John Armstrong

Harold Feist
Gallery One, Toronto

Has anyone come along who might supplant Joan Miró as the exemplar of humour in abstract painting? 1980s Neo Geo—Ross Bleckner, Peter Halley—offered some lighter moments, but this was often in the realm of parody, which has an ironic hollow ring to it. In recent Canadian art, the work of Vancouver painter Elizabeth McIntosh embodies the kind of intrinsic humour I am thinking of: McIntosh’s loopy brushwork, candied palette and laconic patterning is comically delightful. Up to his present exhibition, one might not connect humour to the work of veteran Toronto artist Harold Feist.

Humour is in large part context and staging and Feist’s work has long been associated with the kind of earnest post-painterly abstraction in acrylic paint that celebrates painting’s formal qualities. The genre evolved through the 80s to embrace various matting agents and gels to mitigate the nasty plastic sheen of thick acrylic and add texture, countering acrylic paint’s tendency to flatten out. Over this period, no one mastered acrylic cuisine better than Feist.

The paintings in the present exhibition reiterate an ‘overall’ compositional formula familiar to abstraction. Feist spreads layered miasmas of opaqued and mysteriously frosted colour onto his canvases. In each painting, a different colour predominates: sometimes subtle chromatic buffs and greys, at other times the full-tilt, abrasive colours that only acrylic paint is capable of producing—toxic quinacridone violets, dioxaxine purples and naphthol pinks. Into this soup, Feist salt-and-peppers various bits of floating detritus soaked in high-key colour. He acquired all of these bits at a dollar store, and they are mightily evident. We find pigment-doused hair barrettes, glass marbles, sliced sponges (resembling sponge toffee), string, wooden beads (the oblong ones one finds in doorway curtains), and most comically, cotton balls — some of which come off on your clothing if you pass too near the artwork.

This is just not the sort of thing one associates with high formalist painting. What comes to mind? The Birth of the World paintings Miró executed in 1925-27. Like Feist, Miró started with a splooshy generative ground: Miró then would add coloured biomorphic shapes that often had funny little pointy bits suggestive of bodily protuberances. Feist’s cheery pigmented additions are almost engulfed by the ground, and again suggest a kind of bodily presence, or perhaps absence—a missing person—all that is left are make-up puffs, hair barrettes and half-eaten toffee.

Canadian Art, Winter 2006