25 March 1980 - 12 April 1980
Opening Reception 25 March 1980 8pm
Peter Hill Comes Up With Some Surprises
By John Bentley Mays
GLOBE AND MAIL, March 25 1980
If the most recent Peter Hill paintings you’ve seen were the ones in his 1975 A Space show, you may be surprised by what goes on view tonight at Mercer Union (29 Mercer St.)
Each work at A Space was an almost angrily simplified triptych: a very large, starkly monochrome, sombre canvas divided into two equal areas of differing textures, with a door or ladder providing the third term of the equation. The works, as I remember them, were impressive, but as neat as arithmetic; done with conviction and intelligence, but with a single-mindedness that nearly shrank them down to art school demonstrations.
But it’s easy to forgive the inadequacies of these works, since Hill was then a fledgling graduate from the Ontario College of Art — and was hard at work trimming down his style to fighting form. As Hill says, his interests in those days were deliberately restricted to “what materials you put on, a surface to put them on, and putting them on. That was it.” Five years ago, he was (like most young artists) still seriously preoccupied with the idea that “the painting is just a physical object, like any other physical object: a thing with surface, volume, colour.”
He still is. And he is still committed to careful, critical procedures of developing his art. But there are new things as well in the paintings in the Mercer Union exhibit (his first one-man show since A Space).’
The works, all completed this year, express imagery of two sorts, but are constructed basically the same way. First, the construction. Before, Hill took the flat picture-plane for granted, and worked on large stretched canvases. In these paintings, however, the painting’s “ground” is a construction of plywood blocks that protrudes quietly or with power punches into the viewer’s space.
Before, Hill worked with smoothly-applied acrylic paint in the standard, flat modern colours. In these newer works, Hill has first covered the blocks with black, stiff wax, then over-painted the black first coat with what he calls “wrenched colours”– medical text-book pinks, blues shimmering off into jet plane silver, all carried by turgid mixtures of wax, varnish, and oil paint.
Nevertheless, the most important single feature of the 1975 paintings was not their physical construction, but their complete commitment to the highest of high abstraction. But over the half-decade, Hill has loosened up, and in the Mercer Union pieces he has let into his work not only delightful plays and puns on colour, but also imagery that alludes to (somewhat surprising) real-world physical objects: mantelpieces and gargoyles.
Hill calls the three mantle pieces landscape paintings, and certainly they have the contouring and inevitable horizontal line that have always characterised landscape painting. In terms of this show, these handsome works are Hill’s earlier attempts (the gargoyles come later) to get free of the domination of the wall-plane over the picture-plane: their construction blocks bulge out from the flat wall, but only a few inches — and not enough to change their basically parallel relationship with the wall, and their strict separation from the viewer’s space. In other words, they are still there, not here.
Hill finally succeeds in springing his paintings from the prison of the wall in the gargoyles (which he calls tower paintings). These urgent, powerful constructions — they look like the eagles on the four corners of the Chrysler Building in New York, or the drain-spouts for a Cathedral of Modern Art — thrust boldly out into our area. Yet their swing is not minimalism’s angry left hook, nor a tacky dangle of wires and junk-heap stuff (such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenburg used to deploy), but the free, elegant soaring of those decorative Chrysler eagles. They are allowed to fly, but still remain paintings, by Hill’s use of light, sophisticated colours (dark colours would have made these cantilevered constructions massive and thick) and by the graceful stepped tapering of the works as they leave the wall.
One of the more thoughtful young painters working in Toronto, Hill has observed that, in abstract painting since Jackson Pollock introduced dripping as a respectable activity, “everything falls toward the bottom of the work.” But, for Hill, the most important consideration in painting is not the up-down, physical axis prescribed by gravity, but the horizontal, visual axis along which we view the work. “The gravity in a painting, ” says Hill, “is in the wall, not the floor.” The fine works which illustrate this painterly theory so well are fresh evidence for Hill’s intellectual conviction –and also for the joy he has discovered at last in the making of his art.