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A review of Materialism, an exhibition of paintings by Jonathan Forrest, Terry O'Flanagan and Clay Ellis at Art Placement (Saskatoon) by Sky Glabush



By most accounts, paint-that rather banal product of minerals and dirt-is nothing to write home about. Ask painters, however, and you would think they'd found the alchemy for turning dung into gold. Paintings are silent, motionless, useless really. They just sit there. But in their sidestepping of the temporal and fleeting time of humans they are freed from the exigencies of life, not bound by a slow, wordy narrative. Paintings just are, and it is precisely in their quiet yet teeming physicality that Art Placement's Materialism locates the poetic significance of paint. Although the term materialism points to that particularly Western brand of rampant consumerism and a focus on the shallow decadence of commercial life, the materialism referred to here suggests something else. Tongue-in-cheek references to the commodification of painting notwithstanding, this show describes how through a strict adherence to the physical process involved in the act of painting, a metaphorically-loaded, felt experience is portrayed. 

Jonathan Forrest, Terry O'Flanagan, and Clay Ellis are radically different in their approach to painting. But as the show's title insightfully suggests, the cohesive binder is the way in which each of these artists uses the process of applying the paint and the physical properties of the materials themselves as the compass through which to navigate their creative waters.

Jonathan Forrest is a bit of a fixture among painters in Saskatoon. His unflinching dedication to a process-driven, raw, expressive way of working has set him apart. Unlike most, Forrest is not swayed by the transitory winds of fashion and style. His soft-spoken commitment and certainty are rare and has led to a certain stoic monkishness. While some are comfortable situating Forrest's work in that modernist pedigree of Jack Bush, William Perehudoff, and Robert Christie, I feel that he has taken the baton of so-called "high modernism" and left the arena. These new paintings are beyond deceptively simple. They are almost invisible. Many of the qualities used to gauge the success of painting such as line, form, and contrast are gone, subsumed beneath the scarified terrain of the beleaguered surface. The history, the process, the marks, all buried beneath layer upon layer of paint. What is left is a pure painterly object, humming with the tension of the subterranean vestiges of paint and alive with colour. What more could you want?

Terry O'Flanagan's work, on the other hand, is as far from the sure-footed approach of Forrest as it gets. Bumbling, awkward, an everything-including-the kitchen-sink kind of approach, O'Flanagan's paintings are about chaos and questions. His work hails from a different yet equally "prairie" legacy, that salubrious pioneering spirit. O'Flanagan is a builder (just look at his over-sized hands). Eavestroughing, caulking, shingles, old linoleum, upholstery, these are among the more common examples of detritus found in the decaying rural areas he explores and which he manages to weave into his creative imaginary. With operatic zeal, and an exuberant knack for collaging disparate, seemingly incommensurable objects, O'Flanagan's work is odd and refreshing. Somewhere between Julian Schnabel and Otto Rogers (if such a place could ever exist) O'Flanagan's frenetic tableau-vivants are breathing new life into the conventional stodginess of landscape painting.

Unlike Forrest's and O'Flanagan's paintings, which take a bit of getting used to, Clay Ellis's work hits you like the flashing, colourful lights at a tacky street fair. Although ostensibly paintings, these pieces are more like sculpture. This makes sense as Ellis hails from Edmonton, the heartland of metal sculpture, and is best known for his large-scale steel works that twist and mold solid iron as if it were toffee. A beautiful example is "Stock and Rhyme," a piece sitting outside the Mendel that looks like an elongated snail with an abalone glow. Ellis is an inventor. I won't even attempt to describe his process: it is simply too complicated (he told me that any given piece goes through at least sixty separate stages). Somehow Ellis manages to vacuum seal and mold acrylic and urethane into objects that look like impregnated works of art. Bulbous, colourful, imagine the spotted wing of a butterfly pumped full of helium or a Barnett Newman painting done on a ripening gourd. These are strange hybrids existing somewhere between the physical space of sculpture and the light and colour of painting. Ellis pushes the capacity of painting until it is almost bursting.

Materialism is an exciting and important cultural event in Saskatoon. It marks a bit of a turning point for Art Placement, which has long been seen as a stronghold for top-notch landscape painting but is now making room for more contemporary, critically challenging work. For whatever reason, be it the market, or a reaction to the cold climate engendered by the last wave of neo-conceptual Post-Modern types, painting is undergoing a bit of a minor renaissance. Saskatoon has always been a painting town and giving younger artists the opportunity to exhibit in private galleries is crucial if it's going to continue to cultivate new talent. 

© Sky Glabush