Galerie Simon Blais
To December 20, 2014
A working title for this exhibition (and that of Clint Roenisch’s concurrent Toronto exhibition of the artist’s work) could have been simply “The Self-Portrait”. The eyes, the nose, the mouth, the replete physiognomy of the face, pop out of the paintwork here with eerie alacrity.
Consider the following, if you will, and be instructed thereby:
“Like all HK’s later works, th[e] self-portrait can be regarded from a wide variety of viewpoints. To some, especially those who do not know the painter personally, the picture is above all a symphony of colours, a marvellously harmonized tapestry that in spite of all its brilliant hues gives a sense of tranquillity and nobility… The face is painted like a landscape, the hair reminiscent of leaves and the bark of trees, the eye sockets like clefts in rock….But there are many who, on the contrary, see only the object in this work, only HK’s face, analysed and interpreted by the artist himself with unsparing psychological insight – an enormous confession, a ruthless, crying, moving, terrifying peccavi.”
Well, those words are not mine, They refer to Hans Klingsor, the fictional protagonist of Herman Hesse’s lovely novella Klingsor’s Last Summer, the profile of a painter as fictional as Harold Klunder, Dutch-born and Montreal-based, is real.
Those words, that story, speak eloquently to the heart of the latter’s accomplishment. His work is all about self-portraiture, and we have only to look at paintings like The Labyrinth (Self-Portrait, 2012-14) to see the undying truth of this.
Disembodied optics abound. Facial profiles, intact or fragmented, predominate. Anamorphs, biomorphs, amorphous amoebae have replaced geometric integers in his work as it has evolved from the 1970s onwards, and the atavisms, the recurrences there, are all indigenous to this body of work. They follow their own trajectory like arc light shed across the hinterlands of paintings that are endlessly engaging, whether at their most skeletal or their most replete. And some of the paintings at Blais are very skeletal, indeed, such as Airmail Blue #2 (2013-14) while others like the glorious quadriptych Sun and Moon #11 (2008-11) luxuriate in the Eugene-Leroy-like thick coat.
Just about every painting that Klunder executes begins with a figurative drawing on the canvas ground, more hand drawn act of faith and charged sign than something formulaic he intends to follow through with on the long and often winding road toward a painting’s arrival at the threshold. It is this painter’s way of being humble, I think, of staying close to his roots – those seed kernel schemata will sprout, after all, into the hardiest and most robust of shoots.
Klunder has spent ten years, or even longer, on certain paintings. Several of the paintings exhibited here show the same spirit of long fecund industry. Take the aforementioned quadriptych Sun and Moon #2 (2008-11), for example, which is “as free form as an amoeba” as the great late novelist Kurt Vonnegut put it in his Cat’s Cradle. In fact, the panels are as amorphous as the human unconscious itself. They don’t stop. They don’t settle. They are not static entities. They shed their skin in the seeing and assume new aspects as they morph and morph and morph again within the sovereign horizons of sight and memory. Perhaps this is why our optic latches on to them so readily and well – they simply refuse to let go as they work their way deep into our heads.
I have called Klunder in the past a shamanic artist and oil paint his articulating medium, his Dreamcatcher, as it were. The truth is that Klunder cleaves to a far older tradition than our many postmodern and other ‘isms’ would allow, the tradition of oil painting itself that has survived all the tumultuous changes and hectic clamour in the artworld over the centuries with its full promise still intact. But his painterly metamorphoses over the long years – from classic late Modernist abstraction with AbEx roots on through to a more autobiographical, deeply figural and restless idiom have been very nearly seamless, and argue the case for the overwhelmingly cohesive and truly daunting nature of his project as a whole.
Looking backwards from the exhibition now at Blais (and at Roenisch, as well), we see that while Klunder’s work refused from an early point to shy away from a specifically Dutch painting tradition that was bred in the bone, he always went his own way, followed his own itinerary, heedless of fashion, glamour, all those many importunate and Siren-like voices from near and far, listening closely to the beating of his own heart. He is proudly Canadian, and his work wholly and uniquely his own.
A useful coda for this review of Klunder’s recent work might well be what Philip Guston wrote in his essay Faith, Hope and Impossibility: “To paint is always to start at the beginning again, yet being unable to avoid the familiar arguments about what you see yourself painting. The canvas you are working on modifies the previous ones in an unending, baffling chain which never seems to finish. For me the most relevant question and perhaps the only one is, “When are you finished? When do you stop? Or rather Why stop at all?”
James D. Campbell is a writer and curator based in Montreal who contributes regularly to Magenta Magazine among other publications.