Toronto

Ron Martin

Art Gallery of Ontario

Ron Martin is probably English Canada’s most noted abstractionist and this traveling exhibition focuses on his best-known paintings: the one-color works from 1971 to 1981. These pictures started out as gestural exercises in ultramarine blue and bright red and then settled down into an eight-year investigation with black acrylic paint. The black paintings represent another ne plus ultra of reductivism. They proffer a four-part equation between paint, canvas, gesture, and reception that pares painting back to its barest bones. Their essentialism refers to a transcendental formalism intent on revealing eternal truths about painting. In an artist’s text published in the catalogue accompanying this show, Martin assembles a supportive patchwork of quotations that situates his work within an augustly authorized cultural provenance.

The artist’s references to Poussin and Delacroix aside, however, the work is better than a stuffy revisionist investiture would seem to allow. It has an immediacy that hasn’t dulled after a decade of displacement by other painting and other concerns. In fact, Martin’s work offers an occasion to apprehend the pointlessness of the figurative/abstract division that has typified discussion of painting in the ’80s. Both terms—figuration and abstraction—prop up a sort of special pleading for painters and painting; neither term has an unquestionable viability. Meaning in painting now often happens at the medium’s muddied transcendent edge, where high art has slid down into the real world with the rest of us.

Martin’s work is about this demise of painting’s privilege. His black canvases are poignantly contingent on circumstance: paint, canvas, light, performance, and perception—that’s it. Their simplicity is a regression, a way of unlearning and unloading preconceptions and expectations about the experience of looking. Martin’s pictures are performative arenas bounded by the limits of actual space and materials. Over the ten-year period represented by this retrospective, the pictures fill and then unfill with paint. They are thickest in the middle period, thinnest at the beginning and the end, as if testing, then retesting, the capacity of a work of art to hold paint.

This existential aspect is the core of the work. Painting is subsumed within a broader ecology, where perception is defined by terms almost more sculptural than pictorial. The surfaces of Martin’s paintings are diaristic, not only in the sense of recording gestural activity but also in terms of recording traces of different drying times, different paint consistencies, different hand tools. Even so, they are unreliable, accepting so much reflection of light that the object is buried under a kind of visual noise, an extraneous interference which is nonetheless crucial in constructing the work’s stylistic attachment to a tradition of sublimity. Any sort of ideation is tempered by the flux of objecthood, circumstance, and perception. Titles such as In Pursuit of the World, 1976, No Resolution, 1976, and Faith Mass, 1977, are descriptive of a broad predicament beyond painting. The struggle to find a reliable image, or a firm surface to speculate on, is shared by sculptors, photographers, and others who would accept Martin’s titles as shorthand for their own concerns. These days, all art plays on the same court.

Richard Rhodes