INTRODUCTION TO LOCH GALLERY EXHIBITION, TORONTO & CALGARY, April/May 2011
John Hall’s paintings “… are symbolist in nature, symbolism here being understood as an employment of pattern, symmetry (or near symmetry, or compositional rightness) and an elusive quasi-sense (trying to “crack” their meaning will drive you mad) in the interests of some kind of summary performance. This performance is the painter’s work, a painterly validation of the artist’s being-in-the-world. In just such a sense is Hall the maker of an epic, ongoing autobiography of taste and (subsequent) meaning.”
Gary Michael Dault, “Ascending Pleasures,” BorderCrossings, Summer, 1994
Paintings from John Hall’s Sweetness & Light series from 2009-10 form the core of this exhibition, the artist’s first with the Loch Gallery. These paintings of doughnuts and liquorice allsorts and other candies continue the artist’s ongoing interest in popular culture and in the conventions of contemporary and pre-modernist realist painting, particularly those specific to the still-life genre.
John Hall’s career began in the ’60s, that explosive decade of chaos, reform, Aquarian reassessment, anarchic freedom, and blind belief that anything could be done. He aligned himself to one small creative movement that sought to make sense of the times, initially labelled new realism. Now we more often refer to realism with a prefix of hyper, photo, or extreme. This movement brought an essentially neutral objectivity to the field of cultural debris that the sixties revolution left in its wake. As a return to full realism evolved through the ‘seventies, Hall was excited by the possibilities realism offered and pleased to be able to participate in its growth. That excitement remains in place for him still, and working on paintings of piles of glazed doughnuts or liquorice candies spread on a base of tinfoil, as seen in the Sweetness & Light series, gives the artist the same level of intense pleasure as ever.
Initially Hall eschewed the use of pre-modernist pictorial conventions, preferring to employ many of the primary structuring elements found in advanced abstract painting of the mid-century, most notably an adherence to the flatness of the picture plane. Untitled Diptych (below left), a typical Hall work from 1968, displays most of the technical and formal qualities Hall employed through the seventies: very limited pictorial space, a seamless and notationally quiet surface, a symmetrical composition, and generally neutral subject matter. Tango (below right), a 60 x 60 inch-sized painting from 1977, differs from Untitled Diptych only in the artist’s use of dramatic lighting and more intense colour. Painted at roughly life size, Untitled Diptych was done from direct observation of a simple arrangement of discarded materials—black polyethylene, fabric, aluminum—arranged on the artist’s studio wall. By contrast, Tango is a dramatically enlarged depiction of a small maquette, measuring no more than twelve inches square. In it, the much more complex arrangement of a necklace, artificial rose, string of plastic beads, drapery and cloth ribbons are held in place with screws.
As New Realism evolved, some artists looked again at the science of optics, particularly its use in photography, and this dominated early discussions of how the return to realism should proceed. Largely despised and ignored by modernist painters since the later years of the nineteenth century, photography became for some new realists an invaluable tool, and for others a tool to be avoided. Siding with those artists generally opposed to its use, most notably Alfred Leslie and Philip Pearlstein, Hall started using photographs as reference material during a one-year residency at New York’s P.S.1 in 1979-80. Hall became intrigued by the way photographs are able to record simultaneously the full range of tonal values contained in, for example, a dramatically lit still life. By contrast, the eye tends to adjust quickly to passages of light and dark, resulting in paintings with a more even and less dramatic distribution of light. Working from photographs also enabled Hall to begin building still lifes containing more short-lived or ephemeral visual phenomena, for example, real flowers, rather than the artificial ones he had preferred in the seventies, or the highlights on the mirror shards in Handcuffs (below). By 1982, the year Hall painted Handcuffs, photography had become an important technical tool for him. To create Handcuffs an initial pencil contour drawing was done on the canvas from a projected 35mm negative, and he worked on the painting both from 8 x 10 inch colour prints as well as from the original still life. In recent years, Hall has been projecting computer-processed digital files, and works from reference images on a large format computer monitor in his studio along with photographic prints to create his paintings.
Hall’s paintings celebrate aspects of everyday, commonplace North American life, and still lifes of things to be found in the kitchen, artist’s studio, or other work spaces frequently occupy his interest.
Another significant ongoing interest of Hall’s is still life portraiture (see Nuclear Fever (Don) below) in which the subject provides objects of importance and meaning to her or himself. Nancy Tousley, curator of Hall’s solo exhibition Imitations of Life at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University in 1989, comments in her catalogue essay on the genesis of his process and points out the ways in which still life is uniquely suited to the challenge of portraiture. She writes:
“One of the themes to be read in John Hall’s ongoing series of Still Life Portraits is, in fact, how we construct realities and identities from the objects and images we choose out of a vast array of possibilities to signify ourselves. In his Still Life Portraits Hall collapses two traditional genres of realist painting, portraiture and still life, into a single still life image that represents the fusion of two separate identities: the artist’s and the sitter’s. Both parties are absent, outside of the frame of the image. This is where we would expect the portrait painter to be. However, the absent subject is present (or presented) solely as a composition of objects. To begin a portrait Hall asks its subject to lend him small belongings, stipulating only that they contain personal meanings for the owner. By making this simple request he opens the door to more aspects of a subject or personality than portraiture usually admits. The subjects, who knowingly enter the collaboration, are conscious of participating in an act of representation. And by selecting the things with more than ordinary meaning among their possessions, they are, whether consciously or not, identifying what they see as significant signs for themselves.”
“I stumbled upon the fairly obscure word ‘quodlibet’ while doing a search for an appropriate title for the first Quodlibet painting. I liked both the look and sound of the word, although the more I thought about its meaning the more it seemed to strike just the right tone. I intend quodlibet to have its philosophical meaning rather than its musical one (a typically humorous medley). The meaning I prefer is “a philosophical or theological issue presented for formal consideration.” So, just what is the “issue” being presented for consideration in these paintings? That an almost wholly artlessly depicted set of ordinary objects can be considered art. By artless I mean paintings that eschew the qualities frequently considered central to works of art, for example, overly active surface notation, usually in the service of emotional expression or decoration, and pictorial distortion, also used for the same reasons. Nevertheless, quite apart from any other considerations, these paintings manifest my ongoing passion for describing the appearance of often-overlooked common and everyday things.”