“Pour John Heward”
The Problem of the Other Face
November 2018 – February 2019
“An object, after all, is what makes infinity private.”
-- Joseph Brodsky, Watermark 
“What does it mean to understand a picture, a drawing? Here too there is understanding and failure to understand. And here too these expressions may mean various kinds of things. A picture is perhaps a still life; but I don't understand one part of it: I cannot see solid objects there, but only patches of color on the canvas. — Or I see everything as solid but there are objects I am not acquainted with (they look like implements, but I don't know their use). — Perhaps, however, I am acquainted with the objects, but in another sense do not understand the way they are arranged.”
-- Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations 
John Heward, the abstract painter and improvisational jazzman, died this November. He will be missed. This superb exhibition celebrates his work and serves as a particularly moving memorial exhibition. We see several of his artistic profiles to dramatic effect, and also kindred work that Pierre Bourgie, owner and director of Catalogue, included to institute dialogue and inscribe a shared thoughtspace across time, space and dimensional media.
Works by the artist exhibited here like Sans titre (masque) (1983-1995) are suggestive paintings of the glance, and the sheer self-presence of the applied mark heralds a welcome return to what is perhaps the most basic source of all painting: the primordial need to express what is in mind to say through the medium of the hand.
These are paintings at the outermost edge. Arguably unique in using new and used rayon sheets as his signature support, he broached epistemological and ontological issues with bracing ambition and brio. Often composed of two or more rayon sheets, one resting on top of the other in palimpsest-like fashion, his paintings are frequently hooked together with steel clamps and hung unstretched on the wall-plane. Often, the works themselves are reconstituted from earlier single- and double-panelled works in Heward's studio inventory. His penchant for working with his own found materials had ecological authority and revealed a happy auto-cannibalism that meant ghosts of earlier iterations were preserved as anchorage, sediment and index. He also worked on wood panels as in Sans titre (masque) (2004) seen here, and in mixed media and even on canvas. He also executed sculpture.
Both his rayons and sculptures always had an enigmatic and even hermetic quality. Perhaps this is because the process of layering suggests a strategy of concealment on his part. It might be straining their metaphoric reach, but, as I have argued elsewhere, there is a sense in which these works are akin to stationary altarpieces, the wings of which could be closed for Lent, concealing from the eye the brightly polychromed interior imagery. (Interestingly, the exterior paintings, visible only when an altarpiece was closed, were most always executed in what were in contrast muted colours.) Similarly, when the rayons are ‘closed’, they invite us to open them for ourselves and discover inside a previously hidden iconography, a robust array of colours and signs, muted or declarative. Heward insisted that his work be manipulable by the viewer in the process of looking. Given his High Anglican upbringing, perhaps the artist thought it fitting that the work should reference the cloths used in liturgical practices.
The processual dimension of Heward's work is always explicit. I have spoken elsewhere and at length about this dimensionality that segued with the implicit ethic of his phenomenology of making.  Heward's oeuvre further reflects an interesting sort of ecological pragmatism all too rare in the Western pantheon. Given that his works can mostly be literally rolled up when not exhibited, and then unfurled on the wall in situ, they bring to mind the specific sense of the scroll in Eastern work. They have much in common with, say, a Tibetan Buddhist painting of the 11th to 19th centuries. If you subtract the iconography, you have a fragile thing that is nonetheless highly resilient. This is especially true of works like Sans titre (masque)(1983-95) when lifting the first rayon sheet reminds us of a thangka with its silk brocade covering which basically protects the painting and has to be lifted aside in order to examine the work beneath.
There is, furthermore, a sense of flexibility, portability and, above all, acceptance in Heward's paintings that aligns them with an Eastern tradition. The artist never attempted to keep his rayons pristine, unsullied by the work of time or circumstance. They were often trodden on by foot in the studio and subjected to a garden variety of “stress tests”. He cherished the myriad effects of time and experience on the object, perhaps because he found it analogous to how any sentient being undergoes attrition in the lifeworld as it ages.
It should be noted that Heward has always been very experimental when it comes to his materials and support. This tendency is bolstered in dialogue here with strong works by mavericks like Paris-born Swiss painter Pierrette Bloch, the Pakistani-American sculptor Human Bhabha and the British contemporary artist Thomas Houseago.
In the Canadian school, Bourgie has included works by Jack Bush, whose Idea of the Good (1958) has all the commanding expressive presence of an atomic blast in space, and Edmund Alleyn whose Composition lyrique (1961) is like a sentinel or monitor for Heward’s several works. The exhibition also includes Brian Jungen, an artist of Dane-Zaa and Swiss ancestry living and working in the North Okanagan of British Columbia, whose Sound Space II (2010), fabricated from willow, birch and goat hide, complements Heward’s works and Ulysse Comtois, a sculptor and painter who exhibited with the Automatistes.
The varied profiles of what may be a human head in Heward’s paintings has an undeniable affinity with a certain African aesthetic and are a deliberate acknowledgment of the human element without overtly pictorializing it. His studies of African and other ethnographic ritual art were important. The inclusion in this exhibition of museum-worthy work such as the primordial Indonesian Dayak tribal Hampatong figures, the Sepik River mask from New Guinea (possessing extraordinary gravitas), and the beautifully eroded Poteau Jarai anthropomorphe from Vietnam, establish Heward’s link to and obsession with the so-called “problem of the other face” and provide a wonderful sounding board for his paintings.
While the works demonstrate how important the mask-form was for the artist – he collected ethnographic art such a Yombe nkisi nkonde magically-charged figures as well as Basongye, Teke, Pende, Yaka and other DRC masks – his iconography also evokes musical notations, reminding the viewer that Heward was an accomplished and even revered drummer in the context of free jazz and contemporary improvised music. He played gigs and recorded in the studio with artists like Steve Lacy, Paul Bley, Dominic Duval, Rainer Wiens and many others that were then subsequently released on vinyl and CD.
Bourgie is a noted collector and he deserves kudos for making beguiling curatorial choices here. As he says: “The rewarding aspect was making links by instinct between John’s work and that of his fellow travellers and some of the tribal art that I have collected over the years. All that work talks together and I invite viewers to eavesdrop on an interesting conversation.”
John Heward's abstractions remain perhaps the furthest things we can imagine from conventional pictures – they exist comfortably outside what can be the stultifying conventions of the medium. But experiencing them brings to mind Wittgenstein's aforementioned remarks. The forms themselves may be only bare patches of colour (black, red, yellow, blue) on the rayon sheet. Or they may seem to depict objects (they look like implements, but we don't know their use). Their formal arrangement on the rayon or wood ground often escapes any literal understanding. Their constitutive enigmas may remain all but insoluble.
One thing, however, is clear: the paintings themselves lead us over the threshold of thought and interrogation. This artist’s work is interrogatory in an extreme way. However much we may demystify certain dimensions of this work for ourselves, its central enigma continues to haunt us and brings on reflection. This is what makes his work as a whole such a compelling interpretive paradigm.
In the work exhibited now, the brackets on the verities and vicissitudes of painting are opened up, and the artist convinces us of both the radical newness of his project and the fact that it is in no way dated from the very moment of its execution. At Catalogue, John Heward’s work speaks to the future not the past, and comfortably ensconced there among fellow travellers like surrogate band mates from another medium, I have no doubt that he would have wholeheartedly approved. WM
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James D. Campbell is a curator and writer on art based in Montreal. The author of over 150 books and catalogues on art, he contributes essays and reviews to Frieze, Border Crossings and other publications.