Order and Ritual: John Hall in and out of Mexico

By Alexandra Haeseker

Artists’ works trail out behind them like a wake from a boat. Often while artists are in the midst of working, their destination remains invisible. Only years later, with perspective, does clarity emerge for both the person who made the work, and the artists’ audience. This text is my look into the persistence of Mexico on the studio practice and inspiration of Canadian artist John Hall. The story of this is bookended, beginning with four friends – two artist couples – John and Joice Hall and my husband Derek Besant and me – and ending with John Hall leaving Mexico to live and work in Kelowna, BC.

A photo of John Hall outside his 1966 San Miguel de Allende studio

John Hall, San Miguel de Allende MX 1966

A photo of John Hall in his San Miguel de Allende studio, 1993

John Hall, San Miguel de Allende MX 1993

For a decade in the 1990s, we shared the experience of living, working, and exploring deep into the heart of Mexico for half of each year, and we enjoyed the frequency of social visits between our respective studio residences. Evenings together would always begin by lingering where our ongoing work was laid out; we could witness each other’s progress from week to week, and see bodies of work emerge that would later become exhibitions that were shown in museums in Mexico and Canada.

I was fortunate to be witness to the powerful subjective influence of Mexico on John Hall’s paintings from the very beginning of this process. From 1966 to 1968 I studied in the advanced classes at the Alberta College of Art in Calgary, shortly after John had graduated from there. He won the prestigious Sauza Tequila Award, allowing him to work for a year at the Instituto Allende in San Miguel de Allende, in the state of Guanajuato, in central Mexico. The still-life paintings he did there using local Mexican materials were shown at the gallery of the Alberta College of Art upon his return.

Mexico – the word conjures up verdant visions of tropical delight – trees abundant with fruit, blue seas and warm beaches, mountain ranges and volcanoes – sounds of flamenco, church bells, revolutions – burros, men in white cotton pants, and women behind fans who dance to guitar music, birds of paradise, nights of fireworks …. Little did a then-twenty-two-year-old graduate from the Alberta College of Art (ACA) know, as he arrived at San Miguel de Allende in 1965 with his young wife and new baby daughter, in their dust-covered car, that this place, its setting virtually unchanged since the sixteenth century, 6300 feet above sea level, between the arms of the Sierra Madres, on the southern tip of the Chihuahua Desert, would allow him to create some of the most idiosyncratic paintings in his artistic career.

The Instituto Allende in San Miguel was a studio-based art school. Two earlier important ACA graduates who studied there were artists Ron Spickett and Roy Kiyooka. John followed in their footsteps, relishing the fact that the Bellas Artes in San Miguel de Allende (within walking distance) actually housed two murals by the Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros. Additionally a major mural by Diego Rivera was in the opera house in Guanajuato (half an hour away), and the museums and galleries of Mexico City were a three-and-a-half-hour bus ride away. There he could visit the famous studio/houses of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and saw first-hand their surroundings, collections of folk art, retablos, and pre-Columbian figurines. The ghosts of these past artists urged Hall on in his quest as a young painter from el norte.

San Miguel de Allende – cut-stone churches housing effigies of saints with bleeding eyes, Virgins in trailing robes sewn with cast metal milagros, plus on Good Fridays, a crucifixion enactment ritual an hour away at Atotonilco, followed by the famous annual Easter Sunday silent funeral procession in the cobble-stoned centre of San Miguel. This last ritual is timed for sunset, when torches are lit, and statue idols of the Passion are worshipped as chosen citizens carry their weight solemnly through the streets. Catholicism is on display at its most gaudy and spectacular.

On non-holy days the market streets in San Miguel have vendors calling out like town criers, and women stack limes, mangos, and avocados. There are tables bearing arrays of items constructed in metal, wood, and plastic. Bigger hand tools and household wares are laid out on ground tarps in splendid disarray. There are flower sellers and a toothless cinnamon stick vendor – waving away the exotic Monarch butterflies that migrate thousands of miles over the continent. Along with Tequila Maguey plants, there are purple-blooming Jacaranda trees, thorny Huisaches, tangled Mesquite trees, plus Garambullo, Walking Man, Barrel and Nopal cacti, all of which define the timeless desert landscape. For a painter, Mexico could be a true bombardment of the senses. The place gave John a new freedom to bring to his work. All around him was different subject matter, certainly, but more than that, he could now and did enter into a new complex and subtle narrative in his still-life paintings, one that had both invited and uninvited influence he simply could not ignore.

