The Instrument of a Place
It’s a symptom of having reached a certain age that one is compelled, internally as well as by circumstance, as in the case of this exhibition, to look back along one’s trail. I think that most active artists are inclined to focus exclusively forward: to the painting left unfinished yesterday, and to the dim outlines of the one to follow. This is part of the excitement of our vocation, or at least my own: I truly don’t know what my next work will look like, what it will be, and this is both a thrill and an anxiety.
However, there’s no denying that a forty-odd years’ body of work has a reality that increasingly takes a shape. So when I was asked to look back at my work of over thirty years ago, and unwrapped a number of the paintings, I found, to my relief, that they are still intimate objects to me; that they exist in my present moment as familiars, not as aliens. I know what motivated each one, what I needed to see and to show, even what problems they presented in their making.
My earliest years of serious work after graduate school, in my first Montreal studio on the Main, were a time of trying to figure out where I stood in the stream of modernism as I had inherited it from my mentors, Roy Kiyooka and Yves Gaucher in Montreal, and Will Townsend in London. Roy had already hinted a warning, saying that he himself had worked in the faith that art was a wedge driving forward in time, and he needed to be at its edge. When he came to realize that this faith had evaporated, that there was no wedge of inexorable progress, he lost the need to struggle to its front. Roy had experienced this as a liberation, and his creative forces found other, more anarchic outlets, fed by his sense of irony and humour. For a couple of years I ignored his warning and rushed ahead to explore a kind of purified form and process which I thought addressed the problems I saw in the painting of the 60s that I admired. But Roy had been right, and I eventually ran aground. I locked the studio up for the summer and left for Italy, not knowing whether I’d ever open it again.
The pull of Italy had begun some years before and had become more and more insistent. In London I’d started to read the works of Adrian Stokes on the Quattrocento, on stone and water, on the deep links between the imagination and material. Inevitably, after Stokes, I put a foot into Freud, and soon found myself immersed. For the first time I felt that here was a way to think about inspiration and about the work of the mind that made sense to me. I began to think about form as not so much a symbolic thing, but as an embodiment of deep-rooted fantasy.
I suppose it’s not surprising, then, that Italian architecture had such a devastating impact on me when I first met it in the flesh. The bodies of buildings, their masses and hollows, the windows cut into the walls, the rhythms of the surface decorations and, perhaps most important, the way stone modulated Tuscan light and shadow, captured me completely. It would be several years before Italian painting had an equal impact on me.
Back in my studio in the fall, and without any conscious decision, I had a subject that compelled me. It was the experience of a place in time. My curiosity about painterly process or strategy as a thing-in-itself just vanished, replaced by an urgent desire to capture something of the feeling I had undergone. I needed a scale large enough to make paintings with the gravity and permanence which moved me, even when they were rooted in something evanescent like the shadow of a window-shutter on a slanted wall, or the shape of a doorknob set into a hollow bronze plate. Most important of all was the sense I now had, of the world open and filled with forms that offered themselves to be encountered and responded to at the deepest levels of my imagination.
In the decade that followed there were paintings inspired by the work of architects - first Alberti, then Luciano Laurana, later Borromini and the Roman Baroque, but also by the poetry of Montale, of Dino Campana, of John Donne, whose imagery linked itself in my mind with things, places, stories, and light. Looking back, I’m moved by the still-warm presence of these ghosts with whom I lived my life in the studio in those years. To the young painter I was in my thirties, that rich world of voices and visions was a fresh territory waiting to be made real and shaped into a gift.