It’s the End of the World As We Know It (and I feel fine): a collection of thoughts about John Kissick and his work

*the following essay is taken from the catalogue for the exihibtion, John Kissick "Boom Bits" at the Thames Art Gallery. The show opens on July 10th.

That’s great, it starts with an earthquake, birds and snakes, an aeroplane, and Lenny Bruce is not afraid.

I first met John Kissick at one of his openings at Leo Kamen Gallery in 2005. I’d recently been accepted into the MFA program at the University of Guelph, so I thought I’d drop in and introduce myself to my new “mentor”. He looked a lot younger than I’d expected – way too young to be the Dean of my new school. We talked about school. We talked about his paintings. We talked a bit more about painting in general, and a lot more about abstract painting specifically. It took all of six seconds for me to realize that I was going to the right school. He told me that the work he’d made before these paintings would never be shown. They were abstract also, but those works were a personal response to the death of his father. At a certain point, he realized, those paintings he’d been making “weren’t art”. They were “therapy”; and he was not interested in sharing his therapy with other people. That, he said, would be wildly narcissistic and self-indulgent. “Nobody needs to see that”, he said. This was my first introduction to John, and to his complicated relationship to the idea of painting as a form personal expression.

Eye of a hurricane, listen to yourself churn, world serves its own needs don’t mis-serve your own needs.

I’ve known John for ten years, and I would certainly consider him a friend – a good friend even . That said, our conversations are mostly related to art, and to painting. I’ve only met his wife once, and I’ve never met his kids. John is no longer on Facebook, and never really was. (He did have a profile for a little while, but it only ever had the generic Facebook blue-face-person that you get when you initially sign up. In the year or so that his account was “active”, I’m pretty sure he never posted a status update or anything.) Through my teaching, I’ve come to realize that it’s pretty normal for students to want to know about their favorite teachers personal lives. And I’ve certainly wondered about John’s. Every once in a while, I’ll read an essay of his, and he’ll make a statement that seems to contradict my understanding of him - who he is, where he comes from. He drops f-bombs in his writing (and art titles) with far more frequency and conviction that he ever would conversationally. He talks about growing up in Scarborough, and punk rock and drug culture. Through these images, I try to piece together a picture of who John was when he was younger. I picture a guy in a black leather jacket, white t-shirt tucked into skinny-ish faded blue jeans (that might have a rip in one of the knees) with a black leather belt. He wears black Doc Martin shoes (as opposed to boots), and has the same haircut that he has now. For whatever reason, I find it impossible to imagine him with a different haircut. At one point, however, I think it might have been a bit longer in the back than it is now. Basically, he looks like how I imagined cool college kids to look when I was in grade 7. He listens to the Smiths and REM.

Feed it up a knock, speed, grunt, no, strength, the ladder starts to clatter with a fear of height, down height.

REM released the music video for “It’s End of the World as We Know It (and I feel fine)” in November of 1987. I was 12 years old. I liked the video because it showed a kid that was about my age messing around with a skateboard in a shack. (When I was 12 years old, I liked anything that had to do with skateboarding. In hindsight, I blame this on “Back to the Future”.) This kid looks like a life-sized, full-colour photocopy of a 14 year-old Tony Hawk. He is in some cabin/clubhouse in the woods “practicing” his late 80’s flat-ground skateboarding tricks. The best part of the video, however, is the fact that he’s not really practicing at all. He’s “playing”. You can feel the kid imagining he’s at a competition in California while he does his hand plant. He is a star of the Bones Brigade. The crowd roars when he lands his big ollie. They grow much louder when he sticks his acid drop off of the (beat-up sofas) railing. He is not just re-enacting the gestures of his heroes. He is one of them now.

Wire in a fire, represent the seven games and a government for hire and a combat site.

If the son kills the father, he remains reverent of the grandfather. Intuitively, this is easy to understand. Parents are charged with enforcing rules – teaching a child the ways of the world, making sure they have the tools to succeed in adulthood. Grandparents really only have to buy ice cream. And really: how can you not like people that buy you ice cream? This succession is important to artists as well. Each generation of artists forms their reputation by revolting against the doctrines of their immediate predecessors. John’s work is rooted in the critical reaction to the hokey-utopian ideals of the really late-Modernist abstractionists of the 1970’s. It was an era of eccentric, post-colour field weirdness that has been, more or less, entirely stricken from the art historical record . John’s work pushes back against all of the quasi-spiritual rhetoric that surrounded their ad nauseam pushing and pulling. They were his art parents. This is the natural order of things.

