John Hall’s forty-five year retrospective exhibition Travelling Light at the Kelowna Art Gallery, curated by Liz Wylie, lays a premise on the line. Hall comes to grips with contemporary culture proving that life is a series of relationships with objects, each having a place in a hierarchy of significance that is shaped by time, culture, social norms, and intellectual beliefs. The bottom line to existence is seated within a physical framework, “reality” and Hall is a realist painter, an artistic stance that has been in and out of favour since the advent of “isms”. He validates the genre.

Belief comes into play within realist painting. There may be irreconcilables within the frame of a Hall painting – this is not how objects usually come together – but Hall is convincing. His slight-of-hand is perfected so that his argument is successful, eased into existence, birthed without pain.

The struggle with object-hood produces the ongoing series of projects that make up lives. The philosopher Muriel Barbery posits that projects begin with desire and work towards completion only to put another desire in place. This cycle stops only within a work of art, a phenomenal object that exists in entirety with nothing else to be desired. As a means of conquering the difference between man’s inner space and “everything else”, John Hall secures a perspective on reality to grant that pause that releases one from the demands of physicality. To create the transformative pivot that freezes persistent yearning all elements must fall into an absolutely correct alignment.

Hall described his physical relationship to his subject matter when painting Drum in 1972. He had made a maquette of debris upon a wall to the right of where he was working on the painting. He drew his foot prints upon the floor so that he was always seeing it from exactly the same place. The magic of a shaman is most convincing when the hand is invisible and his position firm. A Hall painting is proof. It negates desire.

Hall takes into account the materiality of a complicated age where the vast infinity of outer- space is common knowledge while the tiniest of realities – neutrons and nano technology is made palpable with a scientific translation of the natural world. From the initial flourish of fantastic subject matter that he uses for imagery to the means of stabilization of the subject matter to the tools filled with the flush of brighter paints; unsubstantial matter, quotidian domestic utensils, the entertaining alter-ego of wrestling masks, theatrical garish sunsets, rocks, glistening jewellery, liquorices, lemons – our contemporary pandemonium. It is pop culture.

“He had not dealt only with ideas but with the refractoriness of matter” writes Hermann Hesse of a panansopist, striving for universal wisdom The stubbornness of matter. Hall reclaims stuff, often enabling us to see these disregarded manufactured objects for the first time. He combines disparate elements, elevating them into an elegant game that forms relationships where once there was only chaos. Often he inserts dubious overtones, sexual innuendos, straps, cuffs, a knife, a gun, each piece implying a fiction. With masks, the fear at not being able to recognize emerges, for even when the face behind the mask is smiling, the shape of the mask’s mouth is scary and to see a head in a plastic bag brings images of death, the last gasping breath. Yet floating around these vague portraits are toys – cheap, easily attainable, breakable springboards for childhood fantasy.

Hall’s is a life narrative told through objects. He illuminates Calgary (Flame, 1988) and San Miguel de Allende (Masks, 1995). Hall portrays people he has known using cloths and paraphernalia as stand-ins for physical beings. He exposes cultural trends without becoming didactic so that the jelly donut possesses as much potential for reverence as the simple sliced onion. He incorporates images of death drawing from Day of the Dead items and western vanitas traditions. And from 1992 to 1998 with the collaborative series Pendulum / Pendula, he even catches and receives with the artist Alexandra Haeseker.

Hall reconciles the irreconcilables. He grants pause. It is unimaginable that there could be anything more needed. And yet, throughout his work, despite his embracing object-hood – there is an edge. As if the whole story has not been told, a part is missing that is worrisome like life in all of its fullness, crowded with significance but not clarified. Hall’s close crops suggest worlds beyond the borders. His reflective surfaces mix up perception. His odd assortments could be destined for malevolent play.

Hall’s Zen-like technique is in service to a range of psychological motives that defy specificity and in so doing assimilate reality. 

John Hall Travelling Light
Kelowna Art Gallery
April 16—July 10, 2016

Nickle Galleries University of Calgary
January 26—April 29, 2017