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Disordered Painting: Impure Abstraction and Blank Expression in the Works of Eric Glavin
by Luis Jacob

During the 1990s the city of Toronto was a place of exhilarating artistic activity, characterized by a resurgence of the tradition of collective organizing of artistic events, exhibitions and publications. During these years, artists in Toronto invested themselves once again in the task not only of creating artworks, but also of creating the contexts for the appreciation of their works. Artists saw themselves as responsible for creating their own venues for presentation and their own channels for dissemination of these artworks.  For many of us, this is what it meant to be an artist. Dozens of artist collectives sprang up, organizing series of projects amidst dozens of collectively organized one-off exhibitions and events.  Without much reflection I can count several of these collectives, including Mud, Collective Unconscious, Nether Mind, Painting Disorders, Dead Industry, Posse, See-Through Cities, Impure, Syndicate, Truck Stop 12, Symbiosis, Peregrine, Spontaneous Combustion, Fast Friends, Money House, Art Firm, Brown Spot, Po-Po Wasteland, and the influential Free Parking gallery and Lola magazine.  It was the creation of a context such as this that, in the words of AA Bronson, “allowed us to allow ourselves to see ourselves as an arts scene.” And we did!

After graduating from the Ontario College of Art, Eric Glavin began generating a context for the reception of his work through the artist collective Painting Disorders. This collective – formed with fellow artists Mark Bell, Sally Spath, Angela Leach, Nestor Kruger, and Elizabeth McIntosh – marked itself as distinct from most other collectives by having a particularly self-conscious relationship to the parallel histories of modern painting and vernacular design. Angela Leach’s paintings, for instance, focussed on the peculiar affinities between the Op Art of the mid-1960s and textile fabric design; Nestor Kruger’s paintings, as well, explored the traditions of mural painting, paint-by-numbers flatness of application, and suburban architecture. The work of the Painting Disorders artists had a distinctly scholarly or ‘smart’ feel, especially when contrasted with the often expressionistic or idiosyncratic concerns of work from many of the other Toronto collectives of the period.  The recherché quality of their work prepared several Painting Disorders artists for subsequent entry into more official and institutional channels of dissemination within the art world. Nowadays, a decade later, the engagement by young artists with the high-art and urban/suburban vernacular traditions of the 1960s and 70s is fully commonplace. But during the 1990s this quality also marked the work of the Painting Disorders artists with a seriousness of intent and historical engagement that was – at that time in the development of Toronto’s arts community – rare and conspicuous.

Glavin’s series of horizontal canvases from 1991 inaugurates the field of concerns that his painting practice will consistently return to. Canvases such as Manhandler stage a setting where the non-referential and abstract look of geometric hard-edge painting is infused with the vernacular and worldly look of graphic design for product packaging, store-front signage, casino interiors, and arcade-game consoles. In these paintings the yummy, even sexy ‘Buy me’ overtones of graphic design are intended to contrast sharply with the mute, almost ascetic otherworldliness of formalist abstract painting.

The uncovering of the secret social content hiding behind ostensibly abstract depictions is one of the predominant artistic strategies of the postmodern period starting in the 1970s. Dan Graham’s magazine project Homes for America of 1966-67 – in its prescient insight about the links existing between the reductionism and serialism of Minimalist sculpture (such as that produced by Donald Judd and Robert Morris) and the serial logic of post-war housing construction (such as the mass-produced suburban housing of Staten Island and Jersey City) – has rightfully been canonized as one of the key moments of inspiration to later artists. According to Graham:

Minimal art, which seemed to be abstract, took from suburban environments like hardware stores.  The content was taken out, making things very abstract....  I wanted to show that Minimal was related to a real social situation that could be documented.

