Saturday, April 16, 2005

The Big Picture 27

John Abrams is a movie nut. The Toronto painter, whose latest cinema-inspired series of painting, Betty Blue (based on Beineix’s 1986 film of the same title) opens today at Zsa Zsa Gallery, admits to watching “three or five movies a week, sometimes more”, all in the pursuit of his art. I want that job.

Abrams is one of Toronto’s most consistent and consistently fascinating painters. He has painted everything from mug shots of alleged Caribbean-Canadian criminals (all culled from The Sun, a paper addicted to less than flattering representations of black Torontonians) to blotchy, gin blossomed Prime Ministers to glowing Hindu goddesses to intimate scenes from the films of Stanley Kubrick. His interests are nothing if not diverse.

A self-confessed magpie, Abrams is always searching for the next bright, shiny moment to capture on canvas. Subsequently, his paintings are dappled in intoxicating, unnatural colours, in spooky television screen greys and blues, yellows culled from lemon dish soap, and Emerald City greens.

The evident beauty of Abrams’s paintings, however, sometimes causes viewers to look no deeper than the handsome colours, to perceive Abrams as a talented colourist unburdened by subtexts. It’s tough being so pretty.

“I made the Betty Blue paintings after seeing the Beineix film for the first time, about six months ago”, Abrams tells me in his slow, careful way, “I was looking for one really good film, a really good looking film … something with sex and nudity and sexy people and artists behaving like crazy people … all the fun stuff.”

“I’m becoming more and more intrigued by video art, by how artists who work in video are far more progressive and open to new ideas than artists who work in the static arts. Painting needs to have a conversation with film and video, because film is the dominant visual media of our time. ”

“But, I also made this work in reaction to the shows I’ve been seeing lately where the curator’s imprint is more important than the artist’s work. The Betty Blue paintings are meant to be seen in a kind of narrative sequence, loosely following the story in the film – so, whoever hangs them has to more or less hang them the same way every time. It’s my way of making sure there is a limited amount of mediation between my work and the presentation of my work.”

To wit, Abrams has crafted a tantalizing oil on canvas Cole’s notes of the film, comprised of twenty small, film cell-like paintings and two large projection sized paintings. The small paintings are arranged in a rectangle, like a screen, with key scenes (and subtitles) selected to both trigger our memories of the original (remember when French cinema was as hot and vibrant as Asian cinema today?) and to compress the film’s core romantic themes. The larger paintings are overt celebrations of Betty Blue’s still startling gorgeousness – stars Beatrice Dalle and Jean-Hugues Anglade, the cutest poor people ever seen in a movie, have never looked better, and the burning beach house finale remains a haunting sight, a romantic echo of Rebecca’s Mandalay.

But fans of the film will wonder why Abrams has recast Beineix’s signature Pop Art colour scheme in an almost monotone selection of oranges and bruised reds?

“The question in the film, the one Anglade’s novelist character is facing, is how do you make your way in the world as an artist? I have the same questions, because I have to keep a part time job to make ends meet. I think this question is still urgent, so I gave the film a new, more urgent colour scheme.”

“Now”, Abrams chuckles, “the film looks like everything in it is on fire, which might be me being pessimistic.”

Abrams days of pessimism should soon be coming to an end. After spending years painting scenes from films, the film world is starting to come to him.

“Art directors are starting to rent my paintings for films, even if they don’t understand them. It’s fun to see them in the movies a year or two later. In Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen, Lindsay Lohan dances around with one of my paintings of pop stars’ lips in front of her face, and in another scene one of my spirals of small paintings is hanging on her boyfriend’s bedroom wall.”

“Do more lips! Do Lindsay Lohan’s lips!”, Abrams’s partner, the exuberant curator Carla Garnett blurts out, “Do you know how many crazed fans she has? More lips!”

Abrams shrugs. “I’m thinking about doing The Aviator next.”

“Oi,” Garnett sighs, “he never learns.”


There’s a rumour flying around town that I am the person behind an anonymous, perfectly evil little ‘zine called, appropriately enough, ArtFag.

As much as I’d like to take credit for the poison penning of the ‘zine, I can’t. I can only wish I’d written that overrated video artist Daniel Borins was guilty of “his usual glib hack job”, or that too many gay artists have “that whole Ab-Ex raging phallus thing to get over”.

However, I did hunt down the elusive ArtFag, via some shady parking lot conversations and hefty bribes, and he agreed to this top secret, email-only interview. I’ll let the Gallery Govani speak for himself.
“We (that’s a royal we – RMV) are doing this because the Canadian art-critical persona, much like the rest of the Canadian cultural persona, is infected with an appalling politesse. It’s present everywhere, from our Great-and-Powerful National Papers to local, alternative presses. There is a crippling lack of real criticism in this country, and without the public dialogue that real criticism engenders, the art scene
suffers. When was the last time any paper, national or other, took a great, big, incontrovertible dump on someone’s undeserved reputation?”

“Lord knows there’s plenty of opportunity.”

Yes, and Lord bless the ArtFag. As the old drag saying goes: It’s not mean if it’s true.


My recent grousing about the snobbish Images Festival notwithstanding, check out the goofy Images-sponsored installations at Paul Petro Contemporary Art.

Montreal’s Stephane Gilot has built a cozy game booth that challenges you to control the wobbly trajectory of a tiny, camera-jacked toy car circling above your head, and Toronto’s Nell Tenhaaf invites you to meet Flo’nGlo, two giant robot blobs who sing to each other like love birds.

I smartly skipped the Images opening gala film, but, based on the reports of victims, I’ll bet that Gilot and Tenhaaf’s sci-fi funhouse beats a two hour American experimental film about vacant shopping malls and greasy exurban bus stops.

John Abrams
Betty Blue
Zsa Zsa Gallery 962 Queen West
Until April 30

ARTFAG: A Cahier of Criticism and Witticism.
Available at many downtown galleries, or c/o leartfag@yahoo.ca

Nell Tenhaaf
Stephane Gilot
Paul Petro Contemporary Art 980 Queen West
Until April 30