Barmp if You Like Art!

I’ve just dropped these paintings off for the opening a figurative art show at the Red Ochre Gallery.

People who know my work will recognize these stamps from my prints inspired by postcards. But, unlike my woodblock engravings, I decided to play around with these paintings, and not try and replicate the original stamps. I’d like to thank Christine Hennebury for this spirit of playfulness, since she invited me to paint a traffic box in Mount Pearl. Also Christine is a writer who approaches her art with humor and fun.

I couldn’t control the shape of the traffic box. So I decided to paint the Queens Victoria and Mary, wrapped around the box. I asked for a corner of Commonwealth Avenue, because I loved the idea of Queen Victoria in her widow’s weeds, sadly looking down that busy street.

The five days I painted turned into a performance art piece for me–people slowed down to give me a thumbs up and call out greetings and compliments. (Who knew Queen Vic was still such a popular gal?) I posted on my FaceBook page “Barmp if you like art!” And people did.

This time, while I was painting Queen Victoria, I started to see a rocky “Gerald Squires” landscape wrapped around the bottom text. I guess I was asking myself what made this postage stamp a particularly Newfoundland image. The final piece, “Queen of Newfoundland” is a homage to Gerald Squires, whom I took three classes from in the eighties, and who granted me an interview for a show he had in the early 2000’s. Since he died last fall, people have said a lot about him, but I haven’t heard anyone say what a courageous artist he was. Squires painted in failure. He painted in success. He painted in poverty, and, just when you thought he was finished, he would throw on a muddy wash. Vermilion rivulets covering the woman’s face. A dirty rag picking out the highlights. And it was perfect!

When I took the portrait class from Squires, he had his friend, and Evening Telegram art critic, James Wade pose for us. On the first night I covered a large canvas with phthalocyanine green. Then I painted an absolutely brilliant portrait of Wade in golden umbers. For the rest of the month, I would show up once a week to spend a miserable evening adding flesh tones and scraping everything off. I never recovered that first golden painting.

At one point Wade, who was dying of cancer at the time, standing by my quietly bleeding painting, said, “I’d like to write about your painting in my column.”

I glared at the poor man, “Don’t. You. Dare.”

And he didn’t.

I thought of that painting, when I tried to pull King James out of a Prussian blue background. Once again, my fallback WASP skin mixes, were not working. So I scraped everything off, and started an ochre underpainting. Gradually I lightened the tones, one layer at a time. At one point I had the Scottish King looking like a light-skinned African American, and I was tempted to leave him there. But this painting wasn’t about race. So, I brought his face up to that pasty yellow colour we honkies call skintone.

I’m thinking of this painting as an homage to my other early influence, abstract expressionism. (New Yorker cartoon from the nineties showing a group of people sitting in a circle, “Hi, my name is John, and I’m an Abstract Expressionist.”) I’ve just been to a wonderful show at the Bonnie Leyton Gallery by John McCallum which has reignited my love of raw, emotive, abstract expressionism. McCallum, a furniture maker and construction worker in his day job, uses shaped canvases and glues everything on in unrestrained creativity. I loved his landscape showing Harbour Drive and James Baird’s Cove from the Atlantic Parking Garage. Right at your “feet” the viewer sees actual roofing tiles stuck on the painting. In addition to being fearless, McCallum is a really strong draftsman, capturing a figure with a few deft strokes, and a room with minimal but accurate perspective lines.

Hence the addition of the rope. That was a good idea borrowed from McCallum.

All my Newfoundland stamps owe a credit to Christopher Pratt. And, Andy Warhol, who reproduced Campbell’s Soup cans. And Bill Rose, who has been combining American Pop Art with Newfoundland imagery throughout his career.

So these are two fun pieces, that celebrate my personal art history. “Barmp if you like art!”

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