We knew, as soon as we saw the Shiva on the exterior southern-facing wall of the Cameron house transmute all of a sudden into Brigitte Bardot, that John Abrams was up to something. And lo: concurrent shows at the McMaster Museum of Art in Hamilton and at Paul Petro’s two spaces along Queen Street.
Abrams has been doing this for a fair while by now – mining ‘60’s New Wave cinema stills for his paintings – and while the show at Paul Petro Contemporary Art doesn’t demonstrate or forebode any great tectonic shifts in Abrams’ practice, there have been some subtle shifts of concern along the way, and there is much to enjoy.
Gone are the days of the lurid blue-orange-red x-ray colour schema of the Betty Blue and Breathless series; the new work, consisting of paintings lifted from Lina Wertmuller’s Swept Away and Godard’s Contempt, is in glorious and realistic technicolour. The Mediterranean sun glares through the Swept Away paintings, registered in the baked yellows of sand and sun, the saturated blues of skies and surf, and the bleached lighting. Similarly, Godard’s famous primary colour palette is paid its due reverence in the Contempt paintings. A shift in scale has occurred, at least at the paintings up in PPCA: the smallest of the work is roughly 12” x 24,” while the largest spreads its girth across singular walls. But the most significant shift in the handling of this motif is the paint itself. Where before Abrams was as tight as a drum, he has gone on to discover freer, more jazzy uses for his brushes and his paint. And this, above all else, is essential.
The one major criticism that can be leveled at Abrams is that he’s made his job so easy that it renders one a tad suspicious. Not only is he dealing with images that have been pre-composed, they’ve been pre-composed by none other than Raoul Coutard, certainly the greatest cinematographer of the French New Wave, quite possibly the greatest cinematographer of this past century. Now, one might counter-argue that a composition is simply an armature, a skeleton. To which we might respond, well yes, but this is the equivalent of having your skeleton custom designed by Givenchy. Similarly the colour choices have been made for him, by none other than Wertmuller and Jean-Luc Godard. So of course they are beautiful images; they were beautiful images before Abrams hit puberty. It would take a total oaf to ruin these images, which Abrams is not; so where does he fit into all this? Where does he earn his own kudos, as opposed to plucking kudos from atop the cameras of giants?
As long as Abrams looks to the movies for his subject matter, he will always need to answer that question; before, in Betty Blue and Breathless, he tackled it largely cosmetically, through colour swapping. And while the colour choices here are not in the least bit abstract, that knotty issue of what Abrams’ particular job is in all this painted cinephilia is far more resolved, for here, the translation job goes deeper than mere colour choices, and speaks to the very bedrock of the métier of painting: touch and gesture. The paint is put through a rigorous exercise program: great sweeping swipes, rapid-fire scumbling, whips and drips (the bravest painting in the show is tucked into Petro’s back room, where, in a display of startling confidence and cojones, Abrams has dropped a single, great splash all over an otherwise perfectly polished work). Abrams’ looser painting suggests a much deeper thought process: of how to take that photographed image, and find its corollary physical description in pigment. In this latest body of work, he has transcended the pitfalls of his chosen niche; he is no longer a glorified copyist, making polished, merely clever paintings that rely on other people’s visuals. Just as his inspirations (well, at least Godard) were making films about filmmaking, he is now making paintings about painting, about the translation of light into matter.
Art Fag - Swept Away, John Abrams, at Paul Petro Contemporary Art February 7 - March 1, 2008.
John Abrams Water 2007 58 x 77 inches oil on canvas