Some thoughts on my studio practice…
In the early 1980s, when I was a young art student, I got to know Saskatoon artist Robert Christie whom I owe a large debt of gratitude for his insights and ongoing support. Through him I met and saw the work of other senior Saskatoon artists including William Perehuddoff and Eli Bornstein as well as a host of others. The Saskatoon art community in the 1980s was very supportive and paint-friendly and was a great place to “grow-up” artistically. This place and its history taught me some great lessons and one of the most important was to use the materials to express yourself – how to put a painting together and give it presence, weight, and impact. Sounds simple enough but I think this is quite rare and I am lucky to have had that education
Part of my personality is that I have an innate kid-like desire to muck around with paint – to make things, try it out, and see where it will go. I like to personalize every part of the picture, touching it all, putting my handprint, so to speak, on the painting’s surface. While I often will draw the layout of the painting, it’s the painterly incidents that give the piece character. This happens on the canvas as I am engaged in the process. The best painting times are when I can take off the censor brakes and go where the work leads me, enjoying the journey and delighting in the results.
I have noticed how your particular situation, circumstance or environment can influence your work and that this can be cultivated as a means of change. An example is the Emma Lake workshops held every two years in Northern Saskatchewan, which I have attended intermittently since the mid 1980s. The workshop somehow gets recorded in the work I do up there. The paintings are directly related to what happens around me, the people there, what they are painting, what they are talking about, the feedback and the off-cuff comments. Somehow, this all gets filtered into my work and it becomes a distinct group of paintings capturing the two week “zeitgeist”. An example of this is my recent show at The Gallery / Art Placement called “More Pieces of the Puzzle” where most of the small scale works were painted at Emma Lake in the summer of 2009.
A more specific example of influence is my out of town studio. I drive out there through all seasons and notice the changing landscape, colours and things like weathered buildings, curves and dips in the highway, traffic signs, grid roads crossing, stop signs blacked out by a setting sun, dusk. These things all seep into my paintings and were reflected in a couple of shows (“Off the grid” and “Cross Section” both in 2008). It would be crazy if this didn’t affect my work. Sounds obvious, but in a sense every conversation you have affects you in that way, every show you see, anything that grabs your mind and sinks in. And often it’s not overtly grabbing your mind – it’s more “out the corner of your eye”, intuition, what seems right – rather than what is justifiably theoretically provable as being right!
Then there are the visual ideas that morph into new possibilities, which has to do with having a creative visual mind. A vertical pillar becomes a curving road, which becomes a figure. Or a painting triggers an idea about folding over the corner of paper, and once I’m lost in the work it triggers childhood memories of folding newspapers and floating them on a pond. A small painting like “Paper Hat” from an exhibition “Power Play” at Michael Gibson Gallery is a formal abstraction, a technical curiosity, a whimsical image, an acknowledgment of painterly ancestors, a reference to childhood memories, and a nod to family disappointments and unfulfilled hopes. A happy but poignant painting to me.
But geometry is supposed to be cold and anonymous – right? How can it be personal? An example I have used is my son and his obsession with juggling a soccer ball. When he was 8 or 9 he started playing soccer. He stuck with it and he started doing this juggling (kicking a ball up and down and doing “moves” as the ball is in the air). He kept doing it and over the years he got very good at it. I started looking at the very simple act of kicking a ball – how it somehow acted as a benchmark or consistent reference point as he went through a number of life changes in his teenage years. Years of doing that one act, so now when he juggles there’s an explicit and implicit act – on the one hand, he’s just kicking the ball – on the other hand, that ball has somehow has been personalized and has become meaningful, containing his life experience, the highs and the lows, the successes and the failures. That’s abstraction!
Sometimes very simple observations can be used as starting points. On a recent trip out east I visited a colleague’s studio. Walking to a close by gallery we started talking about visual cues for paintings – the repetitive break in the side walk concrete, the length of a stride, some kids artwork on a playground wall across the street. It was all there and completely valid and real.
Trouble is all of these things don’t guarantee a painting that visually moves you. They give a back-story but this has to be meshed with the act of making a painting – a visual object that somehow captures an aesthetic moment, and that can re-communicate that aesthetic moment back to the viewer. Hopefully my work does contain the emotional force of that back-story, if not its literal depiction.
The work in my current exhibition “Splinter Group”, at Newzones Gallery in Calgary, focuses on larger scale work painted over the last six months. A number of the works come out of ideas started in the summer of 2009 up at Emma Lake. Taking those ideas back to the studio has allowed me time to explore a rich and varied paint application as well as a colour range with more nuance than I have recently used. There is a light-hearted, humorous play between chaos and order, attention grabbing image versus subtle painterly incident and hopefully, a personal take on contemporary abstraction and its future potential.
Jonathan Forrest, March 2010
To see more of Jonathan’s work, please visit his website: www.jonathanforrest.com