The basis of any good work of art, be it a painting or sculpture, is drawing. And yet this quintessential form of expression has slunk into oblivion in the past decades, and an exhibition of drawings is a rare beast indeed. Few artists reach for the ancient medium of charcoal on paper, but when they do, for a brief moment the cacophony of technology recedes, replaced by quiet contemplation that the simplicity of a line drawing inspires. More often than not, writing is incorporated into, or accompanies the drawing, as these two mediums seem to be drawn together (pun unintended) through time. William Blake’s illustrated verse is perhaps the best example of such a creative symbiosis.
At the entrance to a recent exhibition of drawings by Jim Holyoak is a wall of text, handwritten and instantly captivating. A fantastical fable of a Nowherewolf, written by the artist, Lycanthrope is both a prelude to the images, and their companion. Writing appears over and over among the black-and-white drawings of different format that cover the walls of the gallery, mostly in the form of newspaper clippings that serve as seeds of inspiration for this young artist. Born in Michigan, Holyoak grew up in British Columbia, and now resides in Montreal, focusing his talent on drawing-installations and book-works, and it is the former that attracts at his latest showing.
Using charcoal, ink and gouache on paper, he has created a visual landscape that has to be read, drawing by drawing, as each encapsulates a world onto itself. Mythical, hybrid, Holyoak’s menagerie is somewhat gothic in its shadowy presence; his fantastical, surreal creatures are enigmatic, and slightly menacing—fanged bats with outstretched wings marked by the imprint of a human palm; a giant coyote with human eyes (the artist’s), a stalking wolf. Many resemble otherworldly creations, emerging perhaps from the strange, psychedelic world of abstracted landscapes that appear among the figurative drawings. (They resemble Luis Muhlstock’s Mindscapes, automatic paintings he did towards the end of his life.) There are tiny drawings of black cats at play, of birds and serpents, and white on black, negative images of tiny sea creatures. Clues can be found in above-mentioned clippings of what constitutes the artist’s universe of inspiration: fragile krill, wolves, cats, bats, seals, a picture of a dog called “Sam the Ugly”, all find their way into Holyoak’s drawings in one form or another. Like Borges’s Book of Imaginary Beings, this drawing installation is a visual page-turner, with images assembled in a seemingly haphazard manner, forcing the viewer into a kind of a dance in front of the floor to ceiling display. Holyoak’s line is fabulous, as is his application of the medium, unencumbered, free flowing, resulting in drawings that are both a sketch and a finished work. From small to large, loosely pinned to the wall, against a background which is a work of art in itself—an inky forest of gestural smudges, Holyoak’s drawings are about art as much as they are about the mind of the artist, with an underlying thread of profound thinking, and an appreciation of nature and the animal world.
Drawing is the most inalienable medium. It is private, it practically doesn’t have an audience in mind, just the artist’s expression. (Betty Goodwin)
Far from morbid, Adair’s series of miniature charcoal drawings exudes black humour and wicked irony, while all the time dealing with the dark side of our contemporary existence. This collection of 30 new works is the latest instalment in decades long project titled Death Dreams a Martini. Between 2004 and 2011, Adair produced over sixty small charcoal drawings inspired by the art history of the 14th century Western Europe; not the happiest of periods, with its plagues, wars and hunger. The narrative weaving through this endless graphic novel of sorts deals with our struggle in the increasingly hostile reality of our own creation, with Death as the main protagonist.
“It’s no crazier than Homer really,” Adair explains. “The basic outline is simple: Death comes to earth but we’ve nearly killed ourselves off through our bad behaviour.”
In the latest series, the fate of Death’s children is revealed, but familiarity with the ongoing narrative is not necessary for the appreciation of Adair’s drawing talent and quirky imagination. When he embarked on this project back in the 90s, he “was specifically interested in creating an undesigned, open-ended series that would develop an iconography of nonsense that would evolve in a parallel way to the nonsense story of modern life. Modernity as we witness it is quite strange.” But no stranger than Adair’s scenes of Death as it navigates our world.
