Essays on Painting: Charles Rea and Johannes Zits

Two essays published in “Altered Visions” catalogue for series of exhibitions curated by Susan Edelstein at Artspeak Gallery, Vancouver, British Columbia, 1998

Painting and Other Acts: The Recent Work of Johannes Zits

“Place a Fantaisie” acrylic on billboard, 2.5 x 3.6 metres, 2000

The large print-outs of designer interiors seemed foreign in the dusty warehouse studio, smelling incongruously of ink jet spray. Images of generic comfort were photographed as if for an upscale bed-and-breakfast brochure, promising both familiarity and fantasy in an uncontroversial setting. Next thing I knew they were on the floor, Johannes poised like Jackson Pollock over the surface of a pristine digitized image. Gloppy, spattering paint landed with a certain precision upon the pixellated reproduction with palpable transgressive effect. I guess you only get one shot at these, eh Johannes?– if you mess up you have to start all over. Johannes laughed, nervously.

When I first met Johannes he was a straight-ahead painter. Or as straight-ahead as anyone could be, back in 1981. We were all messy oil painters: young, and caught up in a wave of self-definition, killing our post-painterly fathers. What I mean by straight-ahead is the idea that paint itself embodied some kind of subjective honesty, a direct line to the core of humanist expression, harkening back (of course it goes further back than this) to a pre-World-War-II expressionism. Johannes’s earlier work consisted of life-size portraits of his family and friends, the paint calling up the gestural quality of Alberto Giacometti. Later work positioned nudes in ambiguous settings, which register only enough to point out the psychological distance between the figures.

What we might not have been so conscious of then were the structural conditions of an 80s’ boom economy and the conditions driving the art world back to an emotional reunion with the acceptable bourgeois commodity item. As Benjamin Buchloch pointed out in his 1981 essay Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression , the return to representation in European painting in the late 70s’ (and its subsequent reverberations in the various international art scenes) invoked the historical amnesia of 1930s Social Realism, its subservience to fascist and socialist regimes comparable to the restrictive imperatives of capitalism under Thatcher and Reagan. The brush-stroke’s complicity was its claim to unmediated expression of subjectivity, taking us all down the garden path in melancholic rumination over  the loss of pre-industrial notions of individualism.

Some of us gave up. Some of us changed channels. Some of us moved on to photo-and-text installations . Some of us consciously put bags on our heads, and kept on painting. The working fiction of a craft-based medium is that if you persevere, your technique improves, And straining the narrative even further, a consciousness of technique (because it is so heterogeneous, and arbitrary without this) is a consciousness of concept, historical process, and the survival of painting. The anti-aesthetic (or lack of training, however you want to look at it) of 80s’ painting couldn’t take this into account; it needed time to develop its own fictions. It became harder to be straight-ahead. You’d be accused of being a knuckle dragger, a monkey painter.

Johannes, who is of Dutch extraction, began to account for his own identity in the early 90s’. By adapting the brushwork of Frans Hals or early Piet Mondrian, his work reconstituted Dutch landscape as might be seen by the tourist from a bus, in painted snapshot compositions of pilgrimages to family origins.These paintings were moving away from the existential implications of earlier work into a search for the constitution of self as found through nationality, both personal and artistic. When this search for self moved into the realm of sexual orientation, the paintings became figurative again; but the figures were ready-mades, lifted from gay pornography magazines, inhabiting Ikea-like domestic interiors.

“Salon Moderne”, acrylic on billboard output, 2.5 x 2.5 metres, 1999

Johannes’s current work’s salient feature is the separation of figure (or figures) from the ground by a dichotomy of media: photography = ground, paint = figure. This apparent split formally invokes the desire for reconciliation between the two (that old painting saw). The nude figures in their multitudinous splotches of flesh tones are at times barely distinguishable as a couple in an embrace or at other times separate, occupying different parts of the room in relational tension. His figures move through luxurious settings of velvet and brocade on thick, off-white pile rugs, with carefully arranged intimations of traditional values and the pretense of old money . Here, we have hired housekeeping in a Vermeer casting of light. These figures have time for their idylls; they also have time, apparently, to work out at the gym. They represent lifestyle choices, which, pushing the edge of plausibility, suggest we go shopping. Because we are not quite perfect. There is room for improvement, or our rooms need improving, we’re not quite sure which. Desire, though, remains at an ineffable remove within the insistence of the decor (no matter how rich) and the generic nature of the featureless figures (no matter how trim and fit). We have, too, the domestication of the painterly sign. The drops and splotches recall us to that fraught moment of the post-WW-II abstract artist, poised in the arena of the canvas, about to commit an act of creation. We are cheated of that vicarious experience as the mark coheres, focuses, moves us into the more prosaic demands of representation. There is a self-conscious calculation in its placement – even minimal attention to signification will undo its free-wheeling expressionist autonomy. This is made all the more explicit in its present context of pixellated ground. The structure of paint becomes the underside of digitization, and vis-versa . Both become abstract; but given certain distance of focus, they freeze into recognizability. Like signage that, once registered , becomes legible from previously impossible distances, we are captured by the image. And, once we’re in there, how do we get out.

