At Bow Falls, Canadian Rockies, Summer 1996 (David Duffin photo)

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Terry Fenton

TERRY FENTON is an internationally-known art critic, curator, author, and landscape painter. His books on Anthony Caro and Kenneth Noland are available in bookstores and museum shops around the world. Formerly Director of the Edmonton Art Gallery, Artistic Director of the Leighton Foundation, and Director of the Mendel Art Gallery, he now spends his much of his time organizing workshops and exhibitions.

ALTHOUGH THE PHRASE "ART FOR ART'S SAKE" isn't much used today as a compliment, not so long ago it was used often in praise of modernist painting. It's a catch phrase from the dying years of the last century and like most catch phrases it both misleads and illuminates. It misleads insofar as it misstates the case. After all, of necessity art must be for people, it can't be for art. Nevertheless, modern art -- and modern painting in particular -- has tended to be art as art, art for the sake of appreciation. Modern painting seldom told a tale or pointed a moral. It tended to aspire, in Walter Pater's words, to the condition of music.

Music of course achieves expression in its own medium through a highly developed musical language. While painting may be poorer than music in established theory and procedure, the possibilities within it may be more open, more filled with potential. This openness in painting has led inexorably and inevitably to abstraction. Modern painters have inclined to an art that appeals directly to feeling apart from representation with its inevitable overtones, distractions, and prejudice. Of course, representation couldn't be abandoned overnight and much of value stood to be lost in the process. It was abandoned in stages and often with reluctance and regret. Artists didn't pursue abstraction for the sake of the abstruse. Far from it. They were driven to it as a kind of last resort. It was a kind of necessary purging for the sake of a deep and fundamental universality, one that was part and parcel of painting itself.

This purging characterized what might be called the reductive side of modernism. The development of modern painting wasn't all reduction by any means, but in some artists' work the sense of paring away was conspicuous: Mondrian, Rothko, and Newman come immediately to mind, but there were many others. In Griefen's painting modernist reduction has been carried to a more recent extreme.

Since the early '80s, Griefen's art has embraced a minimum of both means and effort. Its minimal means are obvious: the effect of his paintings seems quickly gained and all but barely achieved. In this it subtly confounds expectation.

River Run, 1991 (R.Hammond Photo)

In the early '80s Griefen was criticized from time to time for using "too little paint". Indeed, a painting like Tubba looks more like a rubbing than what we normally think of as painting. In fact, many of Griefen's earlier paintings were monochromatic, used little paint, and gained incident through literally rubbing, scraping, or sweeping a thin layer of paint onto canvas laid over the spatters and bumps of his studio floor. Yet I don't think that criticism of those or more recent paintings stems from the absence of paint, colour, or incident so much as from their intransigent character.

Other painters have used less paint and even more restricted colour without provoking complaint. But a difference in purpose in Griefen's art has made for a difference in character. Over the past three decades reductive abstraction has often -- in my opinion all too often -- had an extra-artistic rationale. Much of the reduction was designed to be explained away. All too often art aspired to do more than please and pleased less. In comparison, Griefen's paintings were and are intransigent. They don't posture. They don't demonstrate theories or programs. Evidence of their conception and their making has been withdrawn as much as possible. They look made in a matter of fact way -- one might say "just made". Yet for all that they remain sensuously immediate. Shorn of anything not to the aesthetic purpose, they challenge taste and taste alone.

While intransigence such as this may be rare in painting, it's by no means new to art. Over a hundred years ago, in an essay on vernacular architecture the great John Ruskin praised the Westmoreland cottage in these words: " is always surprised and delighted to find that what courts attention so little is capable of sustaining it so well." He concluded that the humble Westmoreland cottage was superior to the more picturesque Swiss by virtue of the fact that it was more natural. Today the same can be said of Griefen's art.

Balm of Gilead II, 1988 (R.Hammond Photo)

Of course, Griefen's naturalism has no more to do with depiction than does the architecture of a cottage in Westmoreland. In both cases, naturalism stems from the capacity of materials to do the main part of the work. In Griefen's painting this isn't achieved through automatism or "indeterminacy" a la John Cage. It's part of his art's "matter-of-factness". Griefen doesn't force his materials. Instead, he trusts them to have their own say, to make their own point. This laissez-faire approach was learned over the development of his painting; if a certain casualness led to a good painting there, repeating or augmenting it might lead to another good painting here. It's a matter of trial and error reinforced by trust of materials and by judgment.

