John Abrams has worked actively with figurative paintings since the mid-´80s. Films, involving sexual narratives, such as Betty Blue, Contempt, and Swept Away, often inspire his work. His paintings are boldly colourful and fun, attending to appearances of complex muses. I took in some of his artwork before talking with Abrams about his influences.
Q: I went to Paul Petro’s to get a look at some of your paintings. I thought we might focus our talk on your paintings informed by Contempt, Swept Away, and Breathless, perhaps Betty Blue. These films seem to share certain "female tensional qualities." What do you think?
A: I think you are right; the cinematic images I use in my paintings have relational qualities with the act of painting and paint itself. The media’s very fluidity lends itself to expressing the sensuality inherent in my image selection. I am interested in rocking the elements of image and media to the point where the translation of one into another becomes enfolded in the work.
The dimensions of the film screen are better suited to be filled by a double portrait rather than one, at least on a formal compositional level. And as soon as there is more then one depicted the work takes on the question of relationships. With reference to your term “female tensional qualities,” I don’t deny that they may be seen in the work but that is probably inevitable when the subject matter explored in the ongoing series derived from those films. It is amongst other things, the heterosexual relationship.
My paintings are equally influenced by and take up the cultural discussions provoked by Andy Warhol and Gerhard Richter, as they are by Douglas Gordon and Candice Breitz. And by my personal art world friends R.M. Vaughan, Dennis Day and Andrew Harwood, just to name a few, who sample from popular film culture to express their sexualized positions in the world.
¨¨Q: How did you discover film imagery would be an important part of your figurative canvases? ¨¨
A: I have long history of using images from popular culture, in a large part influenced by 1960s pop art – a period when Andy Warhol’s success changed the way people came to look at art. Since the late 1970s when I attended OCA my work has taken up an exploration of the boundaries between the high and low forms – like painting, film. I have found this process of painting images found in popular culture is a way for me to unlock a form of slippage between media and the fluidity of images. ¨¨
But it probably all started with the television station that happened to be behind the London, Ontario home my parents rented during my first year in primary school ... The station behind my house taped live dance shows outdoors on a large stage. In the summer months, my younger sister (the video artist), Rhonda Abrams and I, were fascinated by these productions and would arrive early to hide under the stage to watch the performance unfold later on in the day.
¨¨A few years later living in Ottawa my father managed to put together a home theatre of sorts. He would bring home a projector but the only film he could get from Algonquin College, where he taught, was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? ... We repeatedly watched Mike Nichols’s interpretation of Edward Albee´s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? , In which Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton played Martha and George. Literary references abounded throughout the film, which takes place during a night of fun and drinks shared by two college professors (one old, one new) and their wives as the scene progressively turns into an emotional and psychological nightmare. ¨ This then might be the source of my continuing intrigue with the depiction of relationships in popular culture.
¨¨Q: I find it intriguing, the series of paintings you’ve done informed by the films Contempt, Betty Blue, Swept Away and Breathless. Each of these films presents a beautiful female character whose relationship is thrown into various turmoil.
¨¨A: In 2005, I completed a painting-combine inspired by French new wave director Jean-Luc Godard´s (1959-1961) homage to American gangster films, Breathless. I painted Breathless, because it tackled the subject of death and immortality, while also addressing its cinematic relationship to other artistic forms. For example the Jean Seberg character wanted to be a journalist and kept referring to authors like Faulkner or painters like Renoir. So her character’s references to other media within the context of the film mirrored my own interest in the slippage between film and painting. ¨¨
Prior to painting Breathless, I completed the combine entitled Betty Blue (2005). Like Breathless, this series comprises of a painting-combine ordered in narrative sequence and arranged in the metaphorical shape of a movie marquis. This sequential painting installation is derived from the highly erotic, unpredictable 1986 French film about a relationship between a repairman with literary aspirations and his beautiful but psychologically damaged lover. I made the Betty Blue paintings after seeing the Beineix film for the first time. The thing that worked for me was that the film portrayed artists living in a world somewhat analogous with my life. The questions in the film, the ones Anglade´s novelist character Zorg faces are: how do you make your way in the world as an artist, and what does Betty represent, his lover, his muse, an avenging angel or the work of art?
¨¨Q: What qualities were you looking for in certain scenes that led you to transpose them in paint? ¨¨
A: The work for what became the continuing Love Project commenced as Americans were gearing up for the West’s War on Terrorism. I started painting smudgy black and white planes dropping bombs. I installed the small greasy works in a circular configuration suggesting that they were flying around the clock; the bombers turned into explosions and the explosions turned into international landscapes and landmarks painted in shades of lipstick red.
The crimson oils configured as enigmatic smile – referencing Man Ray´s famous surrealist painting: Amoureux. Amoureux was conceived of as a caress, however its red landmarks can also be read as political hot spots or references to global warming. The painting-combine functions somewhere between document and construct, presenting the world as a ribbon perpetually folding back onto itself. Just a Kiss Away, titled after a Rolling Stones tune, followed as a diversion. It presents celebrity lips in a mesmerizing scarlet spiral. Just a Kiss Away opened a link for looking at the ever-widening net popular entertainment casts over all art forms.
Q: It’s like you’re bringing from a few well-chosen film images, your own views of the sexual, emotional tones of the films.
