By Ken McGoogan
“Put yourself inside this painting,” I would
tell student-writers. “Enter into one of these characters, or into one of
these figurines, or even into one of these vegetables. Look around from that
perspective and, using the first-person singular, describe what’s going on
-- what you are experiencing.”
Over the years, while teaching creative writing workshops, I have tried this exercise using various paintings. None of them – no work by Magritte or Picasso, no work by Edward Hopper – has called forth anything approaching the imaginative responses I receive whenever I used a painting by John Hall. The Hall painting I like to use for this exercise –Luchadores – does not form part of this show. But others in that same wildly colourful series are here – Angel, Cielo Vespertino, Muñeca, Nuclear Fever – and they’re equally energetic, suggestive and magical. The same holds true of almost all the works included from other series. How does John Hall work such magic? I don’t pretend to know. I am neither a painter nor an art critic. As a layman, I can only report that, when I first laid eyes on Hall’s work, I immediately realized: “Now here’s an artist!” Knowing nothing about Hall, certainly not that he had lived for many years in Mexico, I assumed that the evocative Mexican imagery, together with the sophistication and cosmopolitan polish of the work, meant that this artist, so manifestly of international stature, hailed either from Latin America or else from New York. And as a proud Canadian, I blush to confess that I did a double-take when a gallery owner assured me: “No, no,
John Hall comes from Calgary.” Why am I such a fan? Well, I admire Hall’s range – from the chuckling spirituality of a work likeAngel to the self-deprecating humour of Nuclear Fever. Everywhere you look, you see a twinkle in Hall’s eye. I mean, a toy Mountie holding a paintbrush like a staff? On the other hand, what about that sublimely expressive face in the background? Hall’s eloquent, suggestive juxtapositions open up vistas for self-insertion and personal interpretation – and, indeed, demand them. The Buddha echoes the smiley-face valentine, the caged figure looks out over firecrackers – what does it all mean? The answer, Hall makes clear, is for us to decide.
I admire, too, the artist’s avid appreciation of the mundane, which features in work like3.02.99: have drying dishes ever proven so vividly active? Hall not only makes us look, really look, at everyday objects, but makes those objects suggest stories. What exactly happened at that dinner party? Why do we strongly believe that the dinner guests had a great time? Or do we? Almost certainly, we are not unanimous.
I love Hall’s bright colors, and his mastery of light, reflection and transparency. His compositions I find extraordinary – the way he builds energy into a painting and keeps it there, swirling, self-contained. Bottom line, I hugely admire the craftsmanship that went into these works – the sheer technical skill, at once obvious and incredible.
In admitting this admiration, possibly I reveal myself to be a philistine, or at best old-fashioned. Fact remains: I’m just not impressed by any painting that consists of three broad lines or a multitude of squiggles. I want to see work that, even if I could conceive or imagine it, I could never, ever accomplish, if only because it requires such mastery of craft. To John Hall, hats off! To everyone new to his work: Here is an artist!
AuthorKen McGoogan has won the Writers’ Trust of Canada Biography Prize, the Canadian Authors’ Association History Prize and, in the United States, a Christopher Award for a work of artistic excellence that “affirms the highest values of the human spirit.” His latest books are Fatal Passage and Ancient Mariner.