John Armstrong

Painting Disorders: Fast
520 King Street West, Toronto

We are condemned to melancholically explore either the decade into which we were born or the decades just preceding our birth. This task risks a grim tenor, as one can never really know what it was that motivated people to surround themselves with acres of beige carpeting and glossy trim (in the 1950s), row upon row of jute-suspended spider plants among pottery wheel mugs (1960s), and stretch-in-all-directions double knit yardage (1970s). Or so we would be led to believe in viewing the third, now-annual, exhibition of the six-member Toronto artist collective Painting Disorders (with this year’s addition of four guest artists). The exhibition’s sunny, renovated warehouse setting, scrupulous lighting (done pro bono by photographer Peter McCallum), and carefully interwoven installation belie the beguilingly retrospective nature of many of these paintings.

You know you’ve finally made it when the wallpaper in your apartment isn’t someone else’s choice. Elizabeth McIntosh paints what it might be like if a whole lifetime of bad wallpaper were to converge onto several mural-scaled canvases. In a palette that ranges from Pepsodent to Peter Max, and by means of an opaque projector, McIntosh has piled up motifs gleaned from superannuated wallpaper samplebooks — layer upon turgid layer, oil upon bumpy acrylic. Her projector does not always fall prey to the rigours of the repeat pattern; and structure is left at the altar of listless meanders into a deep-ish receding space of overlapping designs. This intended aesthetically abrasive location is somewhat relieved by McIntosh’s manner of execution: a bravado wet-into-wet technique; and an equally confident, but more restrained, flat colour application that reminds me — in a generative rather than derivative way — of the assured insouciance of Renée Van Halm’s brushwork. McIntosh bestows a restive calm upon the most nasty, cute, and garish ornament, inviting us to aesthetically qualify what might be designs on supermarket shopping bags, googly eyes, or frilly lattice work.

German guest artist Silke Otto-Knapp paints dexterous, washy visions of advertising and fashion photography with kid’s tempera paint on unprimed and (freehand) knife-cut drywall — on a scale that could hang over a couch. One day, in the not-so-very-distant future, her drywall’s perky grey will turn to nasty yellow, and her pigments will brown and fade. Although the images have been purloined from contemporary sources — a sweeping panorama of Marlborough Country, a wide-angle view of a Budwieser pool hall, or amateur models from a giveaway London (UK) teen magazine — they point to the myth of the American West, or to the equally typified cool of swinging London. The difficulty in locating the period from which these pictures spring is exacerbated by Otto-Knapp’s omission of the ruddy cowpoke or the jean-clad billiard crowd present in the original advertisements. Even the overweening chic of the neophyte fashion model signals omission. What is purposely not present in Otto-Knapp’s universe is any fixed origin. Like her ersatz, pentimento-ed stripe painting or her doey-eyed rendition of the pop star Beck, everything appears insistently stale-dated and swept along as mass-mediated reruns.

Angela Leach’s two small-scale, s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d - horizontal-format paintings cheerfully exude art and mass-market design citation. Her paintings are composed of intricate patterns of curvilinear, coloured lines meticulously brushed onto smooth hardboard surfaces treated with washes of acrylic paint. The many layers of paint applied to each line add slight but deliberate relief. The resulting patterning is physical and highly graphic, lending Leach’s paintings the force of something between a high-pitched, mechanical whine and a biology flow chart. Her careful work foregrounds labour, suggesting the manufacture and structure of woven cloth, and connecting textile design to the recent history of painting. (Leach’s day-job is production handweaving.) There is a studied playfulness in Leach’s work that suggests a web of references: from the foliate designs of Arts and Crafts Movement fabric and wallpaper to Bridget Riley’s 1960s Op paintings, from the painstakingly applied coats of acrylic on Garry Niell Kennedy’s layer paintings of the 1970s to embossed vinyl upholstery found on thrift shop furniture. Had Leach been around during Martha Graham’s heyday, in the 1940s and ‘50s, she could easily have been the surface designer for the orgies of jersey fabric that went into Graham’s dance costumes.

Under the maddeningly reflective surface of Mark Bell’s mural-scaled painting, Deaf-Mute Girls Singing “Nearer My God To Thee” (1996), lie images depicting a choreographed view of life in a Belleville, Ontario, educational facility — as taken from their “1902 Annual Report upon the Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb.” The painting is entirely conceived in blacks and off-blacks buried beneath a brittle, art history-positive veneer of dust-speckled dammar varnish. In order to see the painting, viewers must position themselves at an appropriate angle to becalm the glare and detect the subject — in this case, a choir of nearly identical women signing the words to a hymn. The painting performs in the fugitive manner of a dagguereotype, pointing to both the historical source of the image (the Ontario Archives) and (obliquely) to the often nefarious history of the institutionalization of the differently abled. If you look long and hard at this not-easy-to-see picture, you might even be able to summon up the ethereal wonderment of the heavenly choir depicted in Piero della Francesca’s fifteenth-century panel, Nativity. This is digging for precedence, and certainly, on first impulse, Bell’s picture is the resuscitated fin de modernisme monochrome — painting, blushingly post-degree zero. The humanist transcendent closes up shop, and you are left with your own squinting reflection.

The excessive and manufactured cheap cast of most of the paintings in the exhibition sticks to you with the resilience of hardened bubble gum, and simply doesn’t invite delectation. These artists are on about something far more affective, and they go about it with chilling accuracy: our expectations of the recent past’s bright promises have gone tinny, and have not born out.

“Fast,” an exhibition organized by the artist collective “Painting Disorders,” was on view from November 9 to November 30, 1996, at 520 King Street West in Toronto. The exhibition presented works by Tomma Abts, Mark Bell, Eric Glavin, Nestor Krüger, Yam Lau, Angela Leach, Elizabeth McIntosh, Silke Otto-Knapp, Siobhan Maloney, and Sally Späth.

“Disorderly Conduit.” BorderCrossing 16:2, Spring 1997