5 January—30 January 1988

Howard Lonn

West Gallery:

Opening January 5, and continuing through January 30, Mercer Union will present a solo exhibition by Howard Lonn. The exhibition will consist of six large-scale oil paintings completed over the past two years. Executed with raw, textured brushwork, Lonn's work focuses upon the dialectic between the surface of the painting and the emerging image. In describing his position as a painter, Lonn comments:

My work is grounded in the craft of painting. I involve myself and accept the problem of 'craft' because I believe that certain things can be accessed (experience, psychic experience) in a spontaneous way. Painting is a way of mediating. Other technologies don't allow for this direct relationship.


Tough, monumental works decry the spirit of Big Brother
Lisa Rochon
Globe And Mail, January 1988

Howard Lonn is not, reportedly, the kind of guy to cling to a clique of artistes or hang out after hours at gallery openings: a limpet he would not make. Now, with the arrival of his first solo show --six oil paintings that are tough, monumental and figurative -- Lonn's name could elbow its way into gallery chatter, and circulate on its very own.

Shaped from his subconscious, these paintings decry the Big Brother spirit of the 1980s and offer imposing studies of electrical transformers, the modern day mega-museum and a low-lying compound with the word "romance" etched across its front entrance.

Hommage is paid to the "Cult of the Self." And Lonn paints lugubrious studies of the brain and the heart: viscera with a touch of visceral. Most of the images, blurred behind layers of carefully careening brush strokes, resist clear-cut definitions. That is part of their enigma. It is also part of Lonn's intimate relationship with the craft of painting, the bond that comes when the process becomes product, when artistry becomes art.

It is the man's profile (Untitled, 1986)--painted as if it were still suspended in the gloaming of the subconscious--that proves to be Lonn's most satisfying study. The Cult of the Self, 1987, loses some of its originality by leaning on heavy surrealistic overtones (a man's head balances atop the index finger of a mammoth hand). Mostly, it suffers from too much gel, a high-gloss mixture that detracts from the depths of the image.

An Interview by DONNA LYPCHUK, published by Mercer Union

There is a certain morality to Lonn's imagination and the choices he makes as a painter. Painting is a spiritual matter; a discipline subject to wild conjectures of the imagination. Lonn's landscapes achieve unity through an ethical attention to the practice of his discipline: "the craft" of painting. There are no 'psuedosomatic' arguments presented by a Howard Lonn painting. In fact, the paintings are embodiments against the idea that a truly postmodern work of art must realize (mainly self-consciously) the idiomatics of that premise: context versus content. The rich deep tonalities of this work - the succulent surfaces, the super-absorbent blotting of light, the formalism frottaged within the effort of "pushing around the paint on the canvas" supercede the superficial struggles that lend themselves to fashionably facile interpretations.

The volatile surfaces of Lonn's paintings presume the presence of an underlying psychic turbulence, yet at the same time, the work possesses the serenity and complacency of someone who has just spent "forty days in the desert" and found an 'answer'. However, Lonn is not self-delusory about the idea of finding "answers" to questions dealing with issues relating contemporary art practices. He is more concerned with finding meaning in work as it relates to the "function" of a painting.

Donna Lypchuk: Would you define your work as being at all abstract expressionist?

Howard Lonn: No. I wouldn't. First of all, my work provides a distinct encoded image that functions as representation. Abstract Expressionism was of interest to me as a student - a painter like Franz Kline or Jackson Pollock for example. It is not a pertinent point to regard when looking at my work. What interests me is the ambition of modernism, but to me it is a world that just doesn't exist anymore. When I start a painting it initially goes through a transitional state where it is essentially abstract in form, although I have no intention of making an abstract painting. The other thing about abstract expressionism is that there is a certain mythology about the artist and the transcendence of their expression. I have a certain admiration for that work and consider it valuable yet I can't believe in that mythology because I'm not of that generation. It would be absurd to perpetrate that mythology today.

DL: Your work reminds me of abstract expressionism because It is very process oriented.

HL: It is process-oriented only in a limited way, for I haven't reached any systematic way of "making a painting". When my paintings work, it is more of an aberration than anything else. There is a high attrition rate. Very few works reach completion. It would make me very happy to have a more organized and dependable process that efficiently "discovers" the painting.

DL: So, the meaning In your paintings is derived from the painting process?

HL: No, not entirely. But for me it is not desirable to segregate meaning and the means. I feel that my most successful work would arise out of an integration of the process, and the physical qualities of paint, and my intentions.

DL: At what point do you commit yourself to completing a painting?

HL: That's very difficult. Sometimes I've worked on a painting for two months and only then faced the fact that it can't function. That level of knowledge is one that a painter can only have with the closest dialogue with his work. In the face of contemporary art practices such a relationship between an artist and his or her work is seemingly antiquated. I feel like an anachronism.

DL: Do you feel it is anachronistic in the art world to have a soul?

