Hall’s comfortable as the odd man out

John Bentley Mays, The Globe and Mail,Saturday, May 18, 1985

CALGARY PAINTER John Hall, 43, was a realist painter of Kewpie dolls and plastic roses in the early seventies, when advanced artists in Canada were learning to be video technicians and smart tourists in the McLuhanesque wonderland of mass media and social power. He was painting fastidious, harshly realistic pictures of kitsch postcards stuck on black vinyl in the late seventies, when young artists everywhere were rediscovering the romantic joys of expressive painting.

And, as we learn from his current exhibition at Toronto's Wynick/Tuck Gallery (80 Spadina Ave.), Hall is still engaged in meticulous formal experiments in the depiction of the mute surfaces of things. But he's doing it at a time when advanced painterly realists (in Toronto anyway) are less interested in the fine frenzy of expressionist painting than in the calm treatment of Canadian modernism's most venerable themes: the whirl of mass media imagery, the loss and recapturing of a local ground of personal experience, and the systems of artistic production.

Being something of an odd-man-out in Canadian art during his entire working life is not something Hall dwells on, perhaps because he is at home with his independent position. When I talked with the intense, quiet, Edmonton-born painter this week in the spacious Wynick/Tuck Gallery, he made no bones about his long-term determination to continue his career as it began, not merely as resistance to western Canada's isolation from great art collections and lively artistic discourse, but also as a direct creative acknowledgement of those very facts.

"Unlike Edmonton, the activity in Calgary is very diverse," Hall said. "We have no strong museum leadership, so no party line. There are no collections to look at. Initially, (the isolation) forced me to address what paintings would look like. I see it in art historical terms, and there is no interaction between my work and the work done in Calgary. My art was, and remains, an art about how to make art at this time in North America, how is it possible to make a viable picture, abstract in orientation, and loaded in terms of notation.”

Hall said his early work owes a large debt to the audacious American painters of Campbell's soup cans, the Stars and Stripes, and so on, as their work became known to him through slick magazine reproductions. The harshly illustrational pictures of James Rosenquist appear to have held special magic. "The Pop artists," Hall said, "made it seem possible to make a picture that was representational without being reactionary."

But it was only after his discovery of Alfred Leslie, Philip Pearlstein and other sharp-focus realists of the sixties that Hall found what he really wanted to do, which wasn’t, incidentally, anything like PearIstein's nudes or Leslie's icy portraits.

"It wasn't until then that my own art moved toward being very aggressively representational, incorporating downscale objects," Hall said. "The unifying notion was, what makes modem pictures? I didn't rely on pictorial distortion, but on heavy subject matter — back alleys, dreadful drapery, horrible car-body parts, so they would be loaded at the level of subject."

Another source was Audrey Flack, whose ultra-realist tableaux of gleaming jewels, dew-spangled roses, glossy parrots and other glamorous objects were snazzy icons of post-Pop conservatism in America. "I admired Audrey Flack's hard-core photo-realist paintings from the seventies," Hall said. "She was not nasty, but street smart and cheeky, and she used typical North American color. I wanted to see if I could see (that color) rendered, not mechanically, but with love."

It's worth recalling that Hall's work has always been characterized by hermetic, art-historical worrying about surface properties, painting tactics, color and studio practice. Insistent, surgical formality is the hard, main line running throughout all the work. As Hall says with typical cool, "imagery exists to give the artist a reason to be at the canvas for a period of time."

But the chief interest of Hall's painting, for the viewer anyway, is not in his clinical procedures nor the formal fuss he likes to dwell on. It's in his subject, and the developed world-view it expresses.

Hall's heraldic paintings of the seventies portrayed a world that was wholly static and unnatural — the world of mass-media imagery and of alienated experience. His dense tableaux portrayed vinyl sheeting, artificial flowers, costume jewelry, twisted wires and such, arranged in funereal groupings in shallow, box-like space. They were floral arrangements for the end of the world and the death of civilization, apocalyptic shrines for the death of Western culture.

There is no history in John Hall's painting during this period. There is only the abyss left when history collapses around us, leaving only the hysteria of consumption and the silence of the airport gift shop after all the lights have been turned out for the last time.

This weightless, elegiac art is, of course, an art of a place with little deeply felt history — Toronto, say, or Calgary. The quest in the painting is not for some quintessential truth of existence, but rather for a communion with the fleeting glance of light on hard plastic, or with the pure, gaudy color scattered throughout our world by advertising and mass-produced color images. This is an art which reviews the extremes of capitalist culture: the longing, lustful gaze at commodities and the ephemerality of the objects themselves.

Yet a vivid intrusion of personal history into this painting took place during the winter of 1979-80, when Hall was a resident artist at New York's P.S. 1 studio complex, operated by the Institute For Art and Urban Resources. In such marvellous works as Long Island Sunset (1979)—a key work in the history of modern Canadian painting — Hall pressed his formal and cultural preoccupations to the limit, while wholly engaging the frustration and rage, hope and alienation of being John Hall in New York.

The eight large, square, acrylic paintings and numerous small studies on view at Wynick/Tuck reveal the artist back home in Alberta, among friends (such as the sculptor Evan Penny, represented here by a portrait), and comfortably surrounded by potsherds, tile fragments, lacquered masks and other souvenirs of trips to Mexico. The emphasis here again falls on the technical problems of painting. Formal issues raised 10 years ago by Audrey Flack are given a once-over, once again.

The thrust falls short of the remarkable paintings of 1979-80, perhaps because these accomplished pictures executed between 1983 and 1985 lack the anxious push and hustle Hall experienced in New York, and the urgency of the pictures before New York.

But these collections of souvenirs and artifacts are not merely comfortable examples of nature morte.

The objects in them often appear twice: once, isolated within a frame of its own, and again as part of a large ensemble. But the relation between study and finished assemblage is not as simple as it may first appear.

A given pottery fragment or mask, for example, seems to fit into the ensemble uncomfortably. Some of the objects seem to be flat as decals or TV images, floating in a space that has no relation to the space the other objects rest within. Despite their superficially unified compositions, most of the large pictures are constructions of discontinuous, disrupted spaces. If many new realist painters use objects to symbolize relationships, Hall is using them to illustrate fragmentation and the incoherence of modern space and time.

This program of revelation in the art, however, is subtly realized — so subtly, in fact, that the general tastefulness of Hall's treatments is not overcome. We can hope that this gifted painter finds his way out of his current lull, and on toward a recovery of the personal engagement that gave the paintings of five years ago such power, resonance and unforgettable poignance.

A medium-size acrylic painting by John Hall titled Long Island Sunset

LONG ISLAND SUNSET acrylic/canvas 40" X 40" 1979