John Abrams' solo show Cinema Vernis at the McMaster Museum of Art uses film images, which the artist translates into paintings ranging in size and style. The works interrogate not only the state of figurative painting, but also the tendency of popular culture to absorb and transcribe film into the realm of everyday life. The artist depicts scenes from Godard's Breathless (1960) and Contempt (1963), Wertmuller's Swept Away (1974) and Beineix's Betty Blue (1986), yet the works in Cinema Vernis are less about the actual films than about how the painter translates narrative from one medium to another and what happens when this translation occurs.
Entering the show, one first sees 60 small, tightly composed oil-painted panel boxes hung in grid formation, confronting the viewer with the sheer repetitiveness of the film still. Culling narrative moments from Betty Blue, Breathless and Swept Away, each film has been pared down to 20 frames, the small scale of the paintings forcing an intimate relationship between the viewer and Abrams' choice of films. The delicate nature of the paint application works in opposition to the explosive, seductive content of the scenes reproduced. What ensues is an engagement with paradox: Abrams purposely uses mechanically precise paint-handling in an effort to undermine the explicitly emotive storylines.
Cinema Vernis concerns itself with sensuality and volatility and what happens to the human psyche when these two properties intertwine. For Abrams, the tensions inherent to the paintings dramatize his artistic process as charged and urgent. Pointing to the precariousness of human relationships, the show explores how we all want to experience pleasure and love, but do not want to be injured by the voraciousness of that very desire. Standing before Abrams' filmic paintings, viewers, longing for that painful pleasure, become the figures inside the canvas. As such, the exhibition can be read as an example of the contemporary impulse to transcribe film onto the realm of fantasy and imagination in a subconscious effort to experience what the French call jouissance--orgasmic pleasure.
Theorized in the writings of Jacques Lacan, jouissance is the transgression beyond the safety of our own limits of pleasure. According to Freudian psychoanalysis, one of the main drives within the human psyche is the Pleasure Principle, regulating what we find enjoyable in order to protect ourselves in the external world. However, beyond every limit there is a space of excess. In the context of Cinema Vernis, jouissance is a pleasure that can only be derived from the experience of pain.
Accompanying the grid formation of panel boxes are seven large, explosive canvases that depict scenes from Contempt. Taking up two of the museum's walls, these paintings create a space where a film about film is translated into paintings about life and the jouissance that results when physical, conceptual and moral boundaries between lovers are crossed.
Thematically arranged, Abrams' Contempt transgresses the frame of popular film--figurative realism is abandoned for the sake of the intensity of abstraction, the blurs and splatters of the painted surface. These abstract flirtations perform a dual function: the characters within the frames are simultaneously veiled and laid bare by the intensity of Abrams' brush strokes, allowing the viewer to move beyond the canvas into the realm of imagination.
The Contempt series dramatizes the tensions between lovers when unreasonable, external demands are placed on the psyche. These painted figures simultaneously evoke pain and pleasure, due not only to the artist's selection of scenes and the subsequent narrative that develops, but also because of his use of abstraction. The disruption of the narrative and the tensions between realism and abstraction allow the viewer a repris in fantasy. The aesthetic liberties taken by the artist provide a forum for the viewer to project new narratives, situating the self inside the frame of Contempt.
In Bed (2007), Abrams depicts the aftermath of lovemaking. The scene appears idyllic, but the narrative is disrupted by a concentrated splattering of paint in the middle of In Bed and in Brigitte Bardot's hair, an obvious reference to ejaculation. Although sexual relief is insinuated by the white splashes, Abrams' technique appears both urgent and indifferent. Surrounded by a sense of physical danger, Bardot is transformed into the viewer's surrogate by the brutality of Abrams' engagement with the painted surface. The sweeping movement of the underlying paint from left to right heralds the dissolution of boundaries, allowing the viewer to enter the scene in an effort to partake in fantasy on the other side of the painted image.
John Abrams In Bed 2007 58 x 77 inches oil on canvas