John Abrams,The Personas of Power by Donna Lypchuk January 2002
John Abrams is the James Dean of the art world. His paintings, which consist mainly of portraits, imitations of wildlife and mimicry of the media, are celebrations of the "rebel and the loner". A quiet sarcasm brews behind the moody blue subjects of many of these paintings that remind us of Timothy Leary's imperative statement to all those in search of wisdom to "question all authority."
The root word of authority is author, which tells us that what we often perceive as powerful is a fictional construction; a temporary suspension of what we deeply know, in our gut, to be some sort of charade. For instance, our society is almost tyrannically obsessed with youth, beauty and the notion of freedom; this is the aesthetic that in our culture is perceived as having the most authority. The paintings of John Abrams play with this perception; sending up , for instance, shallow subjects such as the bland beautiful faces of supermodels within the formal confines of fine art -- a frame that we have learned by rote that we should always respect.
For the past seven years, Abrams has completed a continuing body of work, beginning with Wild Life and Supermodels and followed by Criminals and Deities, that asks us to examine the nature of authority. In all cultures, power always wears a personae. Abrams work asks us to look behind the guises that authority wears -- aesthetic, social, moral, natural and supernatural -- and ponder the identity of power.
The manifesto behind all of Abrams paintings is one about ultimate personal freedom; the reclaiming of what the self knows about the self to be true, even if that truth is direct defiance of established or what I would call man-made authority. The job of the serious artist has always been to find beauty in a truth and not the other way around; the inverse defines the delusions put forth by media and advertising companies.
Abrams has embraced a lofty but time honoured ambition, one that is not necessarily that popular in the current artistic milieu which is satisfied with the part-truths and punch-lines expressed by relational devices such as irony and association. Abrams himself can be described as a rebel and a loner, because his work lacks irony; "the smart ass quality" that made art stars in the late eighties and early nineties. Abrams is a real painter who practices the fine art of "imitation"; imitations of nature, imitations of the media and imitations of that which is inimitable, namely, the supernatural.
Many religions and philosophies would actually define the amorality of nature as the source of an eternal truth, which is why artists have been imitating nature for years. Painting "the truth" requires a dispassionate eye, one that is not afraid to examine the amorality of Nature, the convolutions of justice that are part of every day and the eternal reality of "eat or be eaten."
Every time Abrams creates a painting, he is reexamining "the state of the art" and questioning the authority of the current aesthetic. The subjects of Abrams paintings are creatures who are true to their own nature at any cost, whether it an accused criminal in mid-arrest or a portrait of a wolf howling on a hill.
Often these images are appropriated from books, magazine and the media. Like the James Dean archetype in the story of the movie Rebel Without A Cause, the beings that populate Abrams paintings are examples of "to thine own self be true." There is often a contradiction in Abrams' work that continually points out the rift between the amorality of nature and the morality of man. Moral authority in itself is a construct. Moral authority is the foundation of social power; a fiction used to control others. In our culture, we see.
Nature as something that merely augments our personal or corporate authority; something that can be appropriated to sell products such as face creams, cars and hair dye. This works because in our culture, beauty really is something that we respect and admire. This of course, is a cosmic joke in the grand scheme of things as the real undeniable authority, Mother Nature, dictates that everything, including the bloom on the rose, must eventually fade and die.
In 1992 Abrams created a series of twenty paintings called Wild Life and Supermodels in which "how beauty is exploited for profit" was the grand theme. This landmark show, which was exhibited at Garnet Press Gallery in September 1993, was the logical evolution of two previous series of paintings, also exhibited at Garnet Press, Late Nature (1989) and Rethinking History (1992), which were, to some extent, also about the relationship between industry and nature. It was in Wild life and Supermodels that Abrams solidified his signature moody black and blue palette beneath which peeks a bloody underpainting of virulent red; a battered-looking palette to reflect a damaged truth. The subjects of the paintings have a soft, furry effect, like a slightly out-of-focus lens. This was a complete departure from Abrams works of realism from the eighties, in which were bizarre still-lifes painted in crisp, clear hues. This new palette was almost like an allergic reaction to the full-time job Abrams had working in a printing shop which at the time was creating glossy ads for a large number of trade magazines from the design and construction industries.
He was quoted in NOW magazine (September 30, 1993) as saying "In these ads, colour and clarity are used so much as sales gimmicks that as a direct result, my own imagery has gotten less and less colourful, less an less clearly defined."
It was apparent that Abrams, at the time, decided to question the authority of that aesthetic which could be called "predatory." In Wild Life and Supermodels, images of Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Claudia Schiffer and Kate Moss were juxtaposed with National Geographic type images of polar bears, wolf and deer. These images made a disturbing, symbolic alliance between beautiful women and wild creatures; the point was made that both are preyed on as visual aids by the marketing industry.
Stripped of their gloss and their colour, these images become further fetishized; it is as if they have been sent to a kind of aesthetic purgatory where there beauty becomes ambiguous. The faces of the Unknown Perfume models, for instance, loom in out of a dark background like lost, moaning souls in space. The face of Cindy Crawford becomes like a dead marble bust; Naomi Campbell a fuzzy imprint in paint as if the canvas itself was functioning as her shroud.Divorced from their cheery context as purveyors of perfumes and jeans, the effect is also at times quite lewd; Abrams portrait of a Guess Girl becomes a like a black and white graphic in the back pages of a girlie magazine.
Stripped of their gloss and colour, as the artist says "their gimmicks," these images lose their authority as symbols youth, beauty and freedom and instead become icons about sex, death and oppression. They are images of women who have lost their innocence. With these images, Abrams found a form that fits these images' real function; the brutality of the truth concealed behind the mask of power.