The latest addition is somewhat more dense, the drawings darker, both in tone and mood. The skeletal hero of the series is more fleshed out in the new compositions, and as such, has lost some of the grotesquely comical aspect of his character, gaining in vulnerability. There is a new intensity in Adair’s drawings, a certain loss of light, both in the visual and emotional sense. Hope may not be gone, but it is certainly in hiding. With so many years devoted to this continuing saga, Adair has invested his personage with more than just a story to tell. Like all art, this series runs parallel to the artist’s personal life, and there is no denying the current of subconscious that runs through the works. The drawings are identified by their titles, ‘written’, incorporated into the image, showcasing Adair’s black humour, from the bottle strewn Hope’s Beach, to The Garden Gate with a reference to the Garden of Eden, but one of a very different kind.
Accompanying Adair’s series is an exhibition of works by Elizabeth D’Agostino, offering an interesting juxtaposition to his drawings. Taking inspiration from the natural world, D’Agostino creates unusual hybridized forms, combining biological imagery with abstracted organic shapes. Loosely assembled against an empty background, they resemble odd specimens, at once familiar and alien. Using silkscreen and charcoal on paper, she has created a fabricated landscape that provokes curiosity with its strange compositions, as in Nature Collapse episode 1, and Nature Collapse episode 3. The odd configurations are surprisingly present, usurping their pictorial role with quiet persistence. Captured as if in a suspended movement, they demand a reaction, reaching out to our confused senses with a promise of revealing their true nature. A promise impossible to keep as the answer lies with the beholder. Clearly inspired by the artist’s entomological and botanical research, they are imaginary creations of unnervingly familiar proportions. Curiosity about the provenance of these bizarre fragmented oddities soon gives way to a quiet contemplation of the composition itself, with all its sparse elegance.
The plastic demands are met through the integration of form and function, which also gives tension to the compositions despite their apparent simplicity.
Drawing and colour are not separate at all; in so far as you paint, you draw. The more the colour harmonizes, the more exact the drawing becomes.
Colour and form are the building blocks of Walter Bachinsky’s oeuvre, but its pillar is drawing. A classical modernist, he is one of Canada’s best draughtsmen, his mastery of the medium of drawing present in all of his production, be it prints, pastels, bas-reliefs or sculpture. His art is instantly identifiable, compositions populated by classical figures drawn from antiquity and the works of Great Masters. There is a steady progression in his career, marked by thematic series that would continue into the present. From early black and white prints and drawings, Bachinski moved on to bas-reliefs and sculpture, finally incorporating colour in his pastel works. His favourite themes remain the Mother and Child, and the timeless subject of Model and Artist. His prints of still life are in a category of their own, completing the thematic circle. But regardless of the medium, drawing takes precedent in all of Bachinski’s works.
In a small, and long overdue retrospective of his work, the Birth of Venus series instantly seduces with its fluid lines and light-infused hues. The figures are drawn as much with a pastel stick as they are with colour and light, which resembles living energy sculpting the bodies.
The artist’s virtuosity is on display in an emotionally charged portrait of Mother and Child, where with but a few simple lines their features are brought to life. Reminiscent of Picasso’s early figurative drawings, Bachinski’s Madonna shimmers with colour against a dark background.
His etchings of still life are a showpiece for his mastery of colour; bold, pure, incorporated into the composition on par with the forms, the bowls of fruits and vases of flowers. The drawing is in the details of the floral arrangement, and in the deceptive simplicity of the composition itself.
Cyclamen on Model Stand blinds with its vibrant palette, Bachinski’s signature cobalt blue centre stage. This striking composition, with its tangle of geometric and organic forms, is truly accomplished.
As for Bachinski’s sculptures, they seem to have walked out of his drawings. They echo his loosely molded figures on paper, slightly incomplete, still, like the Venus, in the process of being born. His bronze pantheon brings to mind Greek statuary, as in his standing Orpheus, resembling a modern version of a Kouros. Like Seated Figure Arranging Hair, it is a Bachinski drawing in three-dimensions, its dark bronze like condensed ink.
JIM HOLYOAK LYCANTHROPE
Galerie Donald Browne, Montréal
MARK ADAIR THE HUNGRY THROAT OF THE SEA
ELIZABETH D’AGOSTINO NATURE COLLAPSE
LOOP Gallery, Toronto
WALTER BACHINSKI APPROACHING CLASSICISM
Han Art Gallery, Westmount
April 11—May 12, 2013