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.