Left her; wasn’t coming in a hurry with the Furies breathing down your neck.

The “Groovefucker” paintings on view in this exhibition were first shown in Berlin. According to Google Translate, the word Groovefucker translates to Nutfucker in German.

Team by team, reporters baffled, trumped, tether, cropped.

I am a sucker for old art history books. After a talk I gave at the Robert McLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa, I was given a stack of their old exhibition catalogues. One of them is for a show of Alexandra Luke from 1987 . In the middle of the book is an assortment of full colour reproductions. These colour reproductions, however, are very sparingly prevalent. The vast majority of the pictures in the catalogue are reproduced in black and white. This is more than a little hilarious. Having my share of old art books has made me somewhat accustomed to seeing important paintings reproduced in back and white. It’s one thing to see a black and white version of “the Raft of the Medussa”; it is something else to see a black and white version of Alexandra Luke. The actual paintings are nothing but colour, so their black and white versions are grayish blobby swirls of basically nothing. For an art geek, such as myself, this is high comedy. The etchings of John Kissick, on view in this exhibition, are highly comic in this manner as well. They are tempered with a similar absurdity. It is absurd to remove colour from John’s work; and it is bat-shit-crazy to render them in the most meticulously ass-backwards form of printmaking ever conceived (etching). These works are fantastically beautiful and intellectually compelling, but my sides hurt just thinking about their comedy.

Look at that low plane, fine; then uh-oh, overflow, population, common group but it’ll do, save yourself, serve yourself.

The song “It’s the End of the World as We Know if (and I feel fine)” is a linguistic collage wrapped in a catchy-as-hell, whiter-than-anything, pop song. The lyrics fire rhythmically like a late 80’s rap with a chorus forensically contaminated by barbershop harmonies. As it turns out, the Sex Pistols finally met Buddy Holly in 1987, sharing a cherry shake at CBGB’s. REM seem kind of upset about the fact that the world they were raised to believe in no longer exists (if it ever actually did). But whatever: no biggie.

World serves it’s own needs, listen to your heart bleed.The glitter used in John’s recent paintings does something formally that’s really interesting: they breathe an extra six to twelve inches of space into his work. Intensifying the value of his foregrounds, they expand the threshold of his colour range. It makes these spaces more volumetric – like someone inflated his recent work with a tire pump.

Tell me with the Rapture and the reverent ,and the reverent in the right: right!

The rhetoric that surrounded painting in the late 1980’s was all filled with fire and brimstone, damnation and redemption. Everything was always dying or reborn - as if the perpetual doomsday threat from their cold war childhoods had invaded the cultural dialogue of their adulthood. If the world (as we know it) could end at any given moment, why couldn’t painting suffer a similar fate? Douglas Crimp’s “The End of Painting” had pressed the red button, and a whole generation learned to paint as if hiding under their desks during an air raid. If John was born as an artist in the utopian wellspring of way-too-late Colour Field painting, then the doom and gloom post-neo-everything 80’s were his coming of age. His paintings were born in free love, raised in hot tub key parties, but graduated in an HIV crisis. An Octopuses Garden was their playground and they went to school in a California hotel, but all they ended up with was Stevie Nick’s deviated septum. Like everyone else, John’s paintings quit smoking in the early 2000’s. Their glittered tumors grew anyways.

You vitriolic, patriotic, slam fight, bright light: feeling pretty psyched.

Before Kissick started making paintings in the late 1990’s, he made conceptual art. A lot of this work used text. My favourite of these pieces is a banner that says: “a tear is an intellectual thing”.

It’s the end of the world as we know it. (How I need some time alone).

As much as John’s work is meant as a clear refutation of the idea of painting as personal expression, I can’t help but know that his paintings are, in fact, a deep reflection of his self. His paintings are screaming with a yearning for some kind of “authenticity”, but tempered by the realization that unmediated experience is no longer possible, that optimism collapses under the weight of its own naivety, and that the word authenticity itself needs to be placed in rabbit-ear-quotations. John’s paintings are bursting with hope and apprehension, optimism and trepidation. In this sense, they are a totemic collection of the conflicting creeds that have coalesced in his lifetime, and the visual detritus left in their wake. These paintings are John and his memories. They are where he grew up, and who he is now.

