Michael Gibson Gallery
October 1 – October 29, 2016
It’s been nearly ten years since Toronto-based painter, musician, and poet David Urban exhibited at Michael Gibson Gallery in London, ON. In this time, Urban has exhibited work both nationally and internationally, had shows reviewed in major publications such as Art in America, and has been collected by prestigious cultural institutions including the National Gallery of Canada. Having burst onto the scene soon after graduating with an MFA from the University of Guelph in 1994, Urban has since become a leader in his generation of painters. His self-titled solo exhibition is something of a homecoming, and features five defiantly large paintings that riff on Urban’s signature patterning, colouring, and lyricism. Yet there’s something new lurking in these bodies of work: a developing, if not triumphant revisiting of narrative figuration. His is a story told through modernist abstraction where the central protagonist has once again become the human figure.
Often looked to for his idiosyncratic approach to abstraction, Urban is perhaps overlooked for his dedication to tonal exchanges and colour pairings. In these five paintings, ultramarine, cobalt, and umber are instrumental in establishing the architecture for the overall composition, while glowing pink figures stand, recline, or hang around in the corners. The pink figures are the product of a past visit to China whereby Urban stumbled upon an oil paint factory, subsequently ordering several crates of oil paints that didn’t arrive until years later, and really didn’t have a use until now. While the lucidity of other colours was too weak to be used and subsequently given away, for whatever reason, the pinks were so strong that they have since come to define the artist’s renewed interest in the human body.
For instance, in the 84” x 72” Living Room 1973 (2016), Urban draws on the autobiographical to generate a whimsical homage to noted London regionalist Jack Chambers. In the painting, a seated figure is set against a ribboned backdrop of vivid red cross-hatching, transparent parallel lines, radiating yellows, and rectangular blue grids. On the one hand, the painting is a direct reference to Urban’s fascination with a survey book on Canadian painting from his childhood that displayed Chambers’s restrained painting of a living room scene Sunday Morning No. 2 (1968-70) on the cover; on the other, Urban has manufactured a painting within a painting that positions the artist-as-child within Chamber’s living room, watching TV in 1973. Indeed, the admiration that he has of the painting and the memory of the book itself is evident. There’s a psychological dimension grounded in reality that isn’t often afforded to modernist abstraction. In other words, what is particularly compelling about these and other paintings is that the relations between total abstraction and the very real presence of the figure situates each painting as a liminal interplay between two seemingly distinct (and disparate) worlds.
One work, in particular, is quite unlike the others. Man Carrying a Lantern (2016) features all of the elemental forms included in the other four works, but the figure here is rendered in a subdued red hue instead of gushing pink with white highlights. It stands to the right of the composition, posing somewhat limp and unresponsive—a hangman of sorts caught in a vortex of dark U-shaped lines and shadowy blue boxes. Yet it would appear that this figure casts its gaze at the rectangular blue box as a subtle though clever means of manufacturing a figurative painting within an abstract painting. That being said, Urban deconstructs the figure so much so that it becomes but another form on the composition’s stage, another entity within the tirade of abstraction. The marks act as stitches that sew up a canvas whose tension is nearing the bursting point. It’s precisely this tension that makes the pictures so effective.
Further still, these paintings, with their geometric feel and unsettled surfaces, are odes to Cezanne but with different ends. Urban’s fractioning of the canvas speaks to the division of planes that Cezanne himself became preoccupied with in order to construct a sense of three-dimensional space within the two-dimensionality constitution of a flat surface. The result is to counter the idea that painting as a seemingly static condition; rather, that it holds the potential to become an event that unfolds in real time and space.
If form can be considered a being or an entity in and of itself, then what is presented here are living pictures. Urban shows that the stage of painting boasts rhizomatic consequences; that the interplay of pigment and form lends itself naturally to ambiguous meanings even though they are grounded in the figure of reality. At once he questions whether to “get it” really matters in the first place. For one of the leading painters in Canada to peel back the existential mythology surrounding modernist abstraction and replace them with self-referential narratives that no one may “get” but that hold meaning for the artist is something of a relief. Whatever happened to painting because it feels good, anyways?
Matthew Ryan Smith, Ph.D., is a freelance writer and educator based in London, Ontario, as well as the curator of the Glenhyrst Art Gallery of Brant. He received his Ph.D. in Art and Visual Culture (Curatorial Stream) from the University of Western Ontario in 2012. He is a Sessional Professor of Art History at the University of Toronto, Mississauga and the University of Western Ontario. Matthew has published extensively in exhibition catalogues, art publications and academic journals, most recently “Relational Maneouvres in Autobiographical Video Art” in Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly and “Performative Appropriation of Video Art on YouTube, Vimeo and Dailymotion” in the Journal of Curatorial Studies. He also recently completed a book chapter on unsanctioned graffiti interventions in post-apartheid Johannesburg to be published by the University of Indiana Press.