Abstraction With The Brakes Off:
Janine Miedzik at The Drabinsky Gallery
By Donald Brackett
“Form is content and content is form”
“A carrot is as close as a rabbit gets to a diamond”
Don Van Vliet
The great proto-surrealist Alfred Jarry once described the passion, and by inference the 20th century, as an uphill bicycle race. These fresh new works by Janine Miedzik, in the best tradition of a pure abstract vision first proposed in the youth of that century, still allow us to feel a rushing non-figurative wind blowing in our faces as that still svelte modernist bicycle now rushes back downhill at breakneck speed. Her recent works, many with evocative song titles, maintain a direct link to the classical tenets of abstraction: non-illusory flatness, form as subject, colour as content. As her canvas bicycle rushes forward into the 21rst Century with the brakes off, it flashes back (often in mescaline hues) through some of the iconic formal language of the last one, in particular such exemplary practitioners as Jean Arp, Jules Olitski and Philip Guston. She waves wildly while dashing past them with a quick nod of recognition. Their work waves back.
As a close observer of that tradition, and one who believes that after modernism there is simply more modernism in different guises, I am pleased to report that not all artists have abandoned the canvas as a means of expressing both feelings and ideas. Also that this artist, quite accomplished for one so young, continues to make a contribution to a visual and conceptual conversation that is far from over, regardless of the current fondness for art with extension cords attached. So when Miedzik says, “I am driven by the possibilities of formal choices and of painting’s enduring capacity to summon alternate spaces for the viewer.”, she strikes at the very heart of the matter: the historical enterprise of staining stretched textiles and treating them like psychological windows.
We all need alternate spaces, if not, we’d be content to stare out the same window forever. As a result, and as early as the so-called renaissance, we have all to some degree or another coveted that absolute elsewhere which painting is so well equipped to transmit.
Better than novels for showing us our thoughts and feelings, slower than music at eliciting emotion but faster at depicting its resolution, painting is still the best way to chart and map the course of our conscious and especially our unconscious minds. Indeed, each painting may actually be a map of a singularly unique location, whether physical or metaphysical.
Also as a result, the title of her new show may be an ideal way of grasping how contemporary abstract artists deal with the often overwhelming weight of their own recent history. Since a palimpsest is a manuscript that has been written upon by more than one author, sometimes with the original obscured, and sometimes allowing it to emerge simultaneously, we can likewise enjoy the multiple layers that the history of painting has embedded in her dazzling new works. This does not mean that they are derived from the classical abstraction of the last century, but rather, just as a new piece of music may occur within the string quartet tradition and yet still be utterly inventive, Miedzik’s work allows for a welcome re-reading between the lines of modernist art.
The artist has commented that, “Most of the titles of these new works are taken from music that was in heavy rotation during their production, most notably Captain Beefheart. My earlier work titles mapped out personal routes, destinations, place names and intersections. I see the song titles as having a similar function.” The residual evidence reveals that at a certain confident level of bold and improvised execution, paintings are indeed frozen music, of a sort that can be mapped visually in space.
If you don’t believe me, just pause in front of “Orange Claw Hammer” and gaze at it while remembering the lyrics to the song that it spookily evokes:
“A jack rabbit raised his folded ears, a beautiful sagebrush jack rabbit, and an oriole sang like an orange. His breast full of worms and his tail clawed the evening like a hammer”
And while studying the strangely unsettling surface of “Ice Cream For Crow”, recall those elliptical lyrics: “Don't shake my hand, give me your claw, two tears in a haystack,
scarecrow get back, tonight there's gonna be a feather treatment.”
And notice how the painting itself somehow inexplicably uses a feather treatment.
Whatever that is. The important thing is, whatever it might be, we all know how it feels.
Perhaps for one simple reason: because a painting is as close as a person gets to an angel.
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