Historically, this type of ‘impure’ abstraction has found very little fertile soil within the landscape of Canadian abstract painting -- except in aspects of the Vancouver scene of the mid-1960s, in particular the abstractions of Bodo Pfeifer, Michael Morris, and Gary Lee Nova [see Morris: The Problem of Nothing, 1966, VAG Collection].  The abstract paintings of these Vancouver artists can be considered a type of Pop Art – and perhaps more precisely, a Pop Abstraction.  It is generally accepted that Pop has some connection to what we call popular culture; but just what exactly is meant by this, or – which amounts to the same thing – what exactly is to be held as representative of popular culture, remains an open question. In the Pop paintings of U.S. artists such as Andy Warhol, Tom Wesselmann and James Rosenquist, for instance, what is held up as representative of popular culture are its immediately apparent objects of consumption – brand-name commodities, new home appliances, the faces of celebrities – and, broadly, the consumer culture that overarches these epiphenomena. In the Pop paintings of British artists such as Richard Hamilton, Peter Blake and Eduardo Paolozzi, on the other hand, what is held up as representative of popular culture are the sociological underpinnings of the experience of an invasive and enthralling mass culture – advertising’s emphatically gendered relations towards commodities, commercial and corporate design’s new hermeticized emblems, the sudden and fascinating image of the disposability of things for an empire in decline during a period of continuing post-war scarcity and reconstruction. If the work of these U.S. artists performs something like an act of reflection upon the myriad objective appearances of consumer culture, then the work of their British counterparts performs an act of investigation upon the new-found experience of the Now-ness of mass production, mass consumption, mass information, and mass psychology. These represent two different, though neither strictly nationalist nor mutually exclusive, attitudes towards what is ‘Pop’ about popular culture. This difference hinges on whether the people explicitly named by the term ‘popular’ – and glossed over by the word ‘Pop’ – are now to be understood in their relationship as consumers to commodified objects, or else in their mediatized designations and their self-identification as a mass.

For artists such as Michael Morris and Gary Lee Nova, the attitude of cultural research earlier acquired from British Pop Art was informed by the presence of Marshall McLuhan’s ideas within the artistic milieu of Vancouver, and led these artists to the immersion in the new-technology explorations of Intermedia and the ‘global village’ exchanges of the Eternal Network of correspondence art. The abstract paintings they produced during the mid-1960s evince the attitude that what is characteristic about the current moment is not its outward appearances as manifested in things, but rather the new hidden social imaginary to be uncovered within these appearances. In the work of Morris and Lee Nova the exploration of this new social imaginary through an abstract language was appropriate to its cryptic and latent character, which, like abstract paintings itself, requires an attitude of exploratory and investigative attention.

Glavin’s horizontal paintings of the early 1990s, in their attitude of curiosity and fascination towards the commercialized urban environment, constitute the beginning of his own attempts to incorporate what are held to be the characteristic qualities of his own environment in terms of the abstract vocabulary of modernist painting; indeed, for him these qualities are themselves derived from such a vocabulary. These paintings are defined by their attraction to the techniques of seduction and appeal of commercial graphics, expressed in their bubbly shapes and bouncy colours, their decorative flourishes, waves and ribbons. These techniques of sexy seduction appear on the surface of the paintings, all the while surrounding a kind of blankness that suggests that the textual or figurative information has been omitted from the original designs. One senses that these paintings have taken a vow of silence or lost the capacity for speech. Only the frame of seduction is apparent on their surface, bereft of any goods to deliver. The vocabulary employed by Glavin’s paintings derives both from a hypothesis about the influence of the modern-art tradition of abstract painting upon the imagery of commercial graphic design, and from an intuition about the nature of the social experience of the commercialized urban environment, an experience regarded as itself blank and abstract.

Glavin’s early work owes as much to the 1960s painting of certain Vancouver artists as to the 1980s ‘Simulation’ paintings of New York artists like Sherrie Levine, Peter Halley and Phillip Taafe, and of Toronto artists such as David Clarkson and Carolyn White. Like these more recent ‘Simulation’ precedents, Glavin’s early work possesses an acute historical self-consciousness that is invested in issues of influence, lineage, and exhaustion.  The tendency towards a free-floating play of historical referentiality accounts for the strongly perceptible presence of ‘the impure’ within the abstract work of the New York painters.  In Glavin’s work this impure abstraction is exacerbated: first rendered impure as an historicized abstraction, then rendered doubly impure as abstraction imbued with a filtered historicity. The heritage of modern-art abstraction – already historicized and thus at this late moment a visual language no longer purely abstract – exists also as reinterpreted by the vernacular forms of commercial graphic design of both unschooled sign-painters and proficient corporate-marketing designers. Glavin’s horizontal canvases are troubled and complicated by the traces of the vernacular interpretations of art history, and their connection to local and transnational graphic languages. 

