I can still remember the exact moment, the exact brush stroke. I rounded a corner and fixed my eyes on “Marschland (Dangast),” a 1907 painting by Erich Heckel. I was visiting the small, secluded Brücke Museum in the Grunewald in, what was still at the time West Berlin. The landscape, measuring about two by three feet, is a panorama with a couple of massed trees and a scarlet and vermilion path that angles off to the horizon. Situated in the lower-right corner is a clunky slab of striated paint which, due to its broad mass, is out of character with the rest of the surface. Because of its insistent presence (and not so much that it represented anything beyond itself), it seemed to command the rest of the picture plane. I’d seen a lot of paintings go from thick to thin by Rembrandt, Courbet and Van Gogh, but I fixed on this clump of pigment as something different, an odd mutation in my thinking about physical matter and the sticky subject of paint’s ability to change perception. When I first came to New York during the heyday of Neo-Expressionism, the question of paint as a vehicle for developing spatial illusion versus paint as a significant substance with alchemical properties embodying its own unique set of forces was a significant factor in the debate that attracted international attention to the “new” painting.
North, the New York debut by Canadian artist Kim Dorland, emphatically declares that “chunky painting” is still a viable direction for practitioners not afraid to get their hands dirty. I’ve been followed Dorland’s work for years, since stumbling across it at the room of the Toronto gallery Jamie Angell during a SCOPE New York Art Fair. It wasn’t that I liked the work so much (though, as mentioned above, I’m a fan of “gooby paint”), but that I found its acidic fluorescent orange and red underpainting, clunky, quotidian subject matter, and slacker urgency—somehow evoking your favorite garage band with all the bad production values and strip mall expediency—kept resurfacing in my memory. With each subsequent encounter the works grew in scale, and the subject matter veered from a somewhat kitschy focus on deer in forests (what was the deer image craze anyway?) to a dreary rendition of kids sauntering through the unpaved back alleys of sub-suburbs, cruising among the parked pickups, RVs and camping trailers.
Alberta, identified as the site of these pictures, is known as the breadbasket of Canada. I imagine vast plains and overwhelming skies with widely scattered hamlets, a few thousand families clustered around a local railroad hub, phosphate mine or lumber mill. There’s a palpable tinge of desperation in the wandering figures central to many of the compositions in North, as if these skate punks are aimlessly trudging in search of some action, some mischief, some beer, some joints or some sex that might deaden the pain of their tedious, irrelevant existence. In “Alley # 4” and “Shortcut,” both from 2007, we see departing youngsters rendered as blocky squibs of paint walking through anonymous back streets. The figures are surrounded by haloes of hot underpaint, a kind of illuminated shade, as if they’re in the focus of some electric force-field that designates them as “slacker saints” or conveyers of a vibrant life energy.
Dorland composes his pictures with a confident sense of contrast to his sinewy bands and angular abstract fields. Shadows are stark; skies, lawns, parking-lot pavement, and the sides of buildings become blocks of color, differentiated not only with strong tone and harsh hue but by various paint applications—dripping washes, spray-can puffs and scribbles, lumpy and clotted fields or turd-thick shrieking green shrubbery. The people, like the cars and trucks, are abbreviated, reduced to featureless hunks of ragged color, with the slide, speed and heft of the rendering stroke becoming shorthand for posture and bearing. Often, as in the largish picture “Hoarfrost # 4”, despite the peeks of brilliant underpainting, parentheses of heavy pigment surround the figures, envelope their forms, reinforcing the contiguousness of the picture plane.
To quote Yogi Berra, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” With North, Dorland is faced instead with a “brush in the paint,” an obvious struggle between figure and ground. In the larger landscape paintings, like “Hoarfrost #4,” “Woods # 2” and “Northern Lights #2,” human figures comprise a minor compositional element. Despite areas of exuberantly thick paint, he’s flattened his compositions to the extent that a couple of these works even echo Alex Katz with their populist naturalism, distilled layouts, elegantly subdued palette and compressed space. The current mode of ultra-thin painting, popularized by painters like Elizabeth Payton, Karen Kilimnick, Luc Tuymans and Peter Doig seems in direct conflict with most of Dorland’s proclivities. Conversely, in a group of single-figure paintings and portraits like “Blue Hoodie” and “Lake Louise,” where turnip-sized globs form cages and exoskeletons around the shapes, Dorland piles the paint with such abandon that it becomes bas-relief, verging on the performance/conceptual action of artists like Geoff Davis, Johathan Meese and Scott Richter. Whether these tendencies continue in their polar directions or coalesce into some wacky hybrid is a coin-toss, but at least they provide enough interest to keep our eyes open for future developments.
In conversations with other painters and pundits after the latest round of art fairs, I couldn’t help lamenting on the strange irony that although America gave the world Abstract Expressionism with its concomitant ideas about gutsy paint-handling and truth to materials, so few New York galleries were showing the native version. Hopefully this audacious display by Dorland a cat from “North” of the boarder will help folks be less intimidated by the muck.