An essay on Vancouver-Based Allan Switzer’s exhibition at Winsor Gallery. Written by Sunshine Frere, shared on Artotate.
SEE ME FEEL ME
META PAINTING WITH ALLAN SWITZER
Time moves in one direction, memory in another.-William Gibson
A song is the most intangible thing in the world.- Jimmie Davis
Winsor Gallery (est. 2002)is opening its new space on East 1st Avenue with work by Vancouver-based artist Allan Switzer. From December 7, 2012 – January 12, 2013, visitors will encounter See Me Feel Me, Switzer’s new body of transfixing work. Throughout 2011-2012 the artist honed and developed a style of painting that is personified via constant stochastic visual stimulus and tantric lyrical iterations.
See Me Feel Me represents a body of painting that is exponentially meta. Yet, Switzer hasn’t simply produced paintings about painting(s), he has made an affective body of work that philosophically, and aesthetically explores: what the viewer can ask of a painting about paintings, what the painter can ask the viewer to ask of a painting about paintings, and what the painting itself can ask of the viewer and the painter.
Desperate Measures, 2012, acrylic on linen, 72 x 96”
From first glance, Switzer’s painting is overwhelming, the deeper one dives into its hyper-visual fold, the more disorienting the effect. Synchronous bursts of vivid colours and abstraction, give way to layering, grids, and movement. At the same time all of this action is perceived, the paintings also reveal a sense of extreme clarity and isolated perfection.
As eyes randomly wander over the layers of abstraction, the mind seeks to make sense of the colourful shapes. After a moment of observation, these forms become words, and soon thereafter, looped and contrasting song lyrics are deciphered. The symbolism held within these lyrics evokes waves of nostalgia, from there, a didactic curiosity is also triggered. Are the lyrics meant for the viewer, the painting, or the patron who acquires the work? Perhaps these are the tantric realisations of the artist as he exorcises sentiments from his own life and artistic process directly into the painting. In order to truly seeSwitzer’s work one must first look at it meta-contextually, through its topography, colourful composition, lyricism and through time itself.
Similar to the historical canon of painting that carries with it many interwoven layers of technique, process, and skill, the Switzer practically begins working on the surface of his paintings with a perfect build up of base paint creating the best possible underlay. The artist’s materials serve as direct reference to older eras of painting, linen, gesso and rabbit-skin glue is strategically incorporated into into each painting’s base composite, supplies that pay direct homage to the painting process. Even before he begins this complex system of layering colour to surface, the artist has already laboured for hours and hours, developing a taut and vitreous base layer of gesso. He creates a surface that is so smooth and free of imperfection that it could be confused for a white coat of polyurethane.
Switzer working on a painting in his studio.
Next, Switzer tirelessly grids, maps and tapes, paints, un-tapes, and re-tapes his paintings. Each new layer of colour-blocking involves countless re-applications. Switzer’s paintings typically build up four to eight different colours of paint, as well as multitudinous layers of each colour on colour. Within each oeuvre he intuitively creates an undulating abstracted meta-topography. A surface that is only fully revealed once the artist decides that the final coat of paint has been applied, and all excess tape has been removed. As the work is constantly masked, even the artist does not know what image will fully resemble until the final reveal.
The super-perfection of Switer’s painting surface also subsequently reveals chance anomalies found within its multiple layers. These small imperfections create an idiosyncratic style and topography for each painting. The artist has stated that he is married to the sense of production, a thorough investigation of the surface of any of his paintings reveals this intense focus. The impurities of this complex topography demonstrate the varying viscosity of each paint colour, the tools the artist used in application, the artists hand in the work, and even, painting’s past. Even though deemed completed by the artist, topographically Switzer’s paintings do not provide a final resolution to the viewer. The aggregate colour layers chaotically interrupt the smooth undercoated surface. Each surface interrupt demands a lot of its viewers, and there are hundreds, if not thousands of these, on each painting’s surface.
Viewing these works, the eye is not sure where to begin, nor where to finish; the text, embedded within an abstracted colourfield, is a difficult read. Font and colour take on affective qualities, and serve as a challenge to the viewer. A statement further affirmed by the fact that when prompted on the significance of the colour palette for each work, Switzer only reveals that he enjoys experimenting with colour, and that he mixes his own colour. Compositionally, the artist’s use of colour and font contradicts, and compliments. Evidence that perhaps the artist is intends the viewer to read the work on a subconscious and sensorial level.