I once interviewed John for a school project. I asked him about post-structural rhetoric , and how nobody since had come up with a convincing counter position to their cynicism. John said: “Ya. Everything is mediated. But you’re about to become a parent. At the end of the day, whether it’s social coding or not, you’d throw yourself in front of a bus to protect that child.” The paintings of John Kissick live in this rift – between the things that you intellectually understand and the things that you feel, between the things that you know and the things that you believe. It is a four way stop where the signs are poorly marked but the signifiers are clear as day. His paintings stand in that intersection upright and dead centre, braced from within by the near certain impact of a high-speed collision.

*please forgive the lack of footnotes. They're just too much of a drag to insert with this software, so I don't include them....

People Try to Put Us Down, Just Because We Get Around: 500 words about my generation (with optional annotations).

Catalogue essay from the exhibition, "Young Canadian Painters" at the Kitchener - Waterloo Art Gallery, Summer 2014

Youth is a relative term. Culturally, it’s something we’re drawn to. Young rock stars. Young movie stars. Young art stars. We adore our flowers in full bloom. In an art world where nobody serious takes you seriously until you’re 28, being under 40 does constitute youth, and the artists in this exhibition all fall under that milestone. In attempting to draw parallels between these artists, whose art is formally, materially and conceptually heterogeneous, it is important to contextualize the larger art conversations that informed their schooling, their coming of age period as artists.

All of these painters were undergraduated between 1998 and 2004, and graduate schooled shortly thereafter. For about twenty years before this period, painting was thought about rather skeptically. Having officially “died” in 1981, with the final blow being publicly delivered by Douglas Crimp in the pages of October , multiple generations of artists were schooled under the belief that painting was no longer a viable activity for contemporary artists to pursue. But the case was never entirely closed (and painting classes were still full). Resistance was formed, the rebellion took flight, and ideas of pluralism and relativism in art gained increasing intellectual and artistic traction. During this period, however, an artist choosing to make a painting at all was viewed as a polemically politicized (and potentially subversive ) activity. Battles were fought, and eventually the war for painting was won. Nobody knows when this happened exactly , and not all of paintings detractors have conceded defeat. Like those storied Japanese soldiers marooned on desert islands who were never informed that the war was lost, there are still some anti-painters stranded on islands in remote wings of academia and art museums. For the most part, however, sometime in the late 1990’s and fueled by a suddenly-explosive-late-Capitalist art market, painting seemed ok again. Actually, it was more than ok. Painting was it. Vitamin P was published in 2001 . The RBC Painting Competition happened here , and painting was everywhere all over again.

The artists in this exhibition, Dil Hildebrand, Scott Everingham and Melanie Authier were all trained in this environment. Rather than having the intellectual pressure of defending their medium with every brushstroke , they could entirely focus their energies on the equally difficult task of making a good painting . Their work could look like anything, be about anything, be drawn from anywhere, and happen anywhere. In this brave new paint friendly art world that has adopted globalism, pluralism, and relativism with gusto, none of the severity of the previous generations intellectual positions seems necessary. Flexibility is more important than commitment. In a world with attention deficit disorder, 500 channels on every television and Google searches, no singular point of view seems adequate o reflect the frantic multiplicity of our contemporary experience. Like the lovechild of an art historical key party, the work of these artists reflects the continued desire for an aesthetic promiscuity. And they’re all young enough not to worry about doing so.

End Notes

1. See “The End of Painting” by Douglas Crimp from October, no 16 (Spring 1981) pages 69-76.

2. Although neither of these notions were “new” ideas, they seemingly took on more importance.

3. For a great description of how painting was viewed, by some, as a subversive activity see Thomas Lawson’s seminal essay, “Last Exit: Painting” which was first published in Artform, October, 1981.

4. Although there were no shortage of potential champions, such as Robert Storr, Barry Schwabsky and Jonathan Bentley Mays, there is no singular text that “brought back painting” in a similar manner to how Crimp’s “Death of Painting” seemed to signal it’s demise.

