Starting a new set of paintings is a strange experience. I look at works I’ve completed  as if somebody else painted them. How did I get there? Although I thought them up, I applied the paint, it seems that I’m helpless to answer.

I have 7 canvases set up in my little studio ready to go and I’m stalling.


A Lost Forest painting not in my spring exhibition

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy Paintings from the Lost Forest exhibition this spring at Yumart featured oil paintings with a high level of impasto.  I tried to make full use of a variety of surface qualities and textures as I built up the images over time.

However, there is a painting called Lost Forest from 2011 that has a much different feel, a different language, that used different materials and techniques. Like some of the later paintings, this one is a small diptych, but in character it is much different than the others. I make no apologies for making some paintings that may seem like anomalies within the larger body of my work.

This painting was built in layers over a series of sessions just like the others, and while there are some textural elements betraying some of the history of the image, it was mostly built with layers of acrylic paint thinned with water. In fact I recall painting it with a brush in one hand and a spray bottle in the other. There is no medium or varnish applied on top of the finished painting and it has a surface that is matte but still has some depth about it.

I was reminded of this painting last weekend, foraging for mushrooms in the drizzling rain in a drenched forest at Go Home Lake. Perhaps it was a case of life imitating art. The forms are obscured, dripping. They seem to me to be on the cusp of becoming something else, but what exactly I can’t say.

This painting is an orphan. It’s one of the Lost Forest pieces, but anybody playing “which of these  pictures doesn’t belong” would pick this one from among the others in a flash. I like it because it’s an orphan and because I used different tools and techniques within the same kind of thematic backdrop. I have this one here at 27th Street. I don’t know if it will ever be exhibited – although perhaps one day I’ll do an exhibition of paintings that don’t quite fit in.


Summer Salon at Yumart

I’m participating in an upcoming Summer Salon exhibition at Yumart.

Opening Reception: Saturday July 26th, 2014 2:00 – 5:00 p.m. Exhibition continues to Saturday August 16th.

This is a show that will be packed full of work by the following participating artists:  Isaac Applebaum, Christopher Arnoldin, Karen Miranda Augustine, Carlos Bique, Richard Bonderenko, Robert Chandler, Gary Michael Dault, Tim Deverell, Larry Dickison, Stephen Forsyth, Ashley Johnson, Stuart Kinmond, Eugene Knapik, Lee Lamothe, Sandra Lewis, Erin MacKeen, Mahmoud Meraji, Wayne Moore, Dawn Mourning, Tim Noonan, Francisco A.G. Rocha, Brent Roe, Joe Rosenblatt, Robert Schwager, Peter Templeman, Deirdre Tara Whelan, Y.M. Whelan and a.k.a. yum. Also included in the salon will be works from the yumart permanent collection including Ronald Bloore, David Bolduc and Richard Gorman.

I will be exhibiting a couple blasts from the past – 2 woodcut prints from the series I did way back in 1987. Perhaps there is a reader or two who remembers these from my exhibition of these woodcuts at a little storefront gallery on Harbord St, back in the day. Since then, the remaining prints have mostly been hidden away in the vaults. Those of you who enjoyed my recent Paintings from the Lost Forest exhibition might find it interesting to see what I was up to in the studio back in the 80s. I like to think that these woodcuts still hold up today. At least, I still enjoy looking at them.

Unfortunately, I won’t be able to make it to the opening reception for this show, as I’ll be up in Uxbridge for a family wedding. However, I will be dropping by the gallery from time to time during the exhibition and if anyone wants to meet me there, email me.

A few thoughts on Paintings from the Lost Forest

Regular readers know that I have a painting show happening now at Yumart, here in Toronto. I don’t usually write much about my paintings. I like to let them speak for themselves. However, I was asked quite a few questions about the works at the opening last Saturday, and subsequently, I made a few notes about the paintings I’d like to share.

My paintings often take a very long time to stew, and I’ve been working on some of the paintings in this exhibition on and off for years. I work on several paintings at once, invent them and reinvent them as I go, without any pre-planning or preliminary drawings. Sometimes I’ll hit a dead end with a painting and I’ll put it aside. Days or weeks or months later, I’ll see it differently and add it back into the mix. I paint on the floor or on the wall or leaning on a paint can. I turn them upside down and I turn them sideways. At times I can work for a very long time and never seem to get anywhere, and yet at other times, several paintings come together at once.

The whole business remains a mystery to me. When I’m starting new works and I look at my last set of paintings, my usual reaction is, how did I make these things? I think that is one of the things that draws me back to painting again and again and again.

Some people have commented that these are landscape paintings. I don’t think of them quite in those terms, but no doubt there are elements of the land in my paintings. For starters they’re built up over time like the duff on a forest floor. In the forest, of course, the layers rot away and tell the story of the seasons. In my paintings, it is ideas that are built up, and in some cases scraped away. In the tondo, The Source, I had to use a Dremel tool to remove some previous bad ideas, that’s how pervasive they were. Bad ideas can be stubborn.

The paintings also reflect my interest in mycology (I wander the forests with my Newfoundland dogs, looking for tasty edible mushrooms), entomology (I learned about mayflies, caddisflies, stoneflies and a variety of terrestrial insects while chasing trout with a fly rod in many different streams in Canada and the USA), and the interaction of all kinds of cyclical things in nature and how they relate to one another – the life cycle of mayflies and the feeding habits of trout and swallows, for instance – or the fascinating inter-relationships between fungi and other fungi, and fungi and trees and other plants.

