Catalogue Essay on Ascending Language by Gary Michael Dault.

It is reasonable enough to see oil paint as an essentially inert material: it is really no more, after all, than grains of coloured earth suspended in a spreadable medium. Indeed, art historian James Elkins has defined it, with almost alarming succinctness, as a melding of “water and stone.”

On the other hand, for the last five hundred years, oil paint has also been, paradoxically, what Elkins elegantly refers to as “liquid thought.” Like alchemists, as he points out in his indispensable book, What Painting Is (Routledge, 2000), “painters are bound up in hypostatic contemplation: paint seems irresistibly to mean, as if the littlest daub must signify something. It never speaks clearly,” he adds jauntily, “because – as any sober scientist or humanist will tell you – every meaning is a projection of the viewer’s inarticulate moods. Substances are like mirrors that let us see things about ourselves that we cannot quite understand.” (p.45)

Not the least engaging quality of these new and recent paintings by Toronto-based artist Christian McLeod is the degree to which each of them is predicated upon two congruent contentions.

The first contention is that oil paint is a sensuous and even hedonistic material. McLeod talks, in an artist’s statement, about the “surface texture, depth of paint and shadows” in his pictures and how they “work into the movement of colour and shape.” He clearly finds delight in the rapturous, convulsive nature of untrammeled paint-handling, losing himself in its irrational joys (see, for example, the unremitting, sun-filled, biscuit-hot gorgeousness of paintings such as Night Market and Breaking Apart, with their residual heat, and the unstoppable surging movement that animates Black Water). McLeod is an obvious inheritor of the painterly agon that the abstract-expressionists of the New York School (Gorky, de Kooning, Pollock et al) visited upon themselves in their blind existential grappling with the mysterious materiality of painting, and of certain painters of the School of Paris. I can see echoes, for example, of Marie-Hélène Vieira da Silva in paintings like Tag Cloud and Tree of Life and of Nicolas de Stael in Water Dancing, Transformer, and Footprint.

But the second contention upon which McLeod’s paintings are predicated is that painting, its plastic sensuousness notwithstanding, is, or can be, a language – an inchoate but nevertheless persuasive discourse (Elkins’ “liquid thought”) that can be made to trade in attitudes and ideas. The title McLeod has chosen for his exhibition, Ascending Language, refers not to the idea of language and idea as “ascendant” or “transcendental” – as elevated language for its own sake – but, rather, to the artist’s conviction that his paintings might be pressed into a new role: that they might be made to deal with “discourses or languages that have been in the ascendant at some point within my lifetime or that, at least, have made a profound mark on my own interaction with the world around me.”

While it is true that no painter wants to encumber his work with a burden of essay and argument to the point that the painting becomes “literary” or, worse, didactic, it is surely naïve to imagine that a painting cannot “speak” of its preoccupations and the concomitant preoccupations of its perpetrator. In order to do so, however, the painter must risk a certain impurity of form and attack. Any painting that both “is” and “utters” risks embodying a certain two-ness.

For Christian McLeod, this risk is worth taking and acting out. This means, for example, that in a small but mighty work such as Strategies – which looks to be first and foremost a vigorously painted riff on America’s Stars and Stripes, entirely enjoyable as pigmented energy for its own sake – there is both formal pleasure (the horizontal sweeps of wild, dazzling colour) compounded with what might be thought of as a program. By program I mean performative elements in the painting that act out certain residual ideas about the painting’s subject: the grinding sturm und drang of the horizontal bars in contention (a nation divided, a nation dividing), and, for example, the pittings and pockmarks in the painted surface that look distressingly unwholesome.

McLeod writes, in another artist’s statement, about the degree to which certain of his preoccupations (which are those of our culture-at-large) tincture and inform his ostensibly non-representational works. He speaks of the ways the paintings lie adjacent to, and are modified by, ideas about languages of development and runaway economic growth (Footprint, Transformer) and ideas about what he terms “the persistence of militarism and security mentalities” (Black Water, Unmanned). Inversely, ideas (“counterpoints”) about Ã’various quests for ways of living that emphasize human connection and solidarity inform other works” (Breaking Apart, Everdanger). He also notes that some of the paintings, as he rather elegantly puts it, are about “forms of belonging that come with urbanization” (Platforms – with its molten cityscape backboarding the painting’s searing red field – and Night Market), while others are about a longing for “oneness with nature” (Tree of Life, the stirringly titled Unfinished Cathedral, and the wistful, sun-drenched beauty of Tamarack).

Perhaps this ought not to work out as well as it does, but it is greatly to McLeod’s credit that he appears able to nourish both of these preoccupations and ambitions within the same work and pull it off. Part of this aesthetic/political détente that McLeod effects derives from the felicity with which he employs imagery (and from the kind of composition upon which his imagery depends). An accomplished case in point is his hot, radiant Unmanned – an apocalyptic, or perhaps pre-apocalyptic, painting built upon an unsettling, destabilizing and (therefore) highly exciting arena in which a painterly red field is made to hold an arsenal of painterly hot licks – such as those crackling white horizontals that snap through the picture’s surface.

But what makes the painting more powerful and disturbing than mere configuration can manage is the presence, in the lower half of the red field, of a sudden infestation into the proceedings of tiny shapes, rather like bow-ties, which, because they appear to float on the picture’s surface, initially seem moth-like or bat-like. A moment’s inspection of these dark, winged forms soon reveals, however, that they are really far more mechanical than they are creaturely. Indeed they appear to be drones. Listening devices. Satellites. Eternally watchful eyes in the sky. And so it is only when the painting has already been thus invaded that we are able to progress beyond the pictorial, innocently aesthetic pleasure it delivers (redness, whiteness, energy-made-visible) and see the work as housing two frictional, contesting impulses: one of which stems organically from the painter’s sense of beauty, and the other that is generated by the unsettling, information-heavy and security-fixated world in which he (and we) must live. McLeod’s originality is thus a product of the contest of the two, and the ways he finds to resolve them.


April 24, 2007

Gary Michael Dault is a Toronto-based writer, painter and art critic.