The images of endangered species in Wild life and Supermodels are portraits of real innocence. As Carla Garnet, Abrams spouse and former dealer points out, it is "the romanticization of nature in the animal paintings that already suggests it's loss." The animals in this show, the polar bear, the deer and wolves, also loom out of a deep, monochromatic background. In some paintings, such as the Polar bear, the animal glows a supernatural white, like a ghostly apparition and in others, such as Buck, you see the deer as a shadow; as an eclipse of itself. The comment here is how nature itself is seen as the shadow side of our collective psyche; in the war between man versus nature it is obvious that man is winning.
In Wild Life and Supermodels there was one renegade work, that foreshadowed the genesis of the themes that would dominate Abrams' next exhibition, Criminals and Deities. This image, called "Dr. Brute," was a painterly re-translating of a photograph taken by Rodney Werden as part of an installation by the arts collective General Idea. The image features performance artist Eric Metcalfe in his performance personae as Dr. Brute: a serial killer lying naked on leopard skin pillows with a gun in his hand.
Fascinated by the way this image represented both false authority (the serial killer as the king of his little fantasy world) and rebellion against authority (freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose) simultaneously, Abrams decided to iconize it by redoing it in a bull-maddening red on the side of the now defunct Garnet Press Gallery on Richmond Street in Toronto. This controversial, famous mural existed as a landmark on Queen Street West until the closing of the gallery and became a metaphor for the amorality that took place in that area as all the artists and galleries were figuratively "killed off" by developers and greed.
In his ensuing series Criminals and Deities, Abrams looked to the dispassionate eye of the media and the equally dispassionate eye of the immortals for inspiration. Criminals and Deities is a true investigation into the nature of amorality; an installation of paintings that juxtaposed portraits and mug-shots of criminals appropriated from the pages of the Toronto Sun with portraits of ancient Indian Goddesses. The criminals were painted in Abrams' signature black and blue palette, but the Goddesses were realized in a vibrant circus of vivid pinks, blues, reds and yellows.
When I saw this exhibition at Garnet Press at 1994 it looked like there was a battle between good and evil happening on the walls; a war of aesthetic opposites with the moody portraits of the offenders acting as a criminal yin to the spiritual yang emanating from the glowing, exuberant portraits of the goddesses. Like the models who populated Wild Life and SuperModels, whom Abrams thematically compared to predatory animals, the criminals represented in these paintings represented a loss of innocence.
Abrams was triggered to paint this work by a shooting that took place in the back yard bordering his house. The local police gunned down a black youth, shooting him three times in the chest before figuring out the reason that he ran was that he was in the country illegally. This incident jived with Abrams increased awareness of the media's obsession with criminal activity and its perceived relationship to immigrant policy. Like the wildlife in his previous show, these individuals were just trying to survive. The criminal portraits in this show -- of Dexter Brown, who let a woman die of a cocaine overdose, Paul Semple, a murderer, Brady Bernard, arrested for stockpiling weapons and Qun Hou, an extortionist -- are romanticized in a painterly way, much the same way his wolves and wild animals were in the previous show.
They are painted in soft focus, with huge shining, velvet, wet eyes in an attempt to re-humanize that which has been dehumanized by the media. Facing off against this gallery of rogues were portraits of traditional Indian Goddesses, Raharani, the goddess of benevolence; Laxmi, the goddess of prosperity; Kali, the goddess of meandering; Durga, challenger of demons; and Ganesh, the magical elephant. It became obvious from looking at these paintings that these deities give us no spiritual answers, only Mona Lisa smiles. Each portrait functions as mirror back to the individual, to find the answers to these problems from a true authority; that which is within.
In 1997, Abrams elaborated on both Criminals and Deities and Wildlife and Supermodels by creating an exhibition of smaller works arranged in tableaux.
In this show, which featured shelves upon which six smaller works were arranged, Abrams created narratives that more overtly criticized the authority of the law. Once again, Abrams compared the amoral nature of humans to wild beasts by juxtaposing both on the wall. In this show, Abrams also included a large painting called Figure Painting (1997) which features a long-haired, bare-chested criminal being led out of a car by a police officer. The criminal has his arms up in the posture of Christ being led to crucifixion. There is an overt political message in this painting: we are leading innocent lambs to slaughter. It is not a crime to survive.
Currently, Abrams is continuing his investigation into the personas of power by painting portraits of rogues of a different sort -- politicians. This series began with a portrait of Pierre Vallieres, a member of the FLQ and author of White Niggers of America; a man who many felt was unfairly incarcerated after the FLQ blew up a number of factories in Quebec. Abrams is capturing sensational moments from history. In his studio are portraits of Trudeau and John Lennon; Trudeau and Levesque in 1978 during the famous "Night of The Knives"; Trudeau and Liona Boyd; and Trudeau and the Queen.
Part of this series existed as a mural on the front facade of The Cameron Public House on Queen Street in Toronto; a portrait of Trudeau and Barbara Streisand during their much-publicized romance.
These paintings of political creatures are the logical evolution of Abrams' examination into the personas of power, for what other creature, aside from a politician, must be or at least pretend to be a moral authority? These new works question the credibility of authority and the credibility of history, as it as been relayed to us by the media and history books.
Abrams is not a revisionist, and he gives no answers to these questions. In his next exhibition, as in his previous ones, he will merely provoke us to think for ourselves.
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John Abrams Dr. Brute 1994 60 x 100 feet