Following these horizontal canvases, his series of ‘stain’ paintings on square unprimed canvas enacts a subsequent flattening-out of the earlier paintings, almost as if they had suffered a dimensional loss of the depth of their corporeity, and had been made to signal an increasingly mute, blank and hollowed-out form of artistic expressivity.

This kind of stunted expressivity finds exemplary manifestation in a series of Simulationist photographs by Carolyn White. Sunlight – a work from this series that shares much affinity with Glavin’s artistic attitude – is a photographic depiction of a cropped section of graphic design from a box of Sunlight powder laundry detergent. The design is cropped so that, as in Glavin’s paintings, the text is eliminated; only segments of lettering remain, causing them, from this close-up vantage, to become abstract geometric shapes suggesting the forms of tall buildings against a clear, almost completely featureless sky. Naturally, these shapes and their contextualizing background are imbued with the ‘happy’ affective qualities of the colouring and shading used in the original package design.  In the photograph this suggests the promise of light and warmth embodied by the sun rising above a geometric-urban landscape. 

White’s photograph references the angular compositions of Soviet Constructivist graphic design from the late 1920s – the design work of Rodchenko, Klucis, and the Sternberg Brothers, for example – that conflated bold text, photographic montage of figures, and geometric graphic elements into design of striking newness, directness, and dynamic tension. Sunlight presents a similarly angular composition; but without text and without persons, the photograph is made to express the de-realization of its own promise. It would be to miss the point altogether if one were to read this work as a depiction of the falsehood of marketing imagery, since the work finds something true within this imagery. The photograph gains its peculiar force as a form of expression that can only manifest itself as a stunted effort towards enunciation. For Sunlight, its message is already compromised and destined to sound hollow.  In its emptiness, its own act of speech is rendered all the more despondent as it watches its words emerge only as hollowed-out, geometrically ‘happy’ shapes.  White’s photograph depicts – abstractly – the hopeful anticipation of a new day. In this way, graphically and spiritually as well, the photograph connects with the 1920s project of Soviet artists’ collectivist construction of a new artistic vision adequate to the construction of a new socialist society. This historical project was cut short at the time of the 1932 Central Committee of the All-Unions Communist Party ‘Decree on the Reconstruction of Literary and Artistic Organizations.’ For Sunlight, the promise of a brand-new day is legible only as an abortive utterance, a promise left half-uttered, cut short and in mid-sentence. 

This itself is a testament to the potential for poignancy and historical memory of a form of expressivity that has lost the capacity for speech. In these terms, Glavin’s blank intonations of the fun and sex of products, casinos and arcade games are part and parcel of a world where liberated play and spontaneous social interaction – the hopeful aspirations of the ‘subjective forces’ of May ‘68 – have become emptied abstractions; and our joy – pure, commercialized décor. 

Glavin’s square ‘stain’ canvases represent an attempt to render the juiciness and bubbliness of his previous horizontal canvases radically in terms that are flattened and dried-out. With these stained paintings, Glavin uses the soak-stain painting technique developed in the late 1950s by Helen Frankenthaler, and canonically employed by the ‘Post-Painterly Abstractions’ of Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland. Characteristically, Glavin’s stain abstractions are impure abstractions heavy with art-historical baggage and, as the artist observes, literally sullied by the vicissitudes of circumstance and time:

I was fascinated with seeing these Nolands at the Vancouver Art Gallery or the National Gallery, and seeing how they had faded and had all that dust on them – you can't really see them any other way. That's how they are.... I wanted [my paintings] to look like those pieces with the layer of dust already incorporated into their feel.  They also referenced those ready-made paintings from Scandinavia, as well as those ubiquitous office dividers we all had to live with in school.

