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2006 10 25
Angle of Incident #26: Pigment
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By Gary Michael Dault

I was reading in bed last night, as I always do before I sleep, and in the middle of p. 12 of John Livingstone Lowes’ endlessly charming and often dangerously intoxicating book about the means and methods of aesthetic invention, The Road To Xanadu (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1927)—gratefully bought at the Trinity College Book sale on Monday for five bucks—the learned and witty professor Lowes notes in passing that “Chaos precedes cosmos” (The Road to Xanadu, which, at its centre, is an epically-scaled attempt to understand the making of just two poems by Coleridge, is subtitled “A Study in the Ways of the Imagination”.)

He goes on to insist that “every expression of an artist is merely a focal point of the surging chaos of the unexpressed” (p.13).

For some reason, this led me to muse not on Coleridge but rather on painter Harold Klunder, whose latest exhibition, now at Toronto’s Clint Roenisch Gallery, is such a endless delight. I wrote about Klunder’s exhibition last Saturday in The Globe & Mail, but there’s more I want to add about his work—and it’s specifically about paint.

Paint—pigment—is, as we all know, a presumably beleaguered medium with which to make art. It is always under siege, regarded as a substance, now five hundred years old, that has outlived itself a useful means to any expressive end. Paint, so the clichés of animadversion upon it run, is mostly a matter of overly-hedonistic play: paint leads to a kind of finger-painting for adults, a therapeutic messing-around that may well be relaxing, but can scarcely be significant.

And yet artists, who wish (who demand) to be taken seriously, continue to paint. Why?

Harold Klunder, who came to Canada from The Netherlands in 1955 and is now sixty-three, has been painting for forty years. For him, paint is as hedonist as it is for any other painter—considerable more so, I’d say, judging from the lushness, the generosity, and (to quote myself for a moment), the “full-stop plenitude of his pauseless inventiveness with the brush…”. I encourage the viewer (in the Globe piece) to “look up close and revel on the poolings, clottings and vortices of the artist’s painterly worlds-within-worlds”.

Klunder’s paintings may look fast at first glance; they may look like the broken, convulsive aftermath of some abstract-expressionist storm that has broken over them and moved quickly by. But Klunder is no action-painter. Look closely at this detail (above) from one of his current paintings, and you’ll see straightaway the degree to which the artist has been deliberate in his adding of colour to colour, layer over layer: see how daubs rest heavily on previous daubs? How a twist of a red-laden brush (at the upper left) deposits its redness on a previously positioned disc of pink which has, itself, been carefully bounded by yellow—which yellow has further occluded a swabbing of coral at the very upper left. You can see how deliberate—almost ponderous—all this is—the process is as much like building as it is painting. It’s when you start unpacking any patch of a Klunder like this (the section reproduced here is only a few inches square), that it makes sense to hear that the artist takes a very long time indeed to paint these paintings—sometimes years. He doesn’t work steadily on a single painting for years, of course, but he often circles back to them (one of the works in the exhibition is dated, for example, 1988—2006).

So, here, in paint form, is John Livingston Lowes’ “surging chaos of the unexpressed”. For what you get in a Klunder—and in the work of many other good painters—is paint-as-essay. That is to say, paint as an attempt (“essayer”) at meaning, paint as a broken discourse (the “surging”), an inchoate language. And yet its inchoateness, mysteriously, does not seem to blunt the eloquence of which the medium seems capable, but, rather, heightens its provocations, deepens its sense of the urgently unsaid.

One if the most charming and seductive of the arguments in support of paint’s oxymoronically positioned ability to generate, within its fluid, hectic, onrushing, surging chaos, a lucid and fully-declared, fully-inspectable realm of the articulate, resides within University of Chicago art historian James Elkins’ delightful little book What Painting Is (New York: Routledge, 2000).

Here, Elkins talks confidently about “the kinds of thought that are taken to be embedded in paint itself”. Paint, writes Elkins, “is a cast made of the painter’s movements, a portrait of the painter’s body and thoughts. The muddy moods of oil paints are the painter’s muddy humours, and its brilliant transformations are the painter’s unexpected discoveries. Painting is an unspoken and largely unrecognized dialogue, where paint speaks silently in masses and colours and the artist responds in moods…Paint is water and stone, and it is also liquid thought.” (p.5)

The Harold Klunder exhibition runs until November 13th at the Clint Roenisch Gallery, 944 Queen Street West. 416-516-8593.
[email this story] Posted by Gary Michael Dault on 10/25 at 11:55 AM

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