¨¨A: My choices are driven less by fidelity than fixation, my scene selections aren’t necessarily the most famous or central, rather choice of imagery is informed by compositional demeans of formal issue found in painting. In other words, I am not merely interested in retelling the narrative found in the film in that I am equally interested in the possibilities presented in the translation of one visual language into another. By pushing the painting process to stand as a signifier for painting while deriving imagery specifically from cinema a bit of a tingle or charge is produced. In part, it is because narrative in general and the portrayal of the politics of desire is seen as forbidden subject matter for painters that I am enticed to play with the visual fire of depicting sexualized relations. Pictures that tremble and shake can be seen as hot and therefore as metaphor for our turbulent times. ¨¨¨
Q: I saw the film Swept Away again recently. The film expresses shifting balances of power with the characters Gennarino and Raffaella with their opposing class views, marooned on an island. How do you see this relational conflict in your series?
¨¨A: I began work on imagery from the Italian film Swept Away, made in 1974, directed by Lina Wertmuller – starring Mariangela Melato and Giancarlo Giannini, which meant repeated viewings of the film until I discovered the key scenes that for me represented the relationship between Gennarino and Raffaella that work on more than one level. The story begins on a Mediterranean cruise where Raffaella, the snobbish wife of a rich man, is very critical of one deckhand in particular, Gennarino. The balance of power changes once they become marooned on a tropical island, the man’s ability to provide the necessities of life elevates him to the dominant position of power.
¨Directed by a woman, Swept Away is shockingly straightforward in scenes dealing with the relationship between a man and a woman. Gennarino is a brute when dealing with Raffaella while on the island, but his physical dominance is sexy to the socialite and is in a strange way the manner in which he proves to her that he is strong enough to be her mate. As the balance of power shifts in the relationship, so sympathy shifts back and forth between characters. In this WertmÃ¼ller reveals some of the complexities that arise with regard to class and attraction between the genders – a gorgeous subject!
¨¨Q: In your series informed by Contempt, you painted the scene of the young wife urged by her successful husband to go for a ride in the car of an American producer. Brigitte Bardot as the wife becomes increasingly erratic, including behaviors of sunning, swimming in the nude. How do you think your paintings explore "the why" of her increasing contempt? ¨¨
A: Brigitte Bardot’s character in Contempt is powerful and vulnerable at the same time. She is caught up in the creative endeavor of making a film by circumstance and her husband’s blind desire to succeed as screenwriter who is willing to sacrifice his marriage: tragic contemporary, a cautionary tale for all artists.
¨¨Q: How did you approach your work with the film Betty Blue, with its lissome lead that walks around often naked or scantily clad? Do you find it feels different to work with exposed figures? ¨¨
A: The nude has been considered classic subject matter since the ancient Greeks. Throughout history art collectors have coveted the odalisque. My painting Betty Blue, is about a heterosexual relationship between a repairman with literary aspirations and his beautiful but psychologically damaged lover. The film stars Béatrice Dalle, Jean-Hugues Anglade. It is directed by Jean-Jacques Beineix and is based on a novel of the same title by Philippe Djian. Responding to the sexualized content in the film I gave my work a passionate colour scheme that is reflective of the opening sex scene in the film which is repeated in the blaze of the summer beach resort, resulting in my Betty Blue suite looking like it was painted with fire. With this suite of paintings I open up a discourse between the visual subject found in painting and depicted in film. ¨¨
Q: In Breathless, the lead is more of a pixie that’s followed, succumbing to a seduction that leads to tragic ends. You seem to favour films with frantic jump cuts, pensive, mysterious qualities. How do you see each of these series and how they relate to each other?
¨¨A: Each new body of work strengthens the work that comes before and comes after. As you note, my 2005 painting project entitled Breathless is inspired by Jean-Luc Godard’s (1959-1961) homage to American gangster films.
In Godard’s picture, actor Jean-Paul Belmondo stars as Michel. His character, a young thug, propels the story line. While driving a stolen car Michel shoots a policeman who follows him down a country road. Penniless and on the run, he turns to his American girlfriend Patricia, who is played by Jean Seberg. Patricia has literary aspirations, but is living in Paris without a work permit. Vulnerable to the police, Patricia is coerced by the cops to turn her boyfriend in. She succumbs.
¨¨Working with Breathless also afforded me an opportunity to use subtitles in the work, allowing me to investigate how text changes pictorial readings. Using subtitles also works for me at least as a metaphor for translation and therefore relates back to my practice of translation. ¨¨¨
Q: As you’ve shown your work in various gallery contexts, have you come across muse figures in films in galleries you’ve found interesting? What interests you in art muses? ¨¨
A: That’s a slippery question, Louise. In Greek mythology, muses are a sisterhood or goddesses or spirits, who embody the arts and inspire the creative process. In his film Basquiat, Julian Schnabel capitalizes on the museum as the contact zone. The epiphanous moment for me is when Gary Oldman, who plays Albert, says to the actor portraying Basquiat: “Your audience is still to be born.” That said, inspiration for me comes more like jolt like the one I got from seeing work like Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy’s ... Maze or Douglas Gordon’s Taxi Driver Install, both curated by Philip Monk, that were on view at the Power Plant. ¨¨
Q: What have you seen recently that is drawing you to your easel?
¨¨A: We both will have to wait and see.
Louise Bak is a poet, with books including Tulpa and Gingko Kitchen. She co-hosts Sex City, Toronto’s only radio show focused on relations between sexuality and culture (CIUT 89.5 FM). Her performance work has appeared in numerous spaces and in video collaborations such as Partial Selves and Crimes of the Heart.
Louise Bak - Sexual Tension, Interview with John Abrams, Toro Magazine October 2008
John Abrams Swept Away - How was it 2005 12 x 18 inches oil on panel