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Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Persistence of Abstract Painting in Toronto

The following text is an excerpt from an unpublished article, the full title: "Dead Metaphor: The Persistence of Abstract Painting in Toronto" written in May 2007

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Can the American abstract template be reborn as an autonomous Canadian model?

Can the Canadian dream to see the global economy and discourse of abstraction shift to become centered in Toronto come true?

A micro sampling of emergent trends in the work of three Toronto abstract artists and one New York abstract artist may offer a litmus test for the arrival of such a shift. Starting with an introduction of a new wave of Toronto abstractionists: Tasha Aulls, William Griffiths, and Meghan McKnight are each represented in Toronto by P|M Gallery. The gallery is uniquely situated in the east end of the city setting it geographically apart from established west end galleries specializing in Canadian abstract art. All three artists employ abstraction for individual purpose.

Tasha Aulls work basks in that ambiguous zone of abstract semiotic bliss. Refusing to latch onto either microcosmic or macrocosmic references wholeheartedly, Aulls’ paintings act as tactile emotions, shifting like the weather. Aware of abstract paradigms, Aulls’ theoretical strategy is to ignore history outright. This is both an unexpected option and a bold slippage. By refusing to associate her work with the tenets of any past practice or hero, the work is allowed new breathing space to form and develop. While the general aesthetic is clearly recognizable as optimistic free form, the detailed incising scars the purity of the template.

Aulls001
Tasha Aulls "Untitled", 2007, Oil on Mylar, 21" x 24"

Like most abstract artists, Tasha Aulls wants to have her cake and to eat it too– to visually capture a freedom of painterly expression looks all too familiar as the textbook standards. What is most moving is her sincerity of approach. Aulls paints as if to have us believe these magic tricks are being performed for the first time. Her imagery feeds into our longing for a synergistic meld of autonomous liberty and applied paint. As it happens, Aulls is off to Europe in the Fall for graduate studies at the prestigious Goldsmiths College. It will be interesting to witness how European influences affect her personal abstract approaches and aesthetic.

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William Griffiths "Untitled II", 2006, Acrylic on Board, 24" x 24"

William Griffiths’ work appears as abstract photography returning to the material of paint. Employing a similarly carefree laissez-faire attitude to painting precedents, Griffiths’ approach to abstraction is a corporeal, empirical fascination with the way paint and surface has the infinite ability to create illusory three-dimensional space– the oldest trick in the book. Yet again, the oldest is reborn as the newest and these paintings celebrate this perpetual marketing cycle of the unreal. High saturation reads as illustrations of reproduced relics, which, in and of itself, makes for the best paint about paint storyline coming home again.

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Meghan McKnight "Tetsu Drosera", 2006, Acrylic on Canvas, 10" x 10"

The organic paintings of Meghan McKnight are more difficult to locate in past painting sources. They appear as botanical and biological classification paintings shifting from the realm of realism into sculptural relief work. It is as if McKnight’s mission is to locate new species of abstract paintings; however, this ironic read is only my recommendation. McKnight too is sincere in her application of abstraction to elicit subtle responses in the viewer– again an appreciation of the intricacies of nature and the delicate factors that transform living forms. Here we truly find a new growth of the abstract.

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Joshua Abelow "Narcissism (Black & Pink)", 2006, Oil and Acrylic on Linen, 84" x 48"


The New York abstractionist is Joshua Abelow. Once the assistant for Ross Bleckner–Abelow’s apprenticeship with the undisputed champion of revitalized contemporary abstraction makes him a contender as formidable as his mentor. Abelow’s work is only lightweight in its reductionist tendencies. Ironically, his first solo exhibition was at P|M Gallery in Toronto and he is completing graduate studies at Cranbrook Academy of Art where Charles Pachter studied– this is where any Canadian connections end. Abelow’s early work celebrated graphic line with the subtle brushwork only visible in the original works– similar to Lichtenstien’s and Modrian’s surprising painterliness. Throughout his early career, Abelow steadily progressed a personal narrative as his graphic code. As his paintings became more esoteric his subject matter became more subjective with the culmination of this story now in its climatic chapters– large self-portraits and the formal investigation of narcissism as painting itself. This is American abstraction at its best. It is about nothing but a pure version of itself. The work draws from every East Coast great with no inhibition because it is proudly authentic. This will always be the New York edge.

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