This phenology isn’t something that translates to painting in any kind of literal way. In fact, someone asked me the other day what inspired a certain painting and I found it difficult to answer. I know that my habit of looking at nature close-up has inspired some new painterly language for me, but when I’m painting I’m dealing with forms and colours and textures and surface qualities and at the same time ideas that often conflict and are often coloured by doubt. I’m changing one idea into another, or I’m scraping off an idea that has no legs. Sometimes the paint is wet and changes muddy up the space. At other times the paint is building up so thick that the texture begins to dictate form. I’m working on several paintings at more or less at the same time, and a move I make on one of them can in an instant change the direction of a number of paintings.

The title, Paintings from the Lost Forest, obviously refers to the physical forest, but titles like Lost Forest, or Forest of No Return or The Source or as I have titled some older paintings, Underground, also refers, at least in my mind, to what I’ll call the “well-spring”, that place in my imagination where I’m able to make that magical leap from paint to painting.

I title just about all of my paintings. In Paintings from the Lost Forest there are some repeated titles – Lost Forest for instance, and also Forest of No Return. It wasn’t that I was trying to make a series of paintings with those titles. It was more that I found myself grouping some of the paintings in my mind while I was making them. I borrowed the title for The Source from Courbet. Forest of No Return also has a reference. It comes from a song by that title in the Disney film, Babes in Toyland. One more note on titles – I’ve been asked about Afternoon Tea with AJ – who is AJ? AJ refers to the painter Asger Jorn, co-founder of CoBrA. A form that emerged when I was working on that painting reminded me of something I remembered from one of Jorn’s paintings, and so I gave a nod to him in the title.

Most of my recent paintings (with a few exceptions), have been smallish, falling squarely into a tradition of “easel painting”, although I don’t own an easel. I suppose small paintings have been very much out of fashion for a long time now, perhaps going back to the breakthroughs made by the American AbEx painters. Fortunately, I’ve never been too hung up on fashion. I like that these paintings can hang on a wall in somebody’s living room or rec room or wherever. They don’t need to have a museum environment. Paintings don’t have to have a large physical size to have a large presence, and I like that too.


For those who can’t get to the gallery…

Photographs of my paintings will give you an idea of what the paintings are like, but my work has a lot of variations in texture and surface quality that are really hard to see in a photograph on the internet. Still they still provide an opportunity for people to review and refer to the images, and for my friends out of town, a chance to see works they might otherwise not be able to see at all.

So, I’ve created a blog page that features a slide show including all the paintings in my exhibition at Yumart (and one that is at the gallery but not hanging). I’ve included titles and dimensions and the year they were painted – many of the paintings are very new but there are some from 2013 and also 3 older paintings from 2006 that I included with this group. I had a version of this page up the other day by request and I’ve updated it and made a couple minor corrections.

New paintings by YM Whelan

This has been a busy Saturday – I’ve been on the go most of the day. But I didn’t want to miss the opening of YM Whelan’s exhibition at Yumart (101 Spadina Toronto). Yvonne has put together a great collection of new paintings. Lots of old and newer friends out at the opening. I was only able to stick around for a beer and a little good conversation – but I’ll be able to get a closer look at Yvonne’s exhibition when I bring my paintings in, since my solo show is next up at Yumart (April 26 mark your calendars).

A Sneak Peak (or, what does he do down there?)

IMG_0283I’ve been working on several smallish paintings in my little basement studio. Some of these are paintings that have been in play down there for some time (in a couple cases, for years). I even took one painting I thought I had finished some time ago, and re-imagined it.

Here is a painting I finished up today. It’s called Back Woods. I painted it with oil paint on canvas, built up over many sessions. I think it’s something like 9X12″.

The way it goes in the studio…

Some days I envy painters who have the ability to preconceive their paintings. I knew a painter who would make a planning drawing for each painting and even label areas with descriptions of texture and colour. These were like road-maps to his paintings. Then he would attempt to translate the drawing into a painting, coping with all the problems that entailed along the way. I can’t do that.

Part of what keeps me painting is the adventure of it all. I go in without any road-map and without an exit strategy. I don’t make preliminary drawings. There are no dress rehearsals. Believe me when I say there are all kinds of problems with this approach. Sometimes paintings bog down for months or years. I build these things up in layers, creating a new layer with each painting session. They feel very earthy and organic to me. Some paintings need many sessions and many layers before a final image emerges.

This may sound strange but I liken these built-up, layered paintings to compost heaps.

The Source, 2013
The Source, 2013

In a recent tondo called The Source I had reached a point where the layers had become unmanageable. I had worked on this painting off and on for years and it wasn’t going anywhere. I felt the need to pull back some of the layers to create a refreshed painting surface. I went at it with a dremmel tool, using various cutting bits and sanding wheels to strip back layers of paint, exposing hints of ideas from an earlier stage of the painting. I didn’t know if this stripping back business was going to accomplish anything or not. I guess I had reached a cul de sac and needed to open things up again.

Once I opened up the surface, it seemed like the picture was painting itself. I completed the painting in a matter of hours. That’s the way it goes sometimes.