By Bart Gazzola
One of the things that has become relevant for me lately is the idea of synchronicity: or perhaps I’m investing too much into the idea that the exhibition Inland, by Shawn Serfas, an Assistant Professor at Brock University, brings together a number of uniquely relevant, if somewhat unpredictable, points.
After all, the Canadian art world is small: so the fact that Serfas was a student of mine during his BFA (Saskatoon), before he his MFA (Alberta), isn’t that odd. He’s just mounted a major exhibition of his work at Rodman Hall, and perhaps thoughts of “prairie modernism” or “prairie abstraction” still inform his work. My own attitudes about those motifs have shifted / are shifting (partly due to geography, partly due to other factors). This supplies an interesting coincidence, a possibility to go deeper in looking at Inland, which has been curated by Stuart Reid.
There’s also external factors in considering contemporary abstract painting: Ellsworth Kelly has passed, and a massive retrospective of Frank Stella was recently mounted. But it’s also worth considering Camille Paglia’s acerbic — and insightful — declaration that many “regard abstract painting with suspicion, as if it were a hoax or fraud… there is more bad than good abstract art, which has been compromised over the decades by a host of inept imitations”.
Jerry Saltz calls it “zombie modernism” (and all the facile St. Justs to his Robespierre rush to quote it, like good ignorant zealots). In Saskatoon, where Shawn and I met, I christened it “karaoke modernism.” Imitative form without the spark of creativity: not even simulacra, but arrogant mimesis. The last exhibition I saw on the prairies, Abject Abstract, presented two excremental examples of this: Jon Vaughn and Allysha Larsen. They personify how often those whom imitate the giants are as offensive as they are unoriginal. I mention those not just for appropriate derision, but to highlight that distance allows insight and proffers maturity. Serfas left, and has expanded his vision and his practice. The geographic reference encapsulated in the title of his exhibition is another entertaining interpretation (or coincidence).
His work fills the “lower” space: the two smaller alcove rooms and the larger, sunken space. The works alternate between massive, “manly” paintings, often dominated by darks with breaks of vivid colour; these works seem covered in an oily black “scum”, almost “dirty.” You can stand amidst these works, having them encircle you, and interact with them as they interact with each other. Yellow T, Forge or Blacken (all part of the Inland Series) are the more interesting. These are a painted series of “monoliths.” Slit No. 2 is all oily blacks, vasoline gelled whites with a red “dock” at the bottom, like an industrial waste site, the interior organs of a sewer system. Forge offers some light blues, muddy bloody dirty blacks scabbing over again, a lighter thicker tab in glutty white but tainted with yellow and red streaks that ooze into the “dock” at the bottom.
Second White from this series stands apart visually – and literally, as it hangs in an alcove. This work is as white as the others are black. Second is cracked and flaky: more solemn, more funerary than the foreboding oppression of its peers. This is like a period to a sentence. This quiet nature is the opposite of the massive sweeping brush strokes (as in Forge), like a parody of the “artist’s hand” – titanic brush marks, more than a foot wide, glistening with (Stuart’s words) the “liquidity of paint” and “wet layers” with “crackling surfaces.”
Two elderly ladies in the space with me saw it all as architecture: temple and arches, balistrades and buildings. Serfas’s own words about the Inland works cited fear and foreboding, venom and poison in the viscosity of the massive works. Our shared dalliances with Prairie Modernism manifested again, as he asserted that he “sources my abstraction from the landscape”, often referencing aerial photography, geomorphology, “multiple layers of complex information” and metaphor that silence or augment or change each other (the prairie notion of the palimpsest rears its head, also). Meanings are more combinatons of layers than one dominating a “lower” one
There are several smaller works that charm, while fracturing the space between painting and sculpture. The smaller pieces are almost all from the Portrait of a Mark series: of this group, Seeing, Inland Yellow and Trench are the best. Trench is within a plain white frame, and pale greens and light blue swell out in a bulge more bodily than painterly, though rough and delicate mark making unites all the works by Serfas, small and large. The bulge is then cut into, with the large “trench”of the title: you see a cross section that has bits of red, and other almost grotesque painted “chunks”and iridiscent nodules that seems like fat or cartilage. It’s like an unruly, seeping organ on a sterile white slab; or the green is minty fresh and inviting, like icing. Perhaps this work is my favourite as I wish to consume it.
Trench hangs on a wall by itself: Seeing and Inland Yellow sit next to each other. The former is based on a scrappy, perhaps degraded series of stripes (red on green, green on red) with a snaked form on top of it. It’s intestinal, and the colours are muddy or dullish. Inland Yellow has a flat, sometimes sagging, sometimes stretched and bubbled “skin” that seems to have tears that expose another linear “post painterly” background (the art historian in me sees this a metaphor for some of my previus points about the history of abstract painting, with the mimesis or mockery of what’s gone before, or what’s “contemporary”).
Cross No. 2 again offers the “cleanliness” of art history burst and broken by the goey lack of restraint of the last 50 years that some modernist painters would dismiss as degraded (in conversation, Serfas designated some areas of works as more mind than heart, or more thinking than feeling. This is a flexible framework, when seeing clean, hard edged “docks” and “tags” arguing with almost violent and raw detritus of mark making. Some of the colourful gluts bulging forth also have delicate translucent gel threads, like ligaments or tendons. Another smaller work, Key, has its black and white linear background broken repeatedly by unadulterated chunks of colour, but Summ suggests a later stage, and the unruly glutty tumours of paint are like a cancer run amok, serving itself, consuming the work, becoming the work. The works you’ll see in the small alcoves as you leave the gallery, outside the gallery proper, have gluts that are free from the canvas and sit on the ledge.
The installation is evocative: many of these works speak to each other in complimentary or conflicting ways, and you may discover a work in another room that answers back to a previously seen piece, or that furthers the conversation. And that is perhaps the best place to leave Inland: Serfas spoke often of the “pluralism” in his work, the multiplicities of meaning intersecting in the same space. I’ve seen the show three times already and I’ll see it again, and the works that hold me each time are different on each visit.
Bart Gazzola (also known as #artcriticfromhell) is an arts writer/critic who has published with Magenta Magazine, Canadian Art, New Art Gazette, Galleries West, PrairieSeen, Long Exposure and BlackFlash (where he was Editorial Chair for 3 years). He is Assistant Editor at thesound.rocks and a frequent contributor to various cultural spaces in Niagara.