While Louise Robert’s Toronto 25 is not an actual retrospective, it does provide a celebrational overview of the Montreal-based, septuagenarian artist’s painting practice, and, at the same time, the course of her work during her twenty-five year association with Toronto’s Christopher Cutts Gallery.
Robert paints words on her paintings. She always has, as far as I can tell. Sometimes the words are as terse as legends (“still there”), or labels (“singular black,” “words invented for you”) or jottings in a notebook (“if one could open the coffin it may make a story / to make / perhaps the story—it would be about you”) or texts that are almost haiku-like, in a gnomic, Gertrude-Stein-ish sort of way (“there was the sand / the day where there was…/ the day I made the drawing”).
What is dangerous—and exhilarating—about Robert’s employment of language in her paintings is that with very few exceptions—as, for example, with the raw, vigorous No. 78-367 from 2011 (Robert numbers her paintings rather than titling them), where the text (roughly translatable as “Words Invented for you”) is stencilled in red block letters across the bottom at the left), Robert’s chosen words are more frequently inserted into the surge of the paintings. They reside there not as agents of explanation or as extensions of the meaning that is already inherent in the work, but more as painterly elements in their own right.
In the hectically beautiful, tumultuous No. 78-169 (from 1990) you can actually see the quite determinedly surrealist words begin to disintegrate in the artist’s maelstroms of pigment, beginning from the relatively stable stencilling at the top (“…I no longer eat dessert since the river yellowed….”) and breaking up as they get tossed around in the rest of the painting. Subsequent words and word fragments appear to be “yesterday I photographed the sugar…and the noise (complaining?) of bones…” (“ossements,” bones, is roughly stencilled in pink and is positioned vertically). The rest of the words are particles—lingual flotsam—which possibly struggle to say “I am waiting… on the full moon.”
Apparently Robert rarely uses a brush, either to paint with or to add her texts to the paintings. Rather (in both painting and lettering), she prefers to apply and manipulate her pigments with her bare hands. I am told that for applying the words, she uses only her left hand. She may do so (I don’t know) in order to sidestep any possible vulnerability to the infections of procedural slickness. Some of the letters look as if they’ve been scratched into the paint. With a palette knife? With her fingernails?
I’ve talked a lot about the lettering but what about the miasmic paintings in the first place? Well, first of all, they’re tough. Tough and not pretty. Exquisite but not pretty. Some, like the milky 78-186 (from 1991), actually echo the J.M.W. Turner of The Pass at Faido (1843) or his Rain, Steam and Speed (1844)—but without the train. A couple, like the early 665 and 663, both works on paper from 1995, lead you to recall some of the bravado slash-and-leave works on paper of Julian Schnabel.
Some of Robert’s work is convulsive, like the superb and aforementioned 78-367, where the painting suggests a magmic landmass, heaving hotly up to a dark infinity, its upward flexing barely contained by a thick, clunky cord of red (with flecks of burning gold) attempting to hold it in check.
With 78-366 (from 2011), a painting not morphologically unlike its sister painting, 78-367, but about half its size, the focus (as it were) is tighter, and the endless black curve of infinity is no more than a tiny scrap of darkness in the upper right corner. The rest of this brawny canvas is nested, interlocked heaps of lambent colour—pinks, golds, whites, soft greys—applied to the canvas in that compelling Robertian way: as pushes and pokes and dextrous dibble-dabbles of paint that is both rough and lush. Perhaps because if its smaller size, 78-366 bears a sparser, leaner legend: “Nous Deux….Parfois” (“The Two of Us…Sometimes”). There’s an odd loneliness to the painting, a troubling echo-like atmosphere, which may or may not have anything to do with the plangent, tentative text it carries.
I ventured earlier that it was dangerous for Robert to shove painted words into her painted surfaces and it is, too (how can you risk making something “literary” out of work that is so muscular, so insistently unsentimental?). Robert somehow gets away with it, and her pictures gain distinction from the risk.
But texts or no texts, Louise Robert’s paintings are dangerous anyhow. First, it’s dangerous to make abstract paintings in the first place. Second, as abstract paintings go, hers are so bodily, so manually forceful, so earthy, so entirely without the deadening prevarications of (mere) style, that you give up your over-refined hesitations and dive in. At least I do. Don’t mess with Robert, I say. She makes the realest paintings around. And I bet she doesn’t care who knows it.
Louise Robert, Toronto 25
Christopher Cutts Gallery, Toronto
November 5—November 26, 2016