The upstairs gallery space at Maison de la culture de Notre-Dame-de-Grâce is beautiful but tricky to install an exhibition in. It is a large, oddly intimate space, as it opens up and then curves away from the entrance. Well lit but somehow sombre in tone, one side of the room presents a series of geometrically angled walls that contrast with the more rectangular sections of wall opposite. An interesting and challenging space for an artist to install a show is an exciting prospect, but making the most of it is tough.

In Free Fall is an exhibition of recent works – paintings and some framed drawings – by Trevor Kiernander. As a show, it managed the challenges of the gallery environment with experimental gusto and graceful assurance. In some respects, the space of the gallery and the artist’s work were reminiscent of each other; Kiernander’s work is compositionally complex and delicately balanced, irregular in distribution, but nuanced into a harmonious shape that complements the exhibition space.

In recent exhibitions, Kiernander has followed an internal constructive compositional logic that overflows the edges of his canvases. He began installing networks of paintings across the space of a gallery to create multivalent painting environments in a search for complex syncopated harmonies of formal expression. This process starts in the studio as he works on canvases in a conjoined manner, playing with possibilities of completion while maintaining the individual character of each piece. This allows the paintings as a group to present a variety of different interlocking possibilities in the installation stage of the process.  

Living and Dying Like Tomorrow Was Yesterday (2018)
Oil, acrylic and pastel on canvas, 122 x 152 cm
Photo: Guy L’Heureux

In Free Fall continues that trajectory, with an assemblage of canvases and frames across and around the exhibition space. The title of the show could suggest the dichoto­mized sense of weight and weightlessness that one feels from the pictorial environments of the work. It could also reference the physical sensation that comes with looking into and around the show several times. 

It’s accurate but inadequate to say Kiernander’s work is formalist abstraction, in that he employs an all-over, non-representational pictorial approach and sticks to the picture plane in clear terms. At first sight, and in general, that could be true, but Kiernander’s way of researching, starting, and arriving at a finished work, and all of the different ingredients that go into inspiring and constructing that outcome, combine to make the term “formalist” seem somewhat too limiting. The art here is certainly a kind of self-referential, non-objective painting. It brings our attention directly to the technique, facture, and pictorial results, as Kiernander employs flattened spaces, all-over compo­sitions, and a wide repertoire of painterly marks and effects.

Unifying things, creating a logic and an order from a possible chaos, inventing a synthesis, has in a sense been the true subject of Kiernander’s work since he turned directly into the project of abstraction almost ten years ago (from a previously unambiguously figu­rative style, based on photographs). This point holds true for his influences and considerations of art history, from the local to the far ranging. Consideration of historical styles in the work is something that happens by design although it never becomes the main point of interest, in the sense of planned, postmodernist appropriation. The conceptual argument of Kiernander’s project is not mainly a commentary but a conversation, an examination of crucial historical modes of abstraction in Quebec and elsewhere, as related as methodologies that work together like overlapping software programs. Kiernander seems to be meditating on, as well as mediating between, Canadian and European modern and contemporary painting as a rule (as opposed to American in particular, although his practice is multivalent and includes glances in every direction, New York included). Sources and approaches from Charles Gagnon to Francoise Sullivan to Leopold Plotek seem relevant, as do the British artists Fiona Rae and Dexter Dalwood, all the way to the Leipzig painters Neo Rauch, Matthias Weischer, David Schnell, and Martin Kobe. Ultimately it is rigorous historical lyrical abstraction that stands as the ultimate ancestor to this work, from Wassily Kandinsky to Jean-Paul Riopelle and Joan Mitchell.

The art here is certainly a kind of self-referential, non-objective painting. It brings our attention directly to the technique, facture, and pictorial results, as Kiernander employs flattened spaces, all-over compo­sitions, and a wide repertoire of painterly marks and effects.

As a colourist, Kiernander tends toward earthy tonalities, smooth atmospheres, and understatement. He punctuates many pieces with stronger and brighter passages, searing our eyes here and there with a perfectly weighted area of chromatic saturation. He also considers the issue of monochrome within certain works by including large areas of unpainted cotton duck or linen, and by hanging smaller paintings that are all in one hue. And there are colour field–like areas in which he pours cascading runs of thinned paint. He possesses a large repertoire of paint applications. They enliven the surfaces of the paintings so much that they look like excavated and terraformed landscapes, seen from a bird’s-eye view. Masking tape is frequently used to create a hard line that sets off numerous cloud-like areas of activity over and around it. This brings a hard-edge aesthetic into the work without disrupting the overall morphology, adding another aspect to his vocabulary. 

Music, especially both the collagist-type style and the practice of DJ-ing with LPs – in other words, an improvisational overlapping manner of bringing things together into a coherent whole – is another crucial element in bringing Kiernander’s work (and style of installing it) to life. His background as a graphic designer, from which he acquired a practised sense of how to harmonize any composition and create a balance of internal elements, is used to skilfully knit the whole together, orchestrating every touch and angle, every corner and way a work might sit on a wall, in a syncopated but melodic unity.   

The show turns us around and around, as we take it all in, pausing to look at details, colours, moods, paintings, and drawings. The toughest single spot to deal with spatially in the gallery in terms of how to hang the room, the sort of keystone, is the eight-foot wall that juts out from the middle of the curving-around section of the space. In playing with experimentation and resolution, Kiernander anchors the show in the way that he anchors each painting, by making the boldest and toughest move he can, and then figuring out how to deal with it. It’s the kind of tactic that gives pictorial edge and visual power to his works, which they can acquire only through this type of risk. He often reconciles and persuades the space of a painting into a harmonious relationship with the hard-to-resolve painterly element or elements that he puts in over an open period of time. It’s an organic way to arrive at a finished painting, and it works as a frontal strategy for In Free Fall. Having the exactly eight-foot-wide and six-foot-high diptych The Edge of the Map occupy and dominate that ornery wall, butting out into the show, makes it work. The Edge of the Map is a powerful painting, graceful in some sections and quiet in others. This allows the rhythm of the whole show to float around, rising, falling and then landing in one sweeping gesture. In Free Fall was Kiernander’s statement that in future exhibitions he intends to continue increasing the scope of his expanding practice, while permitting none of its original strengths to be lost in the process. 

Trevor Kiernander: In Free Fall
Maison de la culture de Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, Montreal 
August 30 – October 21, 2018