In 1987, twenty-two years after John’s Mexican sojourn of 1965-66, Joice and John rented a house for four months in San Miguel to work, and they invited Derek and me to come to visit. They met us at the airport in Mexico City, and we took a local bus together to San Miguel. We arrived in the dead of night, with a luridly lit tuba band and singer performing in the town square. We walked through the cobble-stoned streets, past the open doors of a coffin shop with poignant small white boxes stacked like pale reminders, with a flickering glow of street lamps keeping time with the rain. During the days that followed, John and Joice encouraged us to explore the town on our own, while they continued to follow their well-defined studio discipline: working on their paintings during the morning hours after breakfast, then through the afternoons after lunch, until dinner and sunset marked the end of the work day. Then it was time for us to reconnect. Their timetable was familiar to us from our own mutual experiences of producing bodies of work for scheduled exhibitions at our dealers’ art galleries in Canada.

A small acrylic painting by John Hall titled Tlaxcala

Tlaxcala, 1988, 24 X 24 inches, acrylic on canvas. Private collection.

A small acrylic painting by John Hall titled Sinaloa

Sinaloa, 1988, 24 X 24 inches, acrylic on canvas. Private collection.

A small acrylic painting by John Hall titled Campeche

Campeche, 1988, 24 X 24 inches. acrylic on canvas. Private collection.

A small acrylic painting by John Hall titled Zacatecas

Zacatecas, 1988, 24 X 24 inches. acrylic on canvas. Private collection.

For John, the quest was ongoing for local hand-made tourist items, kitsch ceramics, sewn fabric dolls, perforated metal lanterns, and wooden crucifixes, which he would use for painting. He would set up his finds against simple grounds as individual representations of each of the thirty-two states of Mexico. The names of these areas are evocatively foreign and mysterious to Canadians, the objects humble but their displays shrine-like. With his obsessive daily painting schedule, there was something stirring within John that unleashed an underlying urgency in his series of small-object paintings. The work was an exercise in description – of how to render the crude surfaces of glazed details on a fired clay rooster, or capture the slap-dash paint application of features on a coconut husk mask. John set his aim as a realist to translate those underdog trinkets into skillfully rendered images of wonder, illuminated by sunlight against ghastly coloured grounds. His method seduces a viewer due to the rich treatment the objects are given, but is subtly submerged under what John called “the skin of the painting.” His paint handling was cool and understated, deceptively neutral in his de-constructed formula of planes of colour, with shadows and highlights to set these apart within his shallow pictorial space. John could paint with great economy, and he could paint anything he set up in front of his easel! His thirty-two “state” paintings also followed the seventeenth-century Dutch painting formats of pronkstillevens, in which the space was usually dark and enveloping, with a flat table surface on which an arrangement of lushly described objects are displayed. These relate both in their context as well as sub-textual meanings to one another.

During that same visit in 1987, on a rooftop patio in the heart of Mexico, on a night live with salsa music playing in the street below, under a shooting-star night sky John, Joice, Derek, and I began a lively discussion about Peter Greenaway’s films, Simon Schama’s books, our upcoming exhibitions in Toronto, and what each of us was working on in our San Miguel studios. Derek proposed the question to John: “When are you going to do an exhibition of this work in Mexico?” John’s response was pessimistic: “Who is going to arrange that?” To which Derek recklessly replied: “Well … I am!” And with the launch of that trajectory, Derek remained good to his word. During the next five years John concentrated on producing a body of work for this show, at the same time as meetings were set up in Mexico City, the Canadian Embassy was brought on board, corporate business partners were secured, the catalogue was designed, international cultural grants were strategized, and the exhibition Traza de Evidencia was scheduled as a feature show at the prestigious Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City. It opened there in 1993, and then travelled to the Glenbow in Calgary afterwards. The work John had produced for this would prove to be a huge success, in his outlandish sacred and profane treatment of the subject matter, and a tour-de-force handling of both paint and scale.

A photo of John Hall and Alexandra Haeseker in Mexico, 1988

Alexandra Haeseker with John Hall in

San Miguel de Allende MX, c 1988

During the years following our significant 1987 time together in San Miguel, with its sky-is-the-limit rooftop revelations, Derek and I visited John and Joice Hall several subsequent times to further the plan and set all the parts in motion. By 1988 year they had settled into their own new house and studios on the hill above town in order to seriously commit half of each year to living and working in Mexico.

During one of our visits, John gave Derek and myself ten pesos each and we were sent to the Tuesday market in town to purchase objects of our own choice as subject matter for his Disposicion del Mercado series. When we returned with our stuff, John set up sites for it all in their sunlit garden – still-life set-ups to be photographed for potential paintings. As the eclectic conglomerations took shape, Joice casually placed fresh cuttings and debris from her garden trimmings into the theatrical small scenarios of random objects as pièces de résistance, completing the reference to seventeenth-century Dutch still-life paintings that depicted earthly wealth with underlying memento mori.