Ultimately the colour and font of Switzer’s paintings create optical interference: stochastic overload. The abstracted text lines of the painting literally vibrate on the canvas, they seem to flicker, moving back and forth, up and down. The uncanny wave-like movement in Switzer’s work mimics a similar visual affect found within old analogue televisions, that of the screen flickeri. Switzer’s paintings are fascinating because there is no live signal feed that his paintings are distorting, yet, he has created a retroactive media affect within a stand-alone painting. Distortion and feedback, items in any rock-star’s tool-kit, but also in Switzer’s painter bag of tricks.
The bright colour palette of the work also harkens back to an older more psychedelic era in time, the late 60’s and early 70’s. All of the affective font and colour qualities found within this painting series are strategic elements employed by the artist to create ambiguity. Within the development of this strategy the artist inadvertently created a new painting technique: Meta-font colour-blocking. The high contrast colouring in conjunction with the bold font patterning of these paintings successfully obscures and abstracts. The technique pays homage to a myriad of painters before Switzer’s timeii, and also explores new territory in painting.
Once the aura of the ocular has somewhat subsided, viewers of Switzer’s paintings often begin to explore the lyrical component in the work. In true meta-form, Switzer conjures emotional inoculations on our collective memories. Just as the painting’s surface, colours and font visually and affectively prompt the viewer to move in and out of focus, the jumbled yet familiar song lyrics of each work pushes and pulls the viewer through a tense and complex narrative quest for meaning. The blended phrases from multiple familiar rock-ballads turn the canvas into a hybridized super-song. Pregnant with narrative antibodies, mixed and cut in complimentary and contrasting contexts. They provoke nostalgic interpretations that range from sentiments of truth, love, and sincerity, to severity, confusion, craving and loss. Meaning is inter-dependant with where or who one envisions these lyrics are coming from. On one hand, one could venture these lyrics potentially represent a direct message from artist to viewer, on the other, a beyond the brush message from the painting itself.
The lyrics in Switzer’s paintings not only refer back to songs of an older era, one can find resonance within the pop and rock songs of today. The artist is no stranger to symbolism, cyphers and discordant/harmonious counterpoints. It is no coincidence that the narratives unfolding within each work also provide multiple points of entry to references and ideas found the artist’s older worksiii, and also within the history of painting.
The evolution of the blended lyrics and meta-composition in this series is representative of the artist’s constant quest and search for the intangible in his practice. The lyrics Switzer worked with in late 2011 were simple contrasting pairings: Give Peace a Chance, Destroy Your Enemy. They grew into a complex and less tangible abstract expressions, further evolving within each sequential painting. Shifting the lyrical content from more staid concepts into the realm of real-time thought. The works became more representative of a process as opposed to a previous state of being, reflective of living as opposed to moments lived. They grew closer to affect as opposed to being representative of an effect:
BABY THE TRUTH IS OUT SO DON’T DENY IT
TO THINK I BELEIVED ALL YOUR LIES
YOU’LL NEVER BREAK THIS HEART OF STONE
LOVE ME HOLD ME CAUSE I’M FREE
(Text from Switzer’s painting Desperate Measures, 2012)
Similar to the lyrical development of the artists work, Switzer’s meta-font colour-blocking grew into even more complicated abstraction with each new work in the series. The last work for the See Me Feel Me exhibition, The Pleasure of the Everyday (2012), provides the viewer with a climax of the artist’s compositional exploration. In this work he distorts the text by pulling it out of its linear presentation and shifting it into a three-dimensional, spherical space.The increasing complexity of each composition parallels the artists struggle to progressively create work that speaks to its audience, its beholder and its own history.
You Can’t Always, 2012, acrylic on linen, 72 x 96”
In the context of this new exhibition, in this new space on the eve of what the Mayan’s predicted as the end of an era, these colourful, vibrant and intoxicating works weave memento-mori narratives that extend far across rings of painterly time. Switzer’s See Me Feel Me paintings contribute rich thought and substance towards the ongoing historical dialogue between viewer, the painted and painter. They are meta-paintings, they are an open ended love letter to painting proper.
