LETAIN THURMAN WADDEN
In collaboration with
November 3 – December 22, 2018
At various times, Brent Wadden (b.1979, Canada), Beth Letain (b. 1976, Canada), and Blair Thurman (b.1961, United States of America), all studied at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. We position new works by these three artists, who use very different approaches and mediums, in conversation. Their works share an obsession with form and color, grounded in materiality.
In stark contrast to the aggressive stimuli that grab at us regularly through our screens, the works in this exhibition act on the body as the eye seeing in the dark – clarity comes gradually. Apprehended quickly or from afar, the works shape-shift into solid forms - plastic, steady, sculptural. With proximity however, they transform. The materiality of the work becomes visible, the importance of practice is a clear motif as process and labor is made apparent. How the hands of Wadden, Letain or Thurman wobbled suddenly, or sped off the canvas connects the viewer to the artist. This indexical relationship of the work to the artist is exposed as their traces and gestures are revealed. The unevenness of the weave becomes clearer, and what we had assumed was plastic is in actuality brush strokes. What was easily discernible becomes complicated and evasive.
In the late 1930’s, many distinguished artists arrived in North America from war-torn Europe, to escape censorship and the suppression of their art. In 1933, the composer Ernst Krenek fled Nazi-Germany to the US and then to Canada. His music became an expression of his protest and took up serialism and abstraction as he believed it to be antithetical to Nazism. Abstraction reflects the inner experience of the artist, and thus does not reflect the outward reality of whatever social, political, and ideological environment being imposed upon them. Thus, abstraction itself is in inherent opposition to outward powers which might try to control it. It is the ultimate expression of the individual, in the absence of any ideological purpose. In celebrating the potential of the individual, abstraction undermines the very foundation of populism.
Working on a loom, Brent Wadden intertwines acrylic yarns with hand-spun wools that are later stitched together and mounted on raw canvas. The large-scale works that result take to task numerous preconceptions about painting. They refuse conventional distinctions between so-called “folk art” and “high art” practice, and demonstrate an indebtedness to indigenous traditions of art making, particularly those from the coast of Nova Scotia, where Wadden grew up. As significant, however, is the time Wadden spent working in Berlin and his consequent engagement with the heritage of the Bauhaus. In particular, Brent Wadden’s work pursues strategies pioneered at the school by Paul Klee. Even before Klee held design courses for weavers at the Dessau Bauhaus in 1927, he had made paintings that recall the look of woven textiles. Sometimes these paintings were even made on jute fragments. Wadden reverses this process: His works consist of fibers, but he considers them paintings. And verily from a distance, their unfussy, repetitious shapes look as if they have indeed been painted.
Beth Letain is a former microbiologist who shifted her focus to painting 10 years ago. Since then she has worked within an intentionally limited vocabulary of forms. These forms reference circuitry, portals and mitosis, all points of transfer, duplication and connection. While relentlessly pursuing the minimal forms which preoccupy her, Letain embraces mistakes and uncertainty in her work. The pursuit of forms whose meanings are decipherable only to the artist represents the ultimate form of self realization. Beth Letain laboriously applies gesso, layer by layer and sands it down until it becomes a rich, velvety surface. This deliberately long process is contrasted by the fast, almost gestural execution of the formal shapes in oil paint.
Drawing on influences such as his passion for collecting model cars, as well as other American imagery, Blair Thurman’s shaped canvases exist on the periphery of both painting and sculpture. As an art student in the 1980s, he sought to escape prevailing theoretical concerns and recalls a desire for the subject matter or content of art to have as deep a personal connection as its formal aspects. Thurman combines this personal iconography with an acute awareness of the inherent challenges of painting, resulting in a sensibility influenced by American popular culture. From a distance, the Thurman’s works appear to be industrially produced, perfect object. Upon closer viewing, we see pencil marks, brush strokes and irregularities in form.
We initially encounter works by all three of these artists artists through the lens of minimalism and it is through this vocabulary that the gestures of these works are developed. Crucially however, Letain, Wadden and Thurman all push through the pristine surfaces of minimalism and have created a genre of humanistic formalism, where the expression of the individual can be found just under the surface. Grounded in the materiality of the works, the hands-on mediation of form compels a unique experience of intimacy between viewer and work, work and artist, and by extension viewer and artist.