HL: Certainly. Some artists set themselves up as protectors of souls and cast themselves as "critics" and as judges. For me, there's something terribly authoritarian and soul-less about such a role. That isn't to say that I'm opposed to all critically oriented art production. My problem is: How can critique function when it is so consumed by the social economic organism it is trying to destroy? It is like being consumed in the bowels of an animal you are trying to kill. My work may not be "radical" by the criteria being offered, but I still have to face some kind of "change" if my work should be consumed. I'm still committed to painting and that's quite anachronistic in itself.

DL: What about the idea of transcendence in your work?

HL: The issue of transcendence may work for the artist, but it doesn't always "work in the work". In a lifetime of making a certain kind of painting, an artist may find some kind of transcendence in the production and some kind of sign of that transcendence in the work, but, as time passes, I'm not sure how immutable that transcendence is. You brought up the issue of transcendence in conjunction with abstract expressionism, but perhaps if there is anything to be found in art that is transcendent, it may be the expression of human experience that comes to us from art of various periods. I wouldn't want to negate the specificity of historical/political/economic conditions under which the art was produced.

DL: I see your paintings as being landscapes - landscapes of the psyche. Do you feel that there are elements in those landscapes which relate to the historical/political economic conditions under which you yourself must paint?

HL: I don't set out to make psychic autobiography. In the close dialogue I have with my work, and in the practice of painting, there are certain elements of my own experience that are accessed. But this isn't the total of the material that I draw on to make an image. The ARS NOVA painting for example - it deals with issues, twentieth century culture (modernism, the museum, the avante garde).

DL: How do you see the metaphor or "the museum" functioning as an Image in your work?

HL: That painting for me functions as a sort of view of the modern avante-garde as a historical entity. The mythology of the abstract expressionist artist as well as that of the avante-garde are both sort of positions that are both seemingly impossible to assume now. In other words, it's very difficult to believe in progress.

DL: Tristan Tzara, Or the Dada movement, didn't believe In progress either, or genius for that matter.

HL: My work is so much related to being a craft and the Dadaists dispensed with that kind of practice.

DL: Do you think that self-proclaimed postmodernists have dispensed with that kind of practice?

HL: Postmodernism mimics craft. Simulates craft. My work is grounded in the craft of painting. I involve myself and accept the problem of "craft", because I believe that certain things can be accessed (experience, psychic experience) in a spontaneous way. Other technologies don't allow for this direct relationship. Painting is a way of mediating. My work is not so much about "seeing", although it is visual art. as it is about "being". It's that "being" that painting mediates.

DL: So you don't create art that's "about art".

HL: It doesn't interest me very much. I really don't look at my work when I go to make it as being "about something". Looking in retrospect at my work I can see that it may be about a number of things, but those things are not the totality of my work and do not comprise the entirety of what the work is.

DL: So your work makes gestures towards larger grander themes.

HL: The painting process leaves residue behind ... things that people can identify with. That isn't the whole meaning of making the work for me.

DL: Let's talk about the themes that can be identified In your work. First of all the paintings are very dark, most of the light in them seems to come from a singular light source.

HL: The darkness comes more from my disposition as a person. The single light source provides a way to make the image readable without complicating the painting with very complex rendering. Complicated reflected light doesn't serve the images I make. I love Rembrandt, I love Goya and also Giacometti. Sometimes, a very dramatic effect results from the single light source.

DL: Do you consider yourself to be living In the New Dark Ages?

HL: No. I don't consider contemporary life so simply explained. Some years ago I entertained an analogy between the late Roman age and our current state of cultural affairs: a loss of confidence, a loss of coherent identity...cultural identity. These two historical epochs are not really comparable, and to draw simplistic comparisons is facile and not useful.

DL: I see a peculiar relationship in your work to humanism, even though your work is strangely devoid of the human figure.

HL: Work doesn't have to depict the human figure to be humanist. I never set out to make humanist work. Humanism refers to a certain philosophical outlook and the evaluation of the human being. I never set out to make "humanist paintings". The pursuit of humanism seems to me to be a rather curious project.

DL: But you can't deny the "human" element that hovers about the subtext of your work.

HL: That's a valid interpretation of my work, but I have a problem with your use of the word humanism connoting a historical philosophical position. One that I have no claim to.

DL: Do you consider yourself to be a Romantic?

HL: To be a perpetrator of romanticism is entirely laughable in terms of a cultural genre. If my work was an attempt to practice art romanticism one would find art historical references and structures that simply aren't present in my work.

DL: Do you consider yourself to be possessed of a moral imagination?

HL: In some deeply embedded way there is something moral in the decisions one makes in order to produce an art work.

DL: What is the meaning of the word depicted on the marquee In the painting of the same name: ARS NOVA?

HL: In the early fifteenth century there was a change in the style of musical compositions. The new style of composition was labelled ARS NOVA. Of course my painting has nothing to do with that. I was interested in the term as an antiquated label for "the new".

DL: As a painter, In what direction do you see yourself going?

HL: My ambition for future work is to take a turn away from what may be construed as 'grandiose' and direct it to my own immediate situation.


Howard Lonn is an emerging Toronto artist. Since graduating from the Ontario College of Art in 1981, his work has been included in exhibitions at Gallery 76, Toronto. This is the artist's second solo exhibition.