5. Vitamin P is a book that was published in 2001 by Phaidon. It’s an encyclopedic compendium of what was, at that time, cutting edge painting. The catalogue essay by Barry Schwabsky, “Painting in the Interrogative Mode” was hugely influential on the next generation of painters and remains required reading for most painting departments. A lot of the ideas I’m expressing in the blurb are informed by this essay.

6. The RBC Painting Competition was launched in 1999. Melanie Authier received an honourable mention for the prize in 2007. Scott Everingham was shortlisted in 2009, 2010 and 2013. Dil Hildebrand won it in 2006.

7. Crazy as it may sound, this is a heavily loaded expression. Whereas the Avant Garde and Neo-Avant Garde (who continue to be paintings biggest detractors) sought to apply the quasi-objective criteria of artistic novelty and historical priority to ascribe importance to works of art, contemporary art has returned to a more subjective (and potentially traditional) criteria associated with “connoisseurship”. This model requires the (arguably) more difficult task of collectively deciding what’s worthwhile.

Temporary Agency: On Colin Carney, Adrienne Spier and the Fleeting Desires of Contemporaneity

This was a catalogue essay for the exhibition "Temporal" at Renann Isaacs Gallery, Guelph in the summer of 2014.

“If we wanted to get around the world in a week, she said, we’d be in the air seventy percent of the trip. Even if we followed the sun, we’d still be hemorrhaging hours all over the Pacific.”

Dave Eggers, from You Shall Know our Velocity!

Somewhere in and around 150 years ago, the French poet Charles Baudelaire wrote an essay about Modern artists wherein he described the aesthetic characteristics that he felt contemporary artists should be striving to achieve. Although “The Painter of Modern Life” was, in fact, about a very specific (and relatively minor) French painter named Constantine Guys, it went on to become a proto-manifesto for, more or less, the entirety of Modern Art. Within it’s 35 largely luminous pages there are many sound bites worth citing, but the money quote is this:

“Modernity signifies the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art of which the other half is the eternal and immutable.”

And so: there it is. Many of the best artists of the next fifty years attempted, in various means and aesthetic strategies, to capture the transitory quality of Modern life. Picasso and Braques gave us their frenetic multiplicity through a collage-based aesthetic. The Futurists rendered their all-at-once-ish compositions in the multitudinous array of high intensity hue, giving us the optics of speed. Meanwhile, elsewhere, Marcel Duchamp’s nude descends her staircase in perpetuity. His Rotorographs keep on turning. His bicycle wheels keep on spinning.

The works of Colin Carney and Adrienne Spier are both fixated on re-imagining the presentation of the transitory. Drawing upon a hundred years of aesthetic tradition, the work of these artists manages to catapult itself into new terrain: Carney’s digitally manipulated photographs freeze transition eternally, while Spier’s eclectic, sculptural reconfigurations remain eternally in transition.

Colin Carney’s large format prints overlay and overlap multiple points of view of (usually) the same subject. By manipulating the translucency of these overlays, his works provide an all-at-once-ish sense of visual perspective that is conceptually (if not formally) similar to Cubism. His imagery feels marvelously haunted by the memory of his subjects. As the traces created by his process embed each print with an eerie presence, the ghosts of each instant morosely intermingle.

Although the ultimate output of Adrienne Spier’s work can take many forms, such as video, digital print or sculpture, her work is deeply invested in sculptural conversation. Working within the Duchampian tradition of the reconfigured ready-made, Spier accumulates old, discarded furniture as the raw material for her assemblages. Like Carney’s images, Spier’s work is likewise haunted by the memories of a recent past. Her sculptures bear the scars of these histories: school desks riddled with magic-marker graffiti, domestic furniture deeply worn from age and use. Like an aesthetic Dr. Frankenstein, she re-animates these shorn and shabby remains into something that breaths anew.

It wasn’t all that long ago that human life was relatively constant. People were born in a place, lived and died with very little changing over that course. Since the late 18th Century, however, change itself has been the only constant, and the speed at which this alteration occurs continually escalates. The desire to signify this sense of motion has likewise been important in art ever since, and it is this tradition that Colin Carney and Adrienne Spier spiral out of. Preoccupied by our collective reminiscences, their work gives agency to the temporal. Like a clock that ticks but doesn’t advance, their work remains fixed in movement - while time spins ahead the whirligig sprawls presumptuous.

