Gary Michael Dault is like a Colossus striding across the cultural landscape in Toronto, active most notably as an art critic but also as a writer, photographer and painter. Many visual artists owe him an enormous debt of gratitude for making their work visible via reviews in the Globe and Mail (when he was their main art critic) and in the myriad of magazines like Border Crossings, Canadian Art and Vie Des Arts. One could compare his stature to someone like John Bentley Mays, (recently deceased).

The art world is a fickle place with a wont for defining activities in a painfully exclusive way. During the Renaissance individuals gloried in multiple identities so figures like Leonardo Da Vinci could be renowned as a master in warfare, anatomy, science and painting. The modern era expects individuals to specialize so that a writer writes and a painter paints. It’s a dilemma if you practice both.

Burning Bright is the title of Dault’s current exhibition, baring his soul through paint and text at the Arts and Heritage Centre in a quaint rural town called Warkworth. The works are momentary visualizations drawn from the flux in his life over several years. Multiple notebooks are on display and throw light on his modus operandi. Dault’s primary activity is writing, which requires sitting at a desk, but he breaks the monotony by leaping up to generate images at breakneck speed. The pages are filled on both sides without the intention of creating a discrete work of art. They simply register a moment and provide visualization.

Harold Rosenberg’s existentialist description of Abstract Expressionism as Action Painting or ‘living in the moment’ shines through in the immediacy of Dault’s touch yet there is something beyond that too. He appropriates images and forms from art history, reproducing them faithfully in his compositions. His Pellan Vase painting contains a vase taken from a Pellan painting and a lemon taken from a De Chirico painting. Vase shapes abound in his paintings and confound the senses with the Cubistic ambiguity of combining a flat shape with the sense of depth imparted by the circular mouth.

Dault also inserts prose and poetry into his works, playing with text and scale in a manner reminiscent of the Dadaists. He has a comedic Tabletop Studio series on his blog that presents crude cardboard cutouts, embroiling the ‘artist’ in absurd narrative situations; for instance TABLETOP STUDIO No. 14: DOWN TO THE SEA. “He was making a sculpture, but it turned into a sailboat. So he deferred to fate and went to sea.” The ‘artist’ stands feet akimbo on a makeshift cardboard sailing boat before a painted ocean expanse. These comically poignant works express a strong sense of yearning.

Salt Mission is a poem inserted into acrylic and collage painting #11, Still Life. The image suggests a set of stairs set upon a tabular grid, playing with the idea of text on a page having reference beyond its physical structure to a realm of the pictorial. There is a sense of the artist undergoing an ordeal, perhaps of a mental nature, in order to regain balance. The poem begins with:

The errand takes you away for several days
keeps you remorseless on the salty side
left alone, your disorder rolls around the room unable to sleep.
The last lines read:
And you can’t go home again
until your bucket is full
and your eyes are as white as the salt.
An ocean of sadness is filling the ‘vessel’ to the very brim!!

More conventional acrylic paintings in the exhibition, like Terrarium and Aquarium, have a cosmic feel to them. Gridded structures expand the universe, inhabiting at once the flat and the spatial. Each form is evocative of an ideal rather than a specific shape. Fish-like shapes swim into categories and spaces as if colonizing a topographical mind. Dots and shapes act as possible locations for future imaginings and dialogues.

One wall has a display of cereal box paintings. Dault creates an ocean or lake with the sweep of a brush. Portions of the cereal signage peep through the paint and take on the identity of rocky shores or boulders. These works are quintessential Gary Michael Dault, filled with deft humour and confident poise.

A small, blue painting called Dante and Virgil presents two ‘containers’ floating above the earth in ethereal dialogue. Virgil, a Roman poet, wrote the Aeneid, a saga about a Trojan refugee struggling to reach his destiny while Dante wrote The Divine Comedy under his influence. In a sense Gary Michael Dault is himself a ‘container’ filled with vast cultural resources, dispensing his erudition in an age when much has been forgotten. He joins their conversation, brandishing his own painterly and poetic stamp of authenticity. 

Gary Michael Dault Burning Bright 20 Years of Visual Art 1996 – 2016
Art and Heritage Centre, Warkworth
October 14—November 20, 2016