John developed a metaphoric resonance in his work, and seemed to be considering the underpinnings of still life in new ways. Already he had been painting “portraits” of people he knew by inviting each to present him with an unassuming box of personal objects, from which he would construct an evocative image, without the physical likeness of his model. A still-life portrait of me, Medusa, from 1989, is an intriguing example, with its fading smoke-cloud sky, seen at just the moment after the sun has dropped below the horizon. There is an intricate intertwining of metal objects that includes my pin from the American Dog Museum, a little wooden train from my childhood, two tin wind-up toys, a squeaky dog toy tomato, plus my studio plastic cups for mixing paint. All are odd things that anyone would overlook as being personally significant. But John’s orchestration of the event is conducted as if one is in a darkened theatre, with the curtains just parted, stage lights up and the feeling that a tragic or passion play is about to begin.

A medium-size acrylic painting by John Hall titled Medusa

Medusa, 1989

acrylic on canvas

36 X 36 inches

Collection of the Art Gallery of Alberta, Edmonton

Another deeper level of deus ex machina welcomed as a catalyst for creating imagery happened when John received a box of possessions from a stranger who had seen some of his work in an exhibition. A Dutch actress who revealed herself by only her first name, Brigitte, was interested in a commission. John’s 1990 Brigitte paintings tread into darker territory, possibly because of the distance between the artist and sitter, connected only through short bits of correspondence. Paintings from Brigitte’s personal paraphernalia include a black velvet glove, unidentified pills, a black leather purse, a red bra, and some plastic toy figures (including one of Wonder Woman). Also appearing is a strip of film negatives – which, assembled and reassembled time and again – became a set of twists and turns worthy of a detective novel. The enigma of Brigitte as portrayed by John continued for several years, but only as a long-distance dialogue about her belongings and his infatuation with her as a distant muse … until a tragic plane crash ended her life.

A large acrylic painting by John Hall titled Cielo Vespertino

Cielo Vespertino, 1993, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 60 in. Collection of the artist.

A medium-size acrylic painting by John Hall titled Alejandra's Ophelia

Alejandra’s Ophelia, '93, acrylic on canvas, 33 x 49 in. Private collection.

A medium-size acrylic painting by John Hall titled Milagros

Milagros, 1993, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 36 in.

Private collection.

Within our collective interest in historical Dutch still-life painting, another two characters became involved in providing John with subject matter over a long distance: Marijke and Gerda de Wit, two performance artists from Amsterdam. John’s painting took another leap forward, in which the accidental was warily welcomed. From this point on, John effectively began to deconstruct his compositions as gestures beyond the Baroque and into the grit and grime of abundance and beautiful destruction. Paper bags have toppled and their contents spilled out like eviscerated cargo oozing from a sinking tanker. The laws of gravity are not only upset, they create a cornucopia of clues as to the joint identity the de Wit sisters’ objects ascribed to: who is that in the framed photograph? Is that a real gun? Is that the artist’s own portrait reflected in the glass or a reference to the viewer as voyeur? John’s paintings seem to trip into the picture plane, and move outside of the safe confines of the frame. With these paintings he had crossed a line – beyond the presented opulence of the Dutch protocols – to one of the highest realms of what painting can elicit. It is at this point in his career that subject, object, narrative, and meaning collide into mastery.

Although John Hall set up his subject matter in the same way as the inspirational historical Dutch artists had done in order to portray their society’s values, John’s subjects were far from symbolizing mercantile heights of power. His sugar-candy skull confections, broken decorative tiles, a paper maché lacquered rattle, one of his own coffee cups, and a hand-blown drinking glass, are not exactly treasured items symbolic of an embarrassment of riches. John chose an ironic stance in choosing to paint such everyday things and painting them larger than life, while articulating his painter’s touch such that he did not leave signs of the painter’s hand. The interplay between himself and the viewer reveals his technical virtuosity, which set him outside the context of realist counterparts of the day. As a displaced Canadian artist working in Mexico, John was not following any of the trends of art being exhibited in Toronto, Montreal, or Calgary. John Hall was simply painting as a writer might write, isolating himself with the hope of achieving a clearer vision as an observer of his surroundings.

