John Armstrong

Ben Walmsley Still
Garnet Press Gallery, Toronto

Toronto artist Ben Walmsley has been exhibiting an understated wit and technical precision to art audiences since 1983. In this respect, his most recent show “Still” is no exception. But the particular range of arcane cultural artifacts his followers have come to expect as subject matter for his paintings has been reconfigured by his current offering.

“Still,” Walmsley’s June exhibition at the Garnet Press Gallery, was composed of nine human-scale paintings upon which float a standing or recumbent liquor bottle each announcing the glow of an amber, emerald or ruby intoxicant: whisky, scotch, bourbon, gin, vermouth….

Previously, Walmsley has depicted a plethora of Vanitas motifs (fruit, songbirds, garden flowers and even a helpful diagram explaining how to gut a rabbit); a nineteenth-century English stoneware jug juxtaposed with stanzas taken from the Pre-Raphaelite poetry of A.C. Swinburne; 13 views of a variously illuminated English china bowl, a 1950s artists’ anatomy manual…. Into his antiquarian, Upper Canadian (and often autobiographical) soup of subjectivity, Walmsley consistently interjects a strain of concrete measurement through his inclusion of colour swatches.

In “Still,” the subtext of private life gives way (or does it?): the bottles twinkle with highlights and their luminous edges dissolve into white grounds evoking the artful incantations of commercial still-life photography — the paintings’ immediate source. Seduction is everywhere; but, with an anachronistic turn as the images are rendered in the poetry of a skilled sign painter (with a penchant for Netherlandish transparent glazing technique) on tough alkyd grounds over oak-veneered doorskin panels — all sealed in weather-resistant polyurethane varnish. This well-stocked bar suggests a time when signage and advertising relied on a brush as often as a camera, a time when hard liquor was unrivaled as social lubricant.

Fixing just when this time might have been is a slippery matter. The bottles’ labels exude pedigree and promotional bluster in adjectives such as “immortal,” “original,” “established,” “world’s finest,” “famous,” “genuine,” “old time,” “quality,” “straight”; the Jack Daniels bottle lists international gold medals from 1904 to the present day. These bona fides volubly support the same Rock-of-Gibraltar product recognition that seeks (or sought) to move 1990s customers in a neighbourhood liquor store, much as it did a 1940s audience watching Lauren Bacall’s sultry acknowledgement of her glass being topped up. Liquor’s packaging is not Time’s fool.

Perhaps the ultimate reference in Walmsley’s paeans to boozy cultural memory is Edouard Manet’s Un Bar aux Folies-Bergère (1881-82) wherein a marble counter displays bottles of champagne, the liqueur “Pippermint” and “Bass Pale Ale,” with a clear depiction of the British beer’s trademark red triangle label (to this day unchanged). Manet’s paintings are the quintessential emblems of a wan and alienated fin de siècle that Walmsley surely repeats — leaving us to speculate: are 19th- and 20th-century Western art and culture so drenched in the sneaky marketing of liquor and other bad lifestyle choices? You could even melodramatically argue, as Walmsley has done, that there is something of the kiss of Judas in all of this: many of his liquor bottles hover in front of a subtly cruciform (Kazimir Malevich) ground. Nonetheless, we are left with the fact that these are paintings and not advertisements — even though they look like advertisements, and even though there is nothing more creepy than a room filled with a prolix sales pitch. Like an adman, Walmsley plays up his needling tautologies.

Still operates happily within a paradigm of domestic embellishment. When asked to describe his palette and the colours of the walls in the gallery (a renovated Victorian row house), Walmsley unfalteringly cites the romance of Pratt and Lambert: garland blue, aster yellow, sea foam, goldenrod, lilac. Walmsley’s insistent analysis of his palette is reminiscent Johann Goethe’s assiduous colour theorizing — evoking both a retrospective territory that embraces pseudo-science and a trans-historic present perhaps best located at a meticulously laid out North Toronto address. Indeed, the geometric blocks in the pictures’ grounds, which isolate several of the colours used in the rendering of the bottle, suggesting decorator’s paint chips — metaphorically matching the painting with the upholstery.

There is a willfully insidious insinuation here of the marketplace in the home and a suggestion that the spirit of modernity may be best measured in millilitres.

“Ben Walmsley: Spirit of Modernity,” C International Contemporary Art 55, Fall 1997