“Traditional Home”, acrylic on billboard output, 2.5 x 3.2 metres, 2000

Published in “Altered Visions” catalogue for series of exhibitions curated by Susan Edelstein at Artspeak Gallery, Vancouver, British Columbia, 1998

Who’s Afraid: The  Recent work of Charles Rea

The translucent glazes sit uneasily on the synthetic, metallic ground, their arbitrary viscerality recalling bodily fluids, or unformed desire. Or so they often say about paint. Eventually it can be seen that there is some method in the application , small frenetic up and down motions, digit sized. Short actions of the wrist. But there is a coolness to the paint, and then I realize I am looking at an unfolded canvas, a Rorschach print. The resulting image is short on focal depth, like a photograph pulled out of the developer too soon.

Charles Rea, Occupational Hazard, oil on vinyl, 110 x 302 cm, 1998

In the early 80s paintings of Charles Rea we have a crystalline space of unfolding rectangles literally painted on books, the physical structure of their composition echoed in the illusionist representation. Like a child’s kaleidoscope the images suck us into their vertiginous perspectives, our viewing is stopped flat by the oppressive heavy paint . What were once open books have become subtexts, hidden by the skin of paint.

Charles Rea, Love God, acrylic on books mounted on plywood 117 x 166 cm, 1981

In the later work (1993-96)  the books flatten out, but they are at least offering their titles. In their cosmetic packaging they seem formally organized by a certain logic of colour until we find common themes in the receding columns (ah, we’re in the self help section?) pushing us in and out of the flat matte monochrome picture plane, toying with our emotions as we puzzle over their ersatz vanishing points. Whose book collection is this anyway, the titles of contemporary and historical artists’ monographs sandwiched between a wide range of popular reading selections, from Dr. Suess to Danielle Steele to Jean Paul Sartre, vaguely conjuring up the identity of a third year university liberal arts student, collapsed onto the reading shelf at the cottage. However, all they can give us now is the promise of their  brightly coloured promotional graphics, the contents of one book easily substituted for the contents of another, left unread.

Charles Rea, Differential, oil on canvas, 247 x 191 cm, 1996

By 1996-97 the images of books have metamorphosed into diagrammatic doodles, their configuration developing incrementally in counter clockwise fashion round the large canvas. Their quasi-scientific appearance suggests a technological optimism or cyclical healing pattern as the figures migrate across the uniform ground colour, like a time release mechanism moving inexorably towards another conclusion or another beginning. They shift only very quietly in hue and intensity, but one is not sure if this is because of their actual difference in colour or the effect of inconsistent conditions of light in the room; the measure of actual differences of pigment, or simply the circumstances of perceptual instability. Objective or subjectively fluctuating. Does it matter?

Charles Rea, The Comedians, oil on canvas, 247 x 191cm, 1997

In the current works (1997-98) the figure ground dichotomy is similar; articulation of image separates itself from a flat, but this time luminescent, silver ground. The modulated colour has a chemical acerbity: quinachrodone and dioxine violets, pthalo blues and greens, hansa oranges, exacerbated by nervous, vertical markings which upon closer viewing don’t serve any descriptive purpose. In the smaller, more intimate works the image is doubled once, an interior space is folded to create a fictive passage to its vanishing point. These images are taken from a variety of sources (architectural digests or technical manuals) of hospitals, clinics, prisons, banks, civic ministries: all institutions devoted to corporal or corporate management. As structures they require certain codes of behaviour and our tacit compliance. Notably, the expectation of the human figure is disappointed; we are forced to traverse those passages of erie quiet ourselves. The cold trajectory seems limited in psychological specificity, making us fearful of the generalizing effect of the cure. In the larger diptychs the folding is doubled again. The original source image is split, the left side folded to mirror itself on one canvas, and likewise the right on another. They are then seamed together to form a diptych, divided by sister colours. What was an asymmetrical image becomes two symmetrical images, presented for scrutiny like non-identical twins. Taken from images of factories and machine shops, these paintings are more alien, more viscerally threatening. The materiality of the paint in its agitated consciousness resting lightly on the surface stops us from any kind of reassurance of renaissance perspective. We are, ostensibly, centered, but we have to do a double take.

Charles Rea, Hearing Impaired, oil on vinyl, 117 x 281 cm, 1998

As we discover that what is in one image is not in the other, our peripheral vision is called upon in an attempt to stabilize. We are left with an unresolved stereoscopic vision that suggests that the right and left hand sides of the brain have yet to synthesize. What were assembly lines, production bays and tooling machines anthropomorphize, the Rorschach allowing us to identify and re-invent ourselves as monsters in crisis. The titles of these paintings refer to institutional descriptions of what could be a myriad of human conditions. ‘Hearing Impaired’, ‘Leave of Absence’, ‘Occupational Hazard’ create categories to define interruptions of production which are a result of human frailty in relation to possibly oppressive conditions. The industrial sites too are certainly melancholic in their depiction of archaic or soon to be redundant technology. Like a sick nervous system the disoriented body of production is pinioned, spread-eagled for examination. We are touched by the fear of loss of motor control, touched  the desire for equilibrium,  touched by the need for gainful employment. Or maybe our disequilibrium is the active state, the real condition of our relation to the authority and approval of the institutional mind. Charles Rea’s paintings in their spectacular quality hint at a certain beauty in their reflections of instability. The monolith of order is the mirage. Our grounding is flexible, our own unruliness  a part of the equation as much as the conspiracy of circumstance.

Charles Rea, Leave of Absesnce, oil on vinyl, 112 x 320 cm, 1998
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