Hall’s next work begun in Mexico was a collaborative series worked on with myself that we titled Pendulum/Pendula. The initial idea for this came to us during our 1987 visit. John had pointed to a half-finished painting poised on his easel, and spontaneously invited me to paint something of my own choice somewhere in the composition. The short time we were in San Miguel that year did not allow me to try, but the notion of working together on a single canvas lingered. Over the next few years we set the idea in motion. In retrospect now, of course, the collaborative Pendulum/Pendula paintings that we created were a physical manifestation of the ongoing studio visits and work discussions we entered into so naturally when our respective Mexican studios were within walking distance of each other.

A large John Hall and Alexandra Haeseker painting titled Pendulum 1

Pendulum I, 1992, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 60 in. Painted in collaboration with Alexandra Haeseker.

A large John Hall and Alexandra Haeseker painting titled Pendulum 2

Pendulum II, 1993-7, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 60 in. Painted in collaboration with Alexandra Haeseker.

A large John Hall and Alexandra Haeseker painting titled Table Manners

Table Manners / Comportamiento de la Mesa, 1996, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 60 in. Painted in collaboration with Alexandra Haeseker.

A medium-size John Hall and Alexandra Haeseker painting titled Pitch Black

Pitch Black / Boca le Lobo, 1997, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 36 in. Painted in collaboration with Alexandra Haeseker.

Pendulum I and Pendulum II used the simple strategy of each of us starting a canvas, and covering about fifty percent of the surface with our own imagery, then passing it to the other to finish. Needless to say, we had to pass the canvases back and forth a number of times, with massive revisions, before we achieved the desired effect we could both agree on. These initial Pendulum/Pendula paintings started as territorial encounters, directly on the canvas: John’s subject matter, then mine; his Mexican artifacts, and my alert, desirous dog. Intrigued with the challenge of orchestrating a cohesive image together, we drew up a practical plan to attempt a series of truly collaborative paintings. We wanted to produce a body of work that neither of us would have created on our own. That is one of the reasons the Pendulum/Pendula paintings feel so loaded within the confines of the stretched (literally, stretched!) canvas. As authors of our own predicament, we decided to include both of ourselves disguised and half hidden within the compositions, almost overcome by our accumulated subject matter, both psychologically and physically. Each of us had to struggle to accommodate what the other introduced. We agreed to a strategy of simple rules:

We took turns to gather objects and paraphernalia to photograph as chaotic grounds.

We each orchestrated photo sessions with the other as model: either partially disguised by Mexican popular and cultural masks or by using clinging plastic wrap on our faces, and slightly transparent plastic bags as detritus from the town marketplaces.

Then, together, we took the photographic sources, and made collages from them, with which to create the imagery. Finally, we randomly chose sections of the compositions that each would paint, then passed the canvas to the other to finish. Getting the intensity balanced at each end required some final adjustments, because John built up his part of the imagery with a more solid, opaque approach, whereas I used my acrylic paint with a watercolour technique of transparent layers that had to be orchestrated to match, or at least arrive at a midpoint balanced between both treatments of the medium.

An exhibition of the Pendulum/Pendula works was organized, opening in 1997 at the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes in San Miguel de Allende. There were several subsequent iterations of this show, both in Mexico and Canada, the most recent one occurring in 2015 in Nelson, BC.

Changing circumstances in both Canada and Mexico prompted John and Joice to make their decision to pull out of Mexico in 1999, after a decade of regular residency times, and to relocate in Kelowna, B.C., Canada. During their last sojourn in San Miguel, subject matter in John’s continuing studio work became reflective of his putting things away: rolling up canvases, wrapping up stuff, knotting electrical cords, putting tools in their outlined shapes on pegboards. His compositions became less chaotic, and more ordered, simplified and organized. Previously acrid colour and wild disarray transmuted into muted earth tones and a greater simplicity. A shift had occurred. Whereas Mexico had once shattered John’s control of order, now there was a calm of restoration apparent in his work. A final chapter might be found in his Six Stones series, begun after he arrived in Kelowna – simplified images of stones on mirrors, metaphoric for desire and loss of something intrinsically Mexican. In fact, in Mexico, maids, gardeners or trades people will often place small rocks or polished stones in houses – behind a vase, under a planter, beside a bed, or on a shelf – as talismans to ward off the evil eye or bad karma. It is a vernacular practice that in Mexico takes on a gravitas and functions as a secret but universal language. John Hall’s paintings of simple stones void of context exist as memories of his leaving, where only these touchstones now inhabit his psyche about what was once exotic, erotic, surreal and everyday in Mexico – now far away and nowhere – 3000 miles from the Canadian border.

A photo of John Hall in his 1988 San Miguel de Allende studio