April 2008, John Brown @ Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art

April 2008,  John Brown @ Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art
John Brown at Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art

John Brown is an eminent Toronto painter, a noted Canadian painter, and, like so many others who’ve built successful artistic careers in Canada, unnoticed in the wider art world, save for some group shows in Europe. So, while his new show at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art – The Visceral THING – won’t expand his audience at all, it is certainly a comfortable place from which to gauge his work.

 If the show doesn’t feel like a retrospective, it’s most likely because of Brown’s dogged pursuit of a single theme over an immense stretch of time. The works in the show range from the mid-‘80s to the present, are not arranged chronologically, and yet feel like a cohesive unit. Brown seems to be obsessed with unpacking his body; not unpacking the idea of his body, but literally unpacking it, rendering his innards and titular viscera (and for that matter, his angst and inner turmoil) in slashes of abstract paint and tying himself back up again. His colour range is pretty much limited to what you might find in a particularly neglected butcher aisle. Goopy yellowing off-whites, anemic reds, vein blues and charcoal blacks; nothing is fresh, vibrant or sunny – it’s all sore and exposed and tainted.

 To this end, he is what one might call a process painter, and the surfaces of his works take an evident beating. Paint is applied, scraped back, re-applied, hatched into, painted over; in some paintings, it looks as if he took the dried crust of his palette and stuck it onto the canvas. So, yes, it’s evocative, it’s gestural, it’s meaty – but is it good?

 Well, sometimes. For one thing, it’s all a bit too testicular for me; there’s something about the violent display of male ego that I find tacky and a relic of the days of the Abstract Expressionists. Speaking of which, the ghost of Phillip Guston hangs too heavily over a great deal of the paintings in this show. Their colour palettes are the same, their (deliberately) lumpen approach to paint application is the same, and Brown even approximates Guston’s Ab-Ex-era hatchmarks. But the paintings where Brown manages to heave off any detectable influences are phenomenal; they are an amazing display of focused energy, without any winks or nods to anyone else to slow him down.

The best works in the show, for my money, are Brown’s faces. There are a number of them scattered throughout. They make the best use of Brown’s eviscerating project, mostly because, once Brown is strapped to figuration, all that visceral anxiety has a container, and so his phallic exuberance doesn’t end up spilling all over the canvas; there is a marvelous tragic reflection to these paintings, and their interiority and repose provide a much-needed counterpoint to the lurching intensity of the abstract work.

 You can’t get much more in the way of counterpoint to Brown than his companion in MoCCA’s project space, Balint Zsako. Brown is all heavy oils, whereas Zsako is clean lines and clear pools of watercolour. Zsako is a drawer currently trying to make a name for himself in the wider world (he currently calls New York City home base), and seems to be succeeding on the strength of his illustrative skills. There’s certainly no denying his talent. His line is crisp and sensuous and, despite the reduction of figures to schematic profiles and silhouettes, suggests volume and mass. His colours, likewise schematic, are radioactively vibrant.

 The work here (assembled from the collection of a Mr. Bernardi) is all childishly sexual – women with stringy hair, fried-egg eyes, pointy leaking tits and garish vulvas cavort with bald men with watermelon-slice smiles, and shy, sprouting penises. Zsako’s figurative conceits occur over and over again in drawing after drawing; trunk-like arms and legs taper off into sinuous, probative digits; snake-like tongues, rendered in a thin dash of red, are always out for display.

There’s a lot to be recommended here: the delicacy and poise of technique counterbalanced by the vulgarity of the subject matter. Certainly, the drawings are seductive and a pleasure to look at, but they don’t amount to much. Unlike Brown, who’s declarative to a fault, all over his paintings like a close-talker at a dinner party, Zsako’s drawings don’t seem to add up to more than a visual conceit; a gorgeous visual conceit, but still, Zsako seems to be all visuals, all eyes, and thus, lacking in the viscera department.


whitehot gallery images, click a thumbnail.

Sholem Krishtalka

Sholem Krishtalka is a painter and a writer currently based in
Toronto. He holds an MFA from York University. He contributes
regularly to Xtra! Magazine and C Magazine.


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