John Armstrong

Paul Collins
Galerie Janos, Paris

In this exhibition, Paul Collins has translated a variation of the four-colour, dot-matrix printing process into paintings that use bubble wrap packaging material as printing plates. This process creates surprisingly variegated impressions of layered dot screens in a pronounced moiré. Although the ‘printing’ of these paintings cites mechanically reproduced printed matter (they resemble close-ups of billboards), their attention to all-over surface inflection alludes to a time when one could expect a painting to encapsulate touch and presence. Text passages shimmer in a sea of off-registered and deteriorating grids that perform painting’s often melancholic relationship to more recent technologies of reproduction. The exhibition, composed of eight paintings and other related works, takes into account both Collins’ background in print and the precarious enterprise of settling into a second language and culture.

Each work contains a culturally-charged French or Anglo-American word or phrase — a linguistic readymade. Areuh (1995), the French equivalent of “goo-goo-ga-ga”, suggests the primacy of language in socialization. S/he/it (1995) characterizes the English language debate around restructuring an ideal, neutral subject. The nearly hidden words in Second Hand Smoke (1995) evoke the slippage inherent in language. Brouilly 1972 (1995); Chablis 1986 (1995); Passe-tout-grains 1970 (1995), with other works in the exhibition, form a series of paintings — each titled after a type and year of French wine — that reproduce the logo found on the bottom of a popular French brand of Pyrex drinking glasses. The logo is printed in a range of reds or yellow-beiges to suggest the distinctiveness of individual wine colour. I Buried Paul (1994) makes reference to both The Beatles and to a certain eclipse of the artist's own identity in the transition from one culture to another. Collins, a Canadian, has been resident in Paris for fifteen years; and although there is considerable élan to Collins’ humour, these words do serve to underline commonplaces of bourgeois culture, raising questions around the accessibility and ownership of language.

The paintings' playful depiction of slightly rarefied speech in a technically distanced (printed) manner acclimatizes the viewer to the idea of mediation. These works are provisional paintings that slyly offer virtual, painterly touch. They cast communication as not-always-legible images and reflect the contingency of speech and the printed word. In addition to painting, Collins has had a long association with art publishing both in Toronto in the 1970s (Coach House Press, Permanent Press) and more recently as an editor of artist bookworks in Mulhouse, France (Le Quai).

The expressions Collins cites arise out of specific cultural contexts. In order to access them completely one would have to be an English-speaking emigré to France of Collins's generation. The insider/outsider position that Collins presents us with is the plight of the emigré, and it suggests the Sisyphean labour of acquiring identity in language. The fact of cultural insider trading is Collins's point of departure — a thrust and parry aimed at nationalist or ethnic linguistic snobbery. In this is both the problematic and the pleasure of the subject’s shifting access to language.

C International Contemporary Art 48, Winter 1995/96