RM Vaughan - John Abrams, Betty Blue, Zsa Zsa Gallery,The National Post April 2005
John Abrams Betty Blue - Mauve Plastic Heart 2005 58 x 77 inches oil on canvas
John Abrams is a movie nut. The Toronto painter, whose latest cinema-inspired series of painting, Betty Blue (based on Beineix’s 1986 film of the same title) opens today at Zsa Zsa Gallery, admits to watching “three or five movies a week, sometimes more”, all in the pursuit of his art. I want that job.
Abrams is one of Toronto’s most consistent and consistently fascinating painters. He has painted everything from mug shots of alleged Caribbean-Canadian criminals (all culled from The Sun, a paper addicted to less than flattering representations of black Torontonians) to blotchy, gin blossomed Prime Ministers to glowing Hindu goddesses to intimate scenes from the films of Stanley Kubrick. His interests are nothing if not diverse.
A self-confessed magpie, Abrams is always searching for the next bright, shiny moment to capture on canvas. Subsequently, his paintings are dappled in intoxicating, unnatural colours, in spooky television screen greys and blues, yellows culled from lemon dish soap, and Emerald City greens.
The evident beauty of Abrams’s paintings, however, sometimes causes viewers to look no deeper than the handsome colours, to perceive Abrams as a talented colourist unburdened by subtexts. It’s tough being so pretty.
“I made the Betty Blue paintings after seeing the Beineix film for the first time, about six months ago”, Abrams tells me in his slow, careful way, “I was looking for one really good film, a really good looking film … something with sex and nudity and sexy people and artists behaving like crazy people … all the fun stuff.”
“I’m becoming more and more intrigued by video art, by how artists who work in video are far more progressive and open to new ideas than artists who work in the static arts. Painting needs to have a conversation with film and video, because film is the dominant visual media of our time. ”
“But, I also made this work in reaction to the shows I’ve been seeing lately where the curator’s imprint is more important than the artist’s work. The Betty Blue paintings are meant to be seen in a kind of narrative sequence, loosely following the story in the film – so, whoever hangs them has to more or less hang them the same way every time. It’s my way of making sure there is a limited amount of mediation between my work and the presentation of my work.”
John Abrams The Forecast 2005 12 x 16 inches oil on panel
To wit, Abrams has crafted a tantalizing oil on canvas Cole’s notes of the film, comprised of twenty small, film cell-like paintings and two large projection sized paintings. The small paintings are arranged in a rectangle, like a screen, with key scenes (and subtitles) selected to both trigger our memories of the original (remember when French cinema was as hot and vibrant as Asian cinema today?) and to compress the film’s core romantic themes. The larger paintings are overt celebrations of Betty Blue’s still startling gorgeousness – stars Beatrice Dalle and Jean-Hugues Anglade, the cutest poor people ever seen in a movie, have never looked better, and the burning beach house finale remains a haunting sight, a romantic echo of Rebecca’s Mandalay.
But fans of the film will wonder why Abrams has recast Beineix’s signature Pop Art colour scheme in an almost monotone selection of oranges and bruised reds?
“The question in the film, the one Anglade’s novelist character is facing, is how do you make your way in the world as an artist? I have the same questions, because I have to keep a part time job to make ends meet. I think this question is still urgent, so I gave the film a new, more urgent colour scheme.”
“Now”, Abrams chuckles, “the film looks like everything in it is on fire, which might be me being pessimistic.” Abrams days of pessimism should soon be coming to an end. After spending years painting scenes from films, the film world is starting to come to him.
“Art directors are starting to rent my paintings for films, even if they don’t understand them. It’s fun to see them in the movies a year or two later. In Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen, Lindsay Lohan dances around with one of my paintings of pop stars’ lips in front of her face, and in another scene one of my spirals of small paintings is hanging on her boyfriend’s bedroom wall.”