John Armstrong

Peter Legris
Costin and Klintworth Gallery, Toronto

Each of the ten paintings in Peter Legris's exhibition is based on one of three photographs taken by the artist of parking lots and turn-of-the-century warehouse buildings along Toronto's King Street. The chiaroscuro daylight and occasional leafless tree lend his photographic sources the drama of stage sets (Walker Evans's unpeopled urban photographs come to mind). Legris's tonally-rich, high-resolution photographs are affixed to the centres of the hardboard supports, serving as the (at times, nearly hidden) vanishing points from which his painted extrapolations project. The orthogonal lines of the architecture and blind alleys are continued, exaggerated and twisted about into spatial conundrums that comfortably leap between foreground and background, at times reducing the cityscape to flattened and scored fold-up boxes.

Legris's warehouses appear as facades saved from the wrecker's ball, veneered onto what might be postmodern invocations of absent historical buildings. Equally as retrospective are Legris's fractured spaces and his designer's gouache palette, which suggest an understated, late Cubism. Like Cubism, the quintessentially studio-driven art practice, Legris produces internally consistent but contradictory reflections on romantic, ruminative existence — whether this be café culture or the gentrification of inner-city warehouse studio districts.

Legris’s paintings are relentless in further teasings of art historical reference. In the horizontal-format paintings, the photographs construct two routes of perspectival distance — one route receding upwards and the other downwards — echoing the formulaic compositions of nineteenth-century academic landscape painting (Corot, for example), which established a stage for narrative or anecdote. Rather than shepherds guiding their flocks homeward or dandies lost in conversation, the characters in Legris's dramas are bits of buildings — chimneys, garages, windows — that have been playfully cordoned off from the rest of the and animated — San Gimignano's towers meet The Sorcerer's Apprentice.

These chaffing transformations are rendered in a layered cold wax and oil medium that allows for barely discernible shifts from the black-and-white photograph to paint. The paint-on-paint passages are composed of imbricated brushwork that discloses brightly coloured grounds whose colour temperature mischievously unsettles the paintings’ illusionism. Cold wax and oil, despite its impressive materiality, is stiff and unyielding; it has none of the flamboyancy of the hot wax or encaustic technique of, say, Jasper Johns or Tony Scherman. (The only two artists I can recall having used cold wax are Hopper and Balthus.) Legris's paint is opaque or reluctantly transparent, a fog bank, which further contributes to the historicized look of his paintings.

Here, painting has become a signifier of the nostalgia for manual labour and the pre-industrial model of production it implies. The poignancy of Legris's paintings is that their fastidious manufacture and candied nostalgia wittily connect the redundant factory spaces of labour with the aestheticized spaces of painting. By allowing the inert language of beaux-arts painting to inhabit parasitically that of modernism, Legris vivifies even the most effete modernist gentility. In Legris's paintings, the future anticipates the past in tropes that resist pastiche and irony, existing in a state of sly persistence.

C International Contemporary Art 50, Summer 1996