Adam David Brown at MKG 127

Originally published in Canadian Art, summer 2014

There is meaning in labour. Intrinsically connected to artistic process, the amount of labour put forth by an artist plays an important role in shaping our understanding of the piece. Andy Warhol famously worked in a manner that mimicked Fordian assembly. Sol LeWitt often mailed instructions to galleries where his works were made by others. The details of medieval, illuminated manuscripts were rendered by hand, revealing the devotional nature of their artisans - the roots of a “Protestant Work Ethic” on display in every character. The works of Adam David Brown recently on display at MKG 127 are in conversation with all three of these models. Although Brown’s connection to Warhol and LeWitt is more visibly apparent, it is his connection to the later that is most compelling.

In “One Time or Another”, Brown cuts circles out of 42 sheets of multi-hued blue papers. There are three of these pieces. In “Reflection”, Brown removes ovals out of 110 sheets of mirrored mylar. In “For The Time Being”, Brown cuts out large scale, Times New Roman looking text, leaving the remnants of this surgery along the bottom of it’s frame. Despite the fact that his geometric cuts could be performed by a die-cutter and the text pieces by a laser-cutter, Brown meticulously hand cuts these papers. There is meaning in these activities that relates to the broader frame of Brown’s thematic concerns.

All of these works are focused on ideas of time. Although many recent artworks deal with time in it’s more human scale (through concepts such as history or nostalgia), Brown’s notion of time is far grander. Thematically his works have more in common with Stephen Hawking than Anselm Kiefer. The exhibition title, “For the Time Being” is rooted in the popular expression, but also cleverly inverts the wording of Heidegger’s “Being and Time”. In “LIFE”, Brown draws the word “LIFE” in pink eraser. In “One Time or Another” he cuts up 19th Century star charts. In “Salt, Sand, Time”, he pours salt and sand (like an hour glass) to recreate the Rosetta Stone. In all of these instances a vast thematic profundity unites their scope. Since the 12th Century when Christian monks first saw physical labour as a means of contemplating divinity , there has been a connection in Western culture between hard work and profundity. Adam David Brown tethers this gap with his own calloused fingers.

Sky Glabush at MKG 127

published in Border Crossings, Summer 2012
“It all boils down to a question of faith.” This is the first sentence of Thomas Lawson’s classic 1981 essay, “Last Exit Painting” wherein he famously argued that representational painting was the last hope of the avant garde. In the decades that have followed, most painters (along with most worthwhile critics) have given up on notions of the Avant Garde or the “Neo-Avant Garde” due to the perceived irrelevance of a linear progression, master narrative view towards art historical styles and “advancing” methodologies that assigns value to works of art chiefly on the basis of novelty and historical priority. From this point of view, the idea that a series of black squares painted in the 1960’s could signal a final solution to anything is considered miserly and laughable. Although 60’s monochrome paintings might present an end point to a specific way of thinking about painting (a Modernist one), it is certainly not viewed as the definitive end, wherein no other scenarios are able to legitimately unfold. Most of the disparagement that the discipline of painting continues to receive is issued by antiquated art academics that stubbornly refuse to accept the downfall of their own blue-blooded, scholarly upbringing. (The flagship example of this is Art Since 1900’s meager discussion of art after 1985.) You can’t teach an old dog, new tricks, and this rear-guard vanguard are the oldest dogs in art town. One of the most fascinating aspects of Sky Glabush, however, has been the way in which he has fully taken on Neo-Avant Garde rhetoric, and much like Lawson, presented his conclusion that the only legitimate way “forward” for “advanced art” is through traditional, representational picture making.

Glabush’s recent exhibition, “Background”, at MKG 127 in Toronto continued this pursuit of painting as picture making, but in a manner quite different from his work of the past five years (which were mostly large scale, suburban landscape paintings). “Background” presented a stylistically eclectic mix of works. Each of these works made clear reference to earlier, Modernist styles that had implicit and/or explicit relationships to various systems of belief: spiritual, ideological and religious. The Modern era is perhaps chiefly characterized by its loss of faith, its move away from religious belief towards (possibly) the first secular society in human history. The paintings in this exhibition point towards the wide array of belief systems that artists, and Westerners in general (especially represented here by psychedelic, Hippie culture), have aligned themselves towards in order to fill that void.