POLKA DOTS AND STARS
As part of the artist’s new body of work, Switzer also produced a series of approximately 20 painted drawings titled Polka Dots and Stars. These smaller framed works were created in tandem with his aforementioned painting series. These works are figurative and pictorial, and they, like Switzer’s paintings, are also evocative of nostalgic and hazy 70’s memories.
The Stars in the series are small painted/drawn studies that investigate the capacity of lyrics as celestial beings operating on a different scale of time. Bold black words with hints of colour, these stars visually exist on a level of immediacy, similar to how lyrics from songs are felt and experienced in the present. The repetition within each drawing enables each star to to also transcend its own immediacy, and the context of the tantric lyrical repetition throughout the series set ignites the braided thread of present, past and future. The striking composition, and the cyclical nature of the stars is synchronous with the Polka Dots from the same series.
The Polka Dots are circular drawings that appear to act visually and metaphorically as a porthole into a specific memory and time. These drawings reference abstract moments: what the turkish carpet from a rolling stones concert looked like, or a glimpse of iconic figures from the age of rock. When one sees the series installed together on a wall, the repetition of shapes, themes and lyrics instantly conjure the game of memory. One is compelled to match up particular patterns and pieces. These painting/drawings also become an inherent visual memory card lexicon of the 70’s. The viewer is invited to fade in and out of memories from another place and time. The context of the imagery is suggestive of an era, but several of the images also hold within themselves direct references to personal experiences of Switzer from that time. Within this installation Switzer’s work reflects upon signifiers, the visible versus the intangible, and how the virtual unfolds within the topography of memory, reality and the present.
These works could be seen as a tantricundertaking for the artist. A series where he attempts to dissolve the dichotomy of the spiritual and the mundane through the cataloging of the minutiae within personal and collective memories. The work from the Polka Dots and Stars seriescohesively pulls together fragments and themes on history, time, and the cyclical nature of the cosmos. Exploration of the series effectively compels the viewer to realise the transcendent in the immanent.
THE TWO MIKES
The Two Mikes, 1984/2012, archival pigment print, Image size 42” x 62” Framed,Edition of 3
The final work in Switzer’s See Me Feel Me exhibition, The Two Mikes serves as a photographic talismanthat coheres the collective effort of the works into a sum of the whole that is greater than its parts. Switzer cunningly provided the title as somewhat obscure double entendre. This shot was taken by the artist at a Michael Jackson concert in 1984. It is representative of many of the key elements found within Switzer’s practice and current body of work. It is a piece that captures time, memory, and emotion, one can virtually feel the excitement in the smokey air, and the energy within this monumental amphitheatre.
The Two Mikes also intimately explores another critical component to the See Me Feel Me exhibition, that of invisibility. Apart from the reference in the title, it is quite obscure who is on stage, the artist is invisible. When discussing his forthcoming exhibition, Switzer mentioned how he thought his own artistic practice for a certain recent period of time was also invisible, he was making work alongside his contemporaries but unlike his contemporaries, it was not being seen in context, it was mostly shown in his studio. This past year has been an incredibly productive year for the artist. He was able to devote much of his time to his studio practice, the results of which, led to an expansive survey of work. Switzer embarked on an exhausting quest of painting the intangible, discovering new forms in meta-painting, and realising new ways of seeing and feeling the invisible.
i By using magnets to distort particular elements of the signal of analogue television, Fluxus artist Nam-June Paik experimented with the undulating effect of signal, noise, and television imagery throughout the 70’s.
ii Switzer’s paintings reference many painting styles from the 60’s and 70’s: Op Artists such as Bridget Riley, Mono Chrome Painters such as Yves Klein, Hard-Edge Painters such as Ellsworth Kelly, Colourfield Painters such as Morris Louis, Geometric Abstraction Painters such as Josef Albers, and Pop Art painters such as Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg, and Jim Dine. With reference to colour-blocking, the work also appears to share a dialogue with the colour-blocking techniques of First Nations Haida painters such as: Robert Davidson or Trace Yeomans.
iiiSwitzer’s previous work with painting and patterning directly influenced this new text based off-shoot. As did his previous cypher painting series.