For Griefen, many casual procedures had to do with the mixing and application of paint: at first thin and scraped or "rubbed", more recently with mixtures of thick gels and exotic pigments. One senses always that the material has been hardly more than applied -- "just applied" one might say, as the parts of an Anthony Caro sculpture have been described as "just attached". There's little sense of materials being manipulated beyond a certain point. There's little image making in a traditional sense. Yet the results tend to be pictures, pictures that appear "natural" in Ruskin's sense, natural and disarmingly beautiful.

Ellsworth, 1986 (R.Hammond Photo)

In Ellsworth, a typical example, washed-out pale earth-coloured paint is swept across a canvas. One sees sweep marks and the hint of a mauve complementary colour. The result has been stretched and framed. Colour, gesture, all things declarative have discretely withdrawn. The painting is a whisper rather than a shout. Yet the whisper is persistent. In a mysterious way it awakens and rewards attention.

Beautiful pictures are by definition unified. But how is unity achieved in this immediate, all-over, and natural art? Unity of course implies a unity of parts, a whole greater than their sum. But as art changes, the parts themselves change, as does the character of their sum. This is where some of Griefen's challenge appears. Since the early 20th century, the predominant shapes in painting have been relatively small in relation to the whole. (These shapes are often called "forms".) In Griefen's paintings form-shapes have been subsumed within a continuous surface. His paintings tend to present a single large shape imposed upon the picture rectangle. In recent works the tactile surface of that shape is juxtaposed as well with the canvas surface (sometimes the painted surface of a failed earlier painting). To put it simply, in Griefen's pictures paint expands to occupy surface: a paint surface on a ground, a painted area against a framed rectangle.

Griefen himself admires the art of Vincent van Gogh and speaks glowingly of a favorite still life by that great artist. Depicting a pair of old worn boots in browns, buffs, and greys, the painting is understated, unaffected, and "natural". Griefen's own art embodies these same virtues. They cling by their fingertips to a narrow aesthetic ledge, but that ledge is high and secure.


Peter Quince, 1976, 203 x 142 cm. Edmonton Art Gallery collection.
Tubba, 1981. 189.9 x 88.8 cm. Edmonton Art Gallery collection.
Source of Joy, 1982. 208.3 x 110.5 cm. David Duffin collection.
Spanky, 1983. 134.6 x 96.52 cm. David Duffin collection.
Tattershall, 1983. 205.7 x 133.4 cm. David Duffin collection.
Ellsworth, 1986. 198.1 x 160 cm. David Duffin collection.
Lord of the Dance, 1987. 185.4 x 109.2 cm. David Duffin collection.
Balm of Gilead II, 1988. 158.8 x 214.6 cm. David Duffin collection.
Hallelujah, 1991. 139.7 x 139.7 cm. David Duffin collection.
River Run, 1991. 66.04 x 55.88 cm. David Duffin collection.
All That Glitters, 1991. 66.04 x 58.42 cm. David Duffin collection.
Faith, 1991. 180.3 x 106.7 cm. David Duffin collection.
War Bonnet, 1992. 90.17 x 213.4 cm. David Duffin collection.
Easter Morning, 1992. 129.5 x 100.3 cm. David Duffin collection.

JOHN ADAMS GRIEFEN was born in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1942. He attended the Chicago Art Institute, 1965; Bennington College, 1965-66; Williams College (BA) 1966; and Hunter College 1966-68. He taught in Bennington College in 1968.

He has exhibited at commercial galleries in New York City and elsewhere since 1969. He is currently represented internationally by Salander-O'Reilly Galleries. In Calgary, he is represented by NewZones Gallery.

His work is represented in major public collections including the Brooklyn Museum, Carnegie Institute, Fort Lauderdale Museum, Boston Museum, U.S. National Gallery Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum, National Gallery of Australia, and Vassar College Art Gallery.

IN MOUNTING THIS EXHIBITION OF PAINTINGS by the American, John Griefen, the Swift Current National Exhibition Centre is fulfilling its international mandate.

I would like to thank the lenders to the exhibition, the Edmonton Art Gallery for two early pictures and David Duffin for so many fine ones from his unique personal collection. I must also thank Terry Fenton for his enthusiasm as guest curator which has carried the project through to its completion.

I also wish to acknowledge financial assistance provided to the centre's operational activities which make programs such as this possible:
The Saskatchewan Arts Board
Saskatchwan Lotteries
Museums Assistance Programs of Communications Canada

David Humphries

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