Just as there are certain buildings big enough to generate their own weather systems inside themselves (warehouses, airplane hangers, etc.), so it comes upon an artist, if he is tirelessly inspired over the long haul, that he, too, is creating – from the interior of his practice – a sort of “weather” of an expressive, instantly readable sort that finally begins to settle into a kind of mythology.

You could feel the development of this mythological ethos in a statement affixed to the wall of the spacious new Clint Roenisch Gallery in Toronto during the gallery’s recent mounting of Live by the Sun, Love by the Moon, an ambitious exhibition of mostly new works (and a few seminal earlier ones) by veteran painter Harold Klunder.

“To take in a Klunder painting,” the statement reads, “is to become privy to the narrative – the excavation – of one painter’s lifelong engagement with this most storied of mediums [i.e. oil pigments], its profound history and its unmistakable immediacy, always unfolding now, standing outside of time, receptive to the present viewers gaze.”

At the core of this summary apotheosis are two apparently contradictory or at least oxymoronic phrases: “unmistakable immediacy” (which is always the locus of any style) and “standing outside of time” (for that is the locus of any burgeoning mythology).

And I do think the Roenisch Gallery gets it exactly right in yoking together, in Klunder’s work, these apparently irreconcilable polarities: the vivid, irresistible present-ness of his paintings along with the feeling of their iconically aloof, unassailable eternality.

One of the compelling paradoxes of Harold Klunder’s work is the way the sensuous, procedural now-ness of the works (the eye-beckoning imperatives Klunder provides of whorls, dots, smearings, rubbings, drippings, loops, filigrees and filaments of pigment) so securely cohabits, within any of his paintings, with a sense that each of them has somehow always existed – almost as if they were found, rather than made. It makes sense, as well, for the Roenisch Gallery to choose the word “excavation” as an encouragement for the viewer’s uncovering or (thinking of pigment) unearthing of the secrets of what they refer to as the “narrative” of Klunder’s “lifelong engagement” with the oil medium.

Klunder tends to work on more than one painting at a time (sometimes a whole studio-wall of them), passing before them like an aesthetic drill-sergeant, adjusting (as it were) a tie here, a correcting a stance there, adding and altering a painting until a final work (a hardened veteran of modification) is somehow permitted to achieve the stasis that announces – for the artist – the work’s completeness.

I think that is why Klunder’s often heavy, congested, “weathered” paintings remain so continually vivacious: it feels as if they’re still waiting for the artist’s next pass at them.

There is another paradox at work in Klunder’s paintings: they are tremulous (sometimes even twitchy) but astoundingly strong. I think that is at least partly because to the vast plane of moments of painterly fine-tuning to which Klunder subjects each work is added the structural reinforcement, the rebar, of the figurative (or, if “figurative” is too solid a word for the dramatis personae of a Klunder painting, let’s just call them “the presence of presences”).

If you look at a painting like the recent Flemish Proverb (2009-2013), for example, you can see, amidst the painting’s downpour of thin, pigmented “rain,” a myriad of heads, faces, eyes, beings, staring balefully back out at you. Klunder never paints “pictures of nothing” (the phrase is the title of the late Kirk Varnedoe’s 2006 book about abstraction); rather, his paintings team with what is sometimes almost a Dante-esque profusion of figures, some of them so integrated into the work it takes awhile (a few minutes of aesthetic time, which is different from standard time) for them to pull free and announce themselves.

I don’t know what “Flemish Proverb” Klunder is referring to in his painting (being of Dutch origin, Klunder is closer to Flemish culture than I am), but it’s clear that the alter-like, triptych-type painting offers not only faces (some if them almost subliminally there) but also smaller, hieratic figures with raised arms – figures that bear the historical- mythological fragrance of supplication, forbearance, praise and/or terror. This is epic painting.

There is a sense in which Klunder is often thought of as an “abstract” painter (in most discussions of his work, there is almost certain to be a mention of his debt to abstract-expressionism – a debt which, if I can identify it at all, seems remarkably distant and faint). It seems much more fruitful to locate him as an extrapolation from the classic Dutch portrait tradition (Hals, Rembrandt, etc.) and on through 20th century European figurative artists artists like the Dutch Karel Appel, and the Danish painter, Asger Jorn.

Almost every painting Harold Klunder makes is a self-portrait. The recent Green Abstraction – though brazenly identified only as an “abstraction” of a certain colour – is one of the most elaborately worked-up portraits (with open, expressive – possibly shrieking – mouth, strangely attenuated neck, bust-like, plinth-like shoulders) I’ve seen from him in years: The painting – which is a Grinch-like green – is perhaps even too portrait-esque; for me, it trades painterly mystery for an unwarranted specificity – which brings it too much to earth.

But, as one expects from Harold Klunder, there are mostly masterful things here: one of my favourite works in the show is his Airmail Blue #1 (2014), a mostly grey-blue miasma of eyes, a couple of chocolate mask-like objects like New Guineas ceremonial masks, a couple of small painted objects (one orange, one red) that feel like figurines and a beautifully unashamed head floating in a delicate soap-bubble oval, a head bearing a simultaneous cubist-derived profile and full-frontal glance: Klunder out of Gauguin, sired by Picasso.

And there is a little (14” x 14”) painting on burlap that is an indisputable honey: Klunder’s Red Crimson Portrait (Self Portrait), painted – so the label tells is – from 2010-2013. The burlap gives the picture a weave. And, as a result, the fleshy, orange-red “portrait” attains a tapestry-like solidity that is almost fearsome. The “head: is like a coal still burning hotly in an otherwise deadened fireplace. The painting – small but mighty – shows to a mysteriously definitive degree what a painted portrait might be – a direct conduit to the cauldron of being.

Clint Roenisch Gallery, Toronto
October 24—December 6, 2014

Galerie Simon Blais, Montréal
November 19—December 20, 2014