One of the most intriguing groupings of works in this exhibition is the series of water-colour on paper paintings titled “The Secret Doctrine”. Clearly referencing early European Modernist abstraction like Paul Klee and Frantisek Kupka, Glabush uses the translucency of his material to achieve a stunning luminosity. Like crystal shards refracting light, Glabush frames these forms perfectly within the unrestrictive confines of their rectangular frame. The symmetrical geometry of their composition draws a clear parallel between these earlier Modern artists and non-Western religious paradigms. The use of symmetrical, centred compositional structures is a recurring motif that Glabush uses throughout “Background”. Through this shared convention, he forms ideological links across time and space, from the standard, Modern art historical cannon to Arabic religious art to 60’s psychedelia. The most challenging work on display, and it could literally be read as a provocation, is the large work titled, “untitled (sound)”. This text-based piece reads: “Have you heard of Bahá’u’lláh?” Glabush, who is a member of the Bahai faith, has rendered this work in graphite on canvas. Graphite, as a mineral compound, is a form of carbon that is very close to diamond. As the 35, 000 year old paintings of Chauvet prove, nothing is more archival than carbon. But this painting is also incredibly delicate. Touching up against its surface will smear and destroy its image. It is eternally fragile.

Although these new works by Glabush will most definitely be viewed by most as a departure from his last work, I am arguing that they are, in fact, an outgrowth from the ideological framework presented in those works. If Glabush’s large scale, low-intensity hued canvas’ of the previous five years can be read as portraits of a certain kind of decay, of a collapse in the Utopian ideologies that underpinned Modernist architecture into a crumbling, dystopian landscape characterized by vacancy, then his new paintings can quite clearly be seen as a logical continuation of that project. If Glabush’s previous work can be read as snapshots from the mortuary of Modern idealism (as embodied by a faded, suburban pastoral), then these new works are a report from its autopsy. The time of death is 1970. But it is the cause of death that is the true subject of Glabush’s radiant fascination.

Sasha Pierce and Jeremy Hof at Jessica Bradley Art + Projects

published in Canadian Art, Summer 2012
The exploration of paint as a physical material with three dimensional substance and body has been an enduring fascination within painting for sometime. From the discreet passages of impasto in pre-modernist works to the bombastic, comical employments of many contemporaries, the specificity of paints corporeal consistency has remained an alluring device. The signature stamp of many painters over the last hundred years has been embodied less frequently by scrawled, written characters than by an idiosyncratic material sensibility. The exhibition, “Paint as Object” brought together two contemporary painters who have added their own pages to this ongoing story. The artists, however, also reach well beyond the novelty of their paint application to present a hybridized blend of an intensely physical abstraction that is paired with an equally intense, but ephemeral, opticality.

Sasha Pierce makes her paintings by meticulously squeezing carefully considered hues of paint out of tiny holes in sandwich bags. She manipulates her material into fine lines of thick, corrugated paint that form fantastically dense pattern-based abstractions. Intersect is a particularly strong example of her process. In it, the radiating patterns of her delicate line work are contained within a semi-centralized octagonal shape that is thrust against an interlocking grid of zigzagged forms. Jeremy Hof’s paintings are made by applying hundreds of layers of coloured laytex and acrylic onto panels. The hypnotic, interlocking circles of his compositions are made by burrowing down through these layers of paint with a router or sanding by hand, creating bands of psychedelic colours. In both of these instances the image is revealed through excavation. Router works, such as layer painting yellow red circles, are reminiscent of geological core samplings. The sanding works, such as hand sanded mutli-colour #4, are a more archeological revelation.

Such work can run the risk of being written off as yet another contemporary novelty, but what takes these works beyond the ingenuity of their idiosyncratic paint application is the complexity of the opticality that results. The paintings completely disrupt visual perception. Like Bridget Riley’s paintings, Hof’s and Pierce’s are hard to look at in quiet contemplation. Lines start to waver, bend and warp as the laborious physicality of the obsessive materialism gives way. What’s left is the fleeting shimmer of our flawed vision.