essays – jack niven, museum london, 1998

the dreaming bees

jack and i met to look at the paintings before they were hung in the gallery. thirty paintings were scattered around us, leaning on walls, stacked on a trolley. jack was business-like and cheery. “over there”, he gestured with one arm, “those are the cosmic explosions.” i looked. “the over here – these ones are the falling boilders. and these are the whirlpool, the icebergs and the lightning.” he looked around, mentally dusting off his hands at a job well done. “shall we have lunch?”, he said, “it’s noon.”

in much of jack niven’s work of the last several years, these has been a back-and-forth play between the poetic and the ordinary, between invocations of the sublime and a brisk nod of greeting to the sublunary. last year, niven constructed a coffin, an elegant and superbly crafted object, built to last, built to fit. exhibited at mercer union in toronto, the coffin floated above busy king street in the gallery’s elevated window like a recumbent endless column, or a simple full stop.

the year before, at the palace at 4a.m., niven showed a grid of thirty word-paintings. each painting was composed of a field of decorative patterning and a cluster of four words that had the intense, other-worldly logic of dream imagery or surreal poetry: stylish crag/bone eyes; blunt knoll/magenta rising; boxed rain/ red clay. the paintings linked a workman’s laconic economy to poetic magic, making a space in each little painting in which to wander and to puzzle, a fissure in the smoothly wrought faux finishes and exuberant 70’s design patterns that revealed other, less knowable places.

tarot jigs continues these symbiotic but paradoxical pairings. the title of the show baldly describes the artist’s starting point for the work: tarot – contemplation of life’s patterns through illustrated playing cards, jig – a template for guiding tools in the mass production of objects. the two words together propose a template for living. but the sonorous phrase breaks from its factual bounds to dance toward other possible reads – an odour of patchouli, distant music, something that happened a long time ago, or might not have happened at all. this transformative process is, naturally, the work of any (effective) artist. in the process of transformation, new space is opened through which to move, space which otherwise might not be found.

many of the paintings do, metaphorically, open, their smooth faux-finished sides splitting to disgorge avalanches of cartoon boulders, splattering lava, fiery electric cables or a deep and unwelcoming painted hole. other paintings fall away from the flat surface into whirlpools, water or subterranean tunnels. painting’s window, banged shut by modernism is blasted open, letting loose the whole bag of tricks locked away by modernism’s declaration of independence from pictorial description. narrative, illusion, reference, it is these, not just flying boulders, that erupt into the painted field.

modernism’s dictum of working within the ‘proper area of competence’ (greenberg) is played out in the painting on works that fuse paint’s materiality to the fictional screen of the picture plane. guston’s woven scrims of colour, for example, riopelle’s fanatical plaids, strike a tension between succulent, visible paint and the indexical record of the painter’s hand, and an abstract, spatial illusion. calibrations of this delicate balance were refined through post-painterly and hard-edge abstraction until the point at which lucio fontano , truly merging painterly gesture with an evocation of spatiality, cut a slit in a piece of raw, stretched canvas, and having called this spade a spade, dug the first hole for modernism’s grave. since then many painters have reprised the self-conscious modernist surface, whether ironically, or mechanically, or with the mix and match practices of post-modernism, or to explore the formal interest underlined by questions of surface.

niven’s consideration of surface seems somewhat different. as with jasper johns’s flag, the flat, rendered area around each puncture is both the self-referential flat surface of the painting as well as a representation of things in the world. but while johns’s work seems dry, even deadpan, a teasing play on modernist dogma, niven’s fields of faux linoleum, marble, wood or cloth don’t seem ironic. rather, they seem to celebrate an artisan’s skill, taking pleasure in a well-executed job in their refined descriptions of a range of possible surfaces. it isn’t surprising to discover that niven supports his studio practice in part as a decorative painter.

in addition to the faux effects in the work, niven’s demarcation of form is often graphic, playing on the language of design and advertising art. linear descriptions of slabs of shattered concrete or glass, or slices of apple on a plate are indicated with the uninflected black outline of graphic art. some forms, even when rendered more illusionistically, share this graphic quality, presenting a sense not so much of subjective rendering as expedient, almost short-hand demarcation of form.

both faux-finishing and graphic rendering are processes bound up with ideas of reproduction, whether mechanically, with camera or printing processes as in graphic design, or with the replication in one material of another with the potential for endless and uniform repetition that one finds in faux-finishing. it is this language, of replication, or uniformity negating the individual hand of the painter that forms the field of many of these paintings.

but if the field, the frame of the paintings describes the realm of the mass-produced in which individuality is largely suppressed, this uniform surface is interrupted with a gestural explosion that is a doubly charged internal vision. the interruptions are defined with the autographic mark of the artist, in broad sweeps of paint, or curious, dream-like imagery, in gestural line, or unexpected colour. just as powerfully as the self-expressive language of paint, the force that drives boulders or skulls outwards, that illuminates the broken spaces with fire or electricity, is coming from behind the painting – not from the surface that is ordered according to a uniform and mechanical touch, not even from the vantage point of the viewer or painter, but from a place that can be seen but not entered. and one wonders if reaching that distant space is really desirable. unlike the familiar, even comforting banality of the faux textures and designed surfaces, these voids provide no handholds, falling away into unknowable spaces. this is perhaps the space of imagination in distilled form, in which the unknown, foreboding or strange hover just beyond reach. held in check by their neatly rendered, workmanlike surrounds, the voids are balanced, verbs in amber, bursting out of a space that is defined only through its distance, always held in, always breaking.

when i first started to think about jack niven’s work, i found myself haunted by a poem i read many years ago by the swedish poet tomas transtromer. living, as niven does, in a dark and chilly northern land, many of transtromer’s poems describe the oppression of long, sunless seasons, and the sometimes gaping distances between people and their desires. he writes, too, with a passionate delight, of growth or connection. the poem that has followed me through my wandering with this work is called allegro. the balance that niven strikes between the day-to-day and the extraordinary resonate with transtromer’s words as he describes how music – or any art – provides a space of resistance to the sometimes oppressive order of our external lives. the last six lines:

i raise my haydn-flag – it indicates:
“we won’t surrender. but want peace.”
music is a house of glass standing on a slope;
rocks are flying, rocks are rolling,
the rocks roll straight through the house
but every pane of glass is still whole.

this is a catalogue essay for jack niven’s show tarot jigs at museum london, 1998.

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