The painting technique of Glavin’s ‘stain’ works clearly alludes to the soak-stain abstractions of artists such as Noland, while perversely incorporating an added layer of impurity sedimented upon their surfaces. When first exhibited, these canvases embodied an uncanny and slightly absurd sense of art-historical atavism, one that referred to a belated moment after the glory days of Abstract Expressionism, and to the more mundane dissemination (through mass-production) of modernist abstraction at home and in the classroom. Their warm, almost wooly texture – where the paint is not laid over the weave like a second skin, but rather stains and becomes part of it like a Hippie’s batik – is neutralized by their cool iconography that is reminiscent of corporate branding. Such neutralization guides an oscillating play of reciprocity, as the iconography chills the materiality of the canvas, and as warmth in turn is summoned to temper what is cold. 

Glavin’s hypothesis about the influence of the modern-art tradition of abstraction and reductionism upon the commercial environment is corroborated in the ‘good design’ of cool functionalism and rationalist aesthetics associated with the art-and-design teachings of the Bauhaus at Weimar, Dessau and briefly Berlin, the Hochschule fur Gestaltung at Ulm, and the School of Design in Chicago. This influence is reciprocal as, for instance, the purist product designs of Braun electrical appliances (designed by members of the Hochschule fur Gestaltung) are in turn displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, at an exhibition of Braun products in 1964. The warm/cold play of reciprocity dramatized by Glavin’s abstract canvases finds in Braun products a kind of real-word counterpart: in Braun’s art/commerce play of reciprocal influence, the art museum is solicited to endow the impersonal face of corporate commerce with a warm humanist glow – one calculated to remain appropriately associated with fine art’s sense of exquisiteness and refinement.

The cold, hermetic look of products and graphics memorably developed by the fathers of modernist design was diffused and normalized throughout North America in homes and schools by the mass production of things and imagery designed by legions of anonymous designers. The ‘unauthored’ design that is of such interest to Glavin will not, of course, be given entrance to the exclusive halls of the art museum, but they are seen to constitute the ‘imaginary museum’ of the vernacular languages of mass culture. 

A stain painting such as K is derived from an anonymous design found in a shopping bag kept at the home of the artist’s parents – a design that was made in the 1990s but references the time of Noland and Louis. This painting is part of the series of stain abstractions produced the same year of Wallpaper* Magazine’s first issue. As a marketing vehicle, Wallpaper* Magazine capitalizes on the nostalgic recognizability of modernist design destined for mass consumption, but glamourizes its coldness. This time its chill need not be tempered by a warmth that will counterbalance it. Rather this coldness, this distance from life, is itself glamorous, and the success of its appeal depends on the maintenance of its chill to produce alienation as a form of opulence, as a signal – as proof – of extreme exclusivity and symbolic arrivisme. This new type of decorativeness is powerfully seductive, and indeed led to Wallpaper* rapidly acquiring iconic, even ‘popular’ status.

As a whole, Glavin’s painting practice exists in a state of tension towards the glamourized modernism of Wallpaper* and, more to the point, towards the widespread commercialized nostalgic revival of modernist graphic tropes. Its continuing dryness and flattened sex-appeal are the marks of this ambivalence. The blanked-out character of Glavin’s work evokes the intuition that there is something emptied and unfulfilled about the social experience of the commercialized urban environment; his recent series of branded graphics rendered as painted murals, his ‘quasi-painting’ floor-and wall-coverings on adhesive vinyl, and his computer ink-jet printed canvases with imagery derived from the decor of social housing and new condominium developments, all suggest that there is something about the built world that has itself become abstract. The mute expressivity of his work can be heard as a form of witness that refuses to celebrate and unconditionally affirm the ‘fun!’ and the becoming-glamorous of the normalized abstraction of social experience. In these ways Glavin’s work reads as the authentic but despondent expression of art in the context of mass culture. As a practice of painting, his work will continue to be heard as despondent to the extent that it adheres to the objective but appropriately visual language of the myriad appearances of such a living social context. His current computer-printed canvases will certainly be apprehended either as paintings (produced with novel means), or else as a subjectivized  performance of technocracy; such critical apprehension will be responsible for providing the context for the future development of Glavin’s practice.

November 2004


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