Implicit Absence

Leah Sandals

Arts Atlantic Magazine

The work of Ivan Murphy and Drew Klassen has diverged since their last joint exhibition in the early 1990s, but their paintings still complement each other. Where Murphy responds to the privatization of public space, Klassen demonstrates the “publicisation” of private space. The tension between these two bodies of work generates questions that resonate far beyond the gallery.

Murphy's works are predominantly acrylic paintings. The paint is work in a broadly expressive manner, with a pallet of buttery yellows, woody browns and sky blues. While Murphy handles compositional elements precisely, the brushstrokes are coarse. His subject matter is largely drawn from impressions of snowy landscapes and winter-naked trees. First readings evidence an appreciation of wilderness-based solitude, sanctuary and spirituality.

The Flemish masters heavily influence Klassen. Working in oil on panel, he deftly manipulates a pallete of luscious plums, persimmons and oranges–all of which happen to be his subject matter. His surfaces are smooth and highly varnished. Klassen’s edibles seem to go within velvety skins, beckoning a lick, a bite, a caress. The initial effect is one of virtuosity, sensuality and domesticity.

Further investigation yields surprises. Some of Klassen's compositions are precarious; a lemon is balanced on top of a tall narrow bottle rather than nestled securely in a bowl. Though careful rendering is obvious, everything is slightly out of focus, as if the artist had coated his contact lenses in Vaseline. Most radically, Klassen disrupts the timelessness of quiet dishes and hushed cloths with a raucous invader from the 21st century. This intruder is the television set.

A television is so visually out of place within this centurys-old painting style that it takes some time to recognize it. The artist makes it peripheral to his compositions, relegating a bluish window or black box to the edges of his panels. While the television’s inclusion seems accidental, it is actually essential to this artist’s process. Rather than working with natural lighting as his Dutch forefathers did, Klassen only works with the light that emanates from the flickering screen.

Instead of reinforcing the idea of fortressed domesticity, Klassen’s work makes the private home inescapably public, accessible by satellite to newsrooms, ad agencies and production studios around the world. It triggers a familiar soundtrack; the rise and fall fall of a comedienne’s tempo, manufactured applause from a studio audience, an anchorman's the authoritative drone. These unbidden associations completely alter my experience of his so-called still lifes.

Murphy's work yields related readings about the privatization of public space. By painting clear-cut forest landscapes such as “Last Refuge”, he exposes the myth of Canada's vast uncharted wilderness. What actually exists, he implies, is a highly delineated private property. Murphy reworks the private-landscape concept in a more personal way as well. Painting from memory in his studio, he uses landscape as a starting point for sublime abstractions of space, colour and texture. “Clearing; Last Light” is the most rigorous example of this technique; sun on snow is distilled down to a yellow rectangle on bluish ground.

The result of Murphy's abstract approach is both pleasing and artificial and suggests that his work be read as the location of an interior geography, an individual striving toward beauty, balance and purity. Yet is there really any wilderness left, inner or outer? Is personal spirituality similarly harvested to bolster shareholder interests? Can a rectangular canvas bound a sanctuary or is it simply another form of private property?

Klassen's work is also rich in ambiguities. His luscious painting style mirrors in the way that television can make even the rottenest things shine by applying a coat of seductive electronic varnish; catchy jingles, effective branding and dazzling special effects. But is painting really nobler for all its traditional gravitas? Is fine art any less of a consumer commodity then television?  in what way does art delineate our desires and maintain our illusions?