When you think of a “painting collective,” it is normal to imagine a group of artists. Montreal painter Trevor Kiernander shows us, however, that it is also possible for the artworks themselves to exist in a collectivity, communicating together in a voice louder than the sum of its parts. With his latest show, “Are We Here?,” Kiernander engages the visitor in this vein, laying out the exhibition with a view to functional precision and theatrical effect, each work and its particular situation envisioned with care in relation to the others.
In many exhibitions, the viewer may walk along the wall, encountering one painting after another, then another wall, then another; here, to the contrary, the pieces operate in concert to draw the viewer, bodily, around the space in a sensuous peregrination that relies on visual theatre, peripheral vision and surprise. Where ordinarily you might enter the gallery and follow the long, rounded wall that curves away, north and west, Kiernander resists this impulse; instead, on the wall opposite he has placed a monumental diptych, Glitch in the Matrix, which beckons the visitor directly across the gallery space. Approaching and contemplating this commanding piece, the visitor eventually glances left, where That’s Us (Wild Combination) hangs, a dramatic, brightly coloured work—or right, toward another large work. Either way, the long, curved wall, upon which are a dramatic sweep of a dozen small- to medium-size works in a disposition simultaneously rowdy and suave, asserts itself first in the peripheral vision and then in direct focus.
Certainly this long curve is the Outremont Gallery’s standout feature; the exhibiting artist’s conundrum is how to use, and not be used by, this imposing element, and Kiernander negotiates the challenge adroitly. Indeed, certain works were created expressly in response to the curve, including several circular tondi, for example, each less than a foot in diameter.
Also in this formal vein are a couple of small mirrors—one of clear glass, another tinted green— affixed, respectively, on two pieces, This Is How We Walk on the Moon and Another Dimension. They are suggestive of oculars or peepholes, and the visitor’s urge is to push up close and look “through,” but of course all the viewer sees is her own eye—or, more accurately, its reflection. We gaze into mirrors so that we may know how we look, but the images they give back, while potent and perhaps even useful, are also inverted horizontally, a fundamental problem (if not exactly an inaccuracy).
In “Are We Here?,” a similar, related problem recurs in several diptychs composed of a pair of images that mirror one another inexactly. In Glitch in the Matrix, which anchors the show, each of the diptych’s two panels presents a structural or architectural matrix in browns and greys and more delicate forms in lighter colours, a tableau similar to but inverted horizontally from that of the other panel. Indeed, the panel designs mirror one another, but imprecisely. Further, the left-hand image, unlike the right-hand canvas, is painted on linen (large unpainted areas make this obvious) and is slightly narrower. As such, what results is a mirroring not of the image but of the idea of the image. Two smaller diptychs, The Chase and Work It, evince a similar mirroring dynamic using comparable strategies: ideational mirroring and the linencanvas binary.
As painting exhibitions go, “Are We Here?” is unusual in several respects. One of the biggest is that while most of the pieces stand on their own as artworks, some don’t. Augmenting the ones that do are several monochromatic items, a strategy that Kiernander— who has a background in graphic design—began developing with “Désorientation,” his 2017 show at the Maison des Arts de Laval in Laval, Quebec, where he grouped abstract paintings and rectangular monochrome panels together in arrangements linked by form, colour and position. Since then, Kiernander has approached exhibitions as singular units rather than series of groupings. He did this with “In Free Fall,” 2018, at the Maison de la Culture Notre-Dame-de-Grâce in Montreal, in which monochrome rectangles were positioned around the show. Here, as there, the monochromes appear throughout: rectangular panels as before, but also a couple of curved, irregular plywood pieces resembling brushstrokes.
Thus comprised, “Are We Here?” is less a straight-up exhibition than an installation, a conceptual machinery of ideas or impressions. The visual language of this machine is Kiernander’s signature brand of formalist abstraction, in which gestures (swoops and squiggles) and edges (hard-taped, soft or ragged) contend with colours, shapes, fields and even the exposed canvas or linen support. Earlier in his career, Kiernander often painted from photographs, resulting in recognizable figurative objects. Since then, however, figurative elements have been pushed off the canvas, yet remain suggested in a sort of ideaspace. In the tiny work The Weight of Time, for instance, a primordial form in subtle, earthen tones threatens to assume shape, but doesn’t. In Will Send Title Later, we imagine we see a flower and stem against a backdrop of foliage, but nothing else in the work invites us further in that direction. Lacking in figurative objects, Kiernander’s works are still replete with forms in a continual regime of construction and reconstruction, anarchic yet somehow harmonious propositions in formal, spatial and colour relationships that play within and among the exhibition’s constituent works.
Kiernander’s exhibition titles— “Are We Here?,” “Désorientation” and “In Free Fall”—tend to evoke a sense of the ontological, and, indeed, this artist’s work is as much about being a painter—about his process, his choices—as about the paintings themselves. His works certainly evoke consistent concerns and even exhibit a certain look, but, more, they are about seeking and creating new ways to react and relate to art. In the milieu of contemporary painting in Canada today, it isn’t easy to stand apart from the relentless individualism of the market system—the lone artist, the studio, the dealer, the sale—and, as such, a certain inconsequentiality always looms. Though Kiernander is surely as concerned with practical considerations as any painter must be, through his particular strategies and approach he continues to prove that consequence in abstract painting remains very much within reach. ❚
“Trevor Kiernander—Are We Here?” was exhibited at Galerie d’art d’Outremont, Outremont (Montreal), from March 7 to April 28, 2019.
Edwin Janzen is a visual artist living in Montreal.