Image: Untitled, 2012, 66 x 52 in., oil on canvas
Anyone who spends any time looking at or thinking about painting knows that ‘abstract’ and ‘figurative’ are shorthand descriptions at best, and fairly useless categories in and of themselves. They describe an image, not a painting; that is to say, they only describe the look of the artwork. Those terms neither describe nor reveal anything about what the object actually is, or how it was made. And anyone who spends any time looking at or thinking about painting will tell you that those categories are so flexible and collapsible as to be almost useless. Any abstract painting (even, or perhaps especially, a flat monochrome) has representational elements in it; every figurative painting has abstract moments in it.
The Celia Neubauer show, “Exit/Enter,” that just opened at General Hardware Contemporary is a perfect object lesson in the mutability of these categories. The gallery is replete with medium-to-large scale paintings, each poking and prodding at the same formal theme. The work is collagist in approach. Each painting is a conglomeration of variously shaped chunks piled one atop another. Tectonic plates of flat black or grey, huge, twisted swaths of bright pattern, snaking lines, fields of patchworked brushstrokes, all jostle around the picture plane. All the work in the show shares a common backdrop; all of these aforementioned elements are laid atop a scene of cloudy grays of varying tone. And there is a distinct relationship between these foreground and background elements: the foreground acts as a kind of window frame; a haphazard collection of highly dynamic masses that occasionally part to reveal a vista of deep space behind them.
Shannon Anderson’s gallery essay reveals that a major inspiration for these paintings is Chinese gardens. The arrangement of Chinese gardens is a tradition that has been handed down and theorized and formalized over millennia. Its guiding principle is the specificity of points of view. Chinese gardens are designed to be traveled through and discovered, to offer up a successive parade of distinct views, each one a frame that incorporates its surrounding landscape. Certainly, that influence is present in the paintings that comprise Exit, Enter: each compositional element is its own view, its own mini-painting, including the hazy grey blobs that peekaboo out from behind them.
This interpretation also colours the reading of the paintings, and all of a sudden, they come into a kind of representational focus. The misty grey background space is suddenly redolent of landscapes (though nothing is clearly delineated). And then certain pictorial elements in the foreground spaces begin to look like distorted flowers, blurred or warped out of recognition. And so, just as the space of the paintings jostle between a crowded foreground and a spacious background, the abstract and representational elements within the paintings’ various segments begin to fade in and out of focus.
One doesn’t need the essay to spot the garden reference; it’s there and obvious throughout. And what’s more, it’s a fairly shallow interpretive tool. Chinese gardens are a place to start, not a place to stop. These are paintings, after all: just as formalism is only a first step in regarding abstract painting, content is only the first step in regarding representational painting. So just as Chinese gardens are about the act of walking and looking, these paintings are about space and speed, and therefore time.
It’s a difficult game to play, and Neubauer doesn’t always win. Sometimes, her arrangements of shapes and colours are too pretty, too stagnant, and the painting becomes cutesy: a staid designer object, a picture rather than a painting. And there are moments when Neubauer betrays the balance between figurative and abstract: in one painting, a delicately limned bit of ribbon for instance, is so preciously represented that its flat deliberateness completely stalls the haptic rhythm that Neubauer strives so hard for, and in fact, needs.
The best of the paintings are terrific displays of painterly muscle. This is no genteel garden tour. The space is frenzied and vibratory, and the speed is breakneck. It’s as if Neubauer is grabbing you by the side of the head and yanking, launching you into twists and helixes, hurtling you forward at mach speeds, and then resting, quieting you down, letting you amble for a little while, only to grab you and throw you around again.
Neubauer’s paintings aren’t so much journeys as they are roller-coasters: they twist and contort and hurtle relentlessly forward; and if they stall for a moment, it’s because you’re at the top of a precipice and you’re about to be rocketed over it. When these paintings work, and more often than not, they do, they remind you not only how insignificant are the borders between abstraction and representation, but how completely a still, two-dimensional image is anything but still or two dimensional.
Celia Neubauer’s Exit/Enter runs from March 24 to April 28 at General Hardware Contemporary.
Sholem Krishtalka is the Toronto Standard’s art critic.