John Armstrong

Oliver Girling Soft Image
The Red Head Gallery, Toronto

“Soft Image” assembles arrestingly chromatic and decidedly gauzy examples from the past half-decade of Oliver Girling’s paintings, several of which span that time period with enough reglazing to give Venetian luminosity a run for its money. There is no honeyed aura enveloping Girling’s figural compositions: the exhibition is cast in frigid tones of chroma key blue and Day-Glo safety orange to create cautionary and jarring renditions of a cathode ray tube’s luminescence. In these paintings, television and other more-or-less recognizable mass-media images are crossed with cryptic references to art history, pushing us into the wily clutches of received culture.

The National Gallery at Oka (Barnett Newman/Ellen Gabriel) (1991-95) juxtaposes the silhouette of American artist Barnett Newman with a variation on a wire service image from the Oka stand-off (a bitter 1990 land dispute in Quebec over Native treaty rights) in an epic landscape setting. In the diptych’s left-hand panel, an unprepossessing Newman stands beside a police cruiser, drenched in the crimson glow of an off-stage sunset that illuminates a highway that could easily be Newman’s very red, hallmark painting, Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950-51) laid down on its back (Newman’s “zip,” now a highway dividing line). Girling heats up the heroic as it is shown in the evening news: rather than Vir Heroicus…, we think of the brouhaha surrounding the 1989 National Gallery of Canada purchase of Newman’s Voice of Fire, a painting created for the American Pavilion at Expo ‘67 (Canada’s “Camelot” era). In the right panel, a Mohawk warrior brandishes an uplifted feather (originally a rifle in the source photograph) while standing on an overturned and vanquished police mini-van. Girling transforms the bandanna-concealed Mohawk warrior into negotiator Ellen Gabriel (who held up a feather to TV cameras during the crisis). In Girling’s hands, these heroics don’t reside in an act located in a specific time or place; they are in flux. The abstract expressionist becomes the wanted man in a road flick of trumped-up art world ignominy, the anonymous Mohawk warrior a paradoxical symbol of conciliation and triumph through conflict. Camelot is dead.

In Desert Storm (Etruscan Figure) (1993), Girling lets a TV news broadcast wash over his depiction of a woman on a couch watching TV. The antagonistic gaze on the visage of Girling’s reclining female subject is reminiscent of Victorine Meurend’s facial expression in Edouard Manet’s Olympia. Girling plots out a voyeuristic triangle between the television broadcast, the depicted viewer and the painting’s actual audience. But this illusion is too fragile, the painting’s title and stern image are eclipsed by the painting’s material definition. The canvas sags on the stretcher; its shimmering horizontal lines — intended to evoke televisual imaging — dissolve into pools of linseed oil and brusquely applied hardware-store lacquer. Rather than any castigation of television’s reconstruction of conflict, the insistence on manufacture and visual seduction in Girling’s paintings frankly confesses yet another filter — painting itself.

C International Contemporary Art 54, Fall 1997