Wednesday, 29 August 1990

John Hartman: Heaven and Earth

This text is a re-edited version of the original text for the exhibition John Hartman: Recent Paintings, published in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name in October and November of 1990.

In 1989 I proposed to John Hartman the idea of an exhibition of paintings at the Library & Gallery in Cambridge. Having seen only illustrations of his work before this I had always assumed his work was of a large scale. I soon learned that this was not the case and that, although a number of his works were on canvas, he was primarily known for his works on paper. John responded enthusiastically to the proposal, however, seizing on the opportunity to give a greater physical dimension to his narrative allegories. The paintings in this exhibition were consequently all made within the past year. They describe the artist's current formal developments as well as reflecting current thematic concerns. Thematically the works can be divided into three groups: works based on the native community of Collins, Ontario, works based on the Midland/Penetanguishene region of the artist's home, and works based on the Baffin Island community of Cape Dorset which the artist visited in the fall of last year. 

In this exhibition I included 16 graphic works based on the artist's memories of Collins. (See Talking with the Animals, Ink on paper, 1988.) These drawings were originally part of a group of drawings he did for the exhibition Life on the Edge at the Agnes Etherington Gallery in 1988. My reasons for including these drawings were threefold. The drawings are, in part, an insight into the artist's working process and an acknowledgement of the importance of graphic work to his oeuvre. While they are prized by the artist as a spontaneous and direct way of retrieving memory and "finding subjects," much of their essential character is retained in his other media-based work. In contrast to the large panoramic works, the drawings are also for the most part simple narratives. Where Hartman has expanded onto the larger canvas, much detail and anecdotal narrative has been telescoped onto a single image. While it is by no means suggested that these drawings comprise a key to the interpretation of the paintings, they do offer the viewer a key to discover the richness of detail in the larger works. Finally the large body of drawings from which I have selected comprises a detailed description of the community of Collins. The events and the memories of this community affected the artist in a profound and lasting way and any discussion of his work must inevitably return to this time. 
* * * 

Si j'étais peintre, je déverserais beaucoup de rouge, 
beaucoup de jaune sur la fin de ce voyage,
car je crois que nous étions tous un peu fous.1

In 1976 Hartman and his wife Patricia moved from Southern Ontario to the village of Collins, a small native community 300 kilometres north of Thunder Bay. Patricia Hartman had been employed by the Federal Department of Indian and Northern Affairs to teach at the community's one room school house. The isolated community gave John Hartman the legendary Northern Ontario landscape for his paintings, but it also gave him a distance from the dominant southern Ontario art scene. The community of Collins was more than an exotic, isolated location in which the artist was able to discover his authentic voice. It exerted a profound and lasting effect on both John and Patricia. It influenced their perceptions of the southern Ontario culture from which they had come, and of the other, aboriginal culture, into which they had settled. Like modern missionaries from the dominant southern culture they became part of the native community, and yet remained apart from it. Maybe they lacked the cultural arrogance carried by previous generations of missionaries and educators. They learned to respect the Ojibway perception of individual, community and land, and in doing so, they gained a new perspective on their own culture. 

Central to the Ojibway world view is the perception that man is an integral part of the world which is animate at most every level. Western culture, by contrast, sees man as separate and apart from the natural world which is inanimate. The biblical creation myth, the Expulsion from the Paradise, characterizes the western position concerning nature. Banished from Eden, Adam and Eve were forced to till the land. The biblical parable provides a key to the development of Hartman's work in view of the Collins experience. John and Patricia enjoyed life in the community and were happy during their time there. The lasting impression of the community as recorded in Hartman's paintings, however is one of epic tragedy. Hartman was a witness to the gradual disappearance of the aboriginal culture -- a disappearance which was clearly perceptible with the succeeding generations of Indian families. He saw a community of individuals caught between the two conflicting cultures. The tragedy that is represented by the Expulsion from Paradise became a living reality for John and Patricia in Collins. 

Following his years in Collins religious iconography began to surface in Hartman's paintings. In 1983, he introduced figures into a series of pastel landscapes based on the arrival of the Jesuits to the Midland area in the seventeenth century. The disaster that this initial encounter of the Woodland Indians and Jesuits represented -- the Huron Indians were decimated by exposure to the smallpox virus -- connected Hartman's experiences at Collins to the history of the community in which he had grown up. His retelling of this tragedy in pastels led to a radical departure from the earlier models and influences that characterized his painting in the 1970's. He developed more simplified compositions defined by broad areas of colour. The smooth pure colour planes have lost their translucency and became darker and dirtier. From equal value colour compositions of serenity and eternal nature, Hartman discovered the expressive possibilities of impure, mixed colours and agitated surfaces. Figures emerged in ghostly form, sometimes so small in the landscape they seem like insects seen from high above, and sometimes large and ephemeral, like spirits emerging from red skies or black waters. 

By 1985-86 the figurative element had largely supplanted the landscape in Hartman's work. His canvases and watercolours began to fill with images; crosses, ladders (Jacob's), animals, small dwellings, churches and human figures drawn in an expressively naive and primitive manner. The perspectival structure of the landscape gave way to a decentralized type of topographical referencing. Indications of landmarks, coastline and topography became manifest as graphic images of equal value and size with other figurative elements out of proportional scale. 

It was in 1986 that Hartman turned to his experience in Collins as a subject of his work. Using brush, pen and ink he began to record the people, the community and the events of that time in rapid order. These drawings vary between having the character of fine line detail pen drawings of camp sights and topographical settings to crudely expressive brush drawings of interior lives and dramatic events. In all, the studies eventually numbered over 100. These images are the material to which he has returned for his Collins themes in his paintings, pastels, watercolours, prints and glass work during the past four years. 

The initial representations of Collins, first in the ink studies and later in the paintings and pastels, were constructed in a shallow stage like space. Further engagement with the subject by the artist resulted in the reintroduction of the landscape, with the result that depictions of Collins fell into two categories: narrative and topographical. The work of the last two years represents an effort by the artist to reconcile the narrative with the scenic. By reintegrating the stories of the people with the place Hartman has set himself the epic task of righting the wrong. To unite again landscape and narrative, is for Hartman to allow the customs of people to inhabit their landscape and to insist that the landscape is in turn inhabited by the spirit of its people.

The canvas The Day Lugi Cut His Hand (1990) represents a theme the artist has returned to on many occasions. It is based on an incident that took place at Collins when a man named Lugi accidentally suffered a deep gash in his hand. Lugi was advised that the cut was serious enough that it should be tended to by a doctor. Taking him to a doctor meant that a freight train on the CNR tracks would have to be flagged down, to transport him for treatment at a clinic in the town of Armstrong. Partially out of fear, and partially due to a state of belligerent inebriation, Lugi refused the advice. An argument ensued in which Lugi was struck unconscious and placed on an eastbound freight.

The story represents a minor and isolated incident in the life of the community, yet it is easy to understand how it has compelled the artist and has suggested itself so often as the subject of Hartman's work and reflections on Collins. It addresses the complex and difficult problem of alcoholism among the native community, yet, this is incidental to the story that Hartman is trying to tell. Rather, it is a story of Hartman's own helplessness within the maelstrom of cultural confusion. Both the cause and the cure of Lugi's accident are cultural imports; one insidious and addictive, the other remote and impersonal. Both signify dependency and a loss of autonomy, and the resolution to the situation was tragically violent. 

In the Day Lugi Cut His Hand (1990) the proportionally oversized and bleeding hand of Lugi is situated squarely in the centre of the canvas. The figure of Lugi and other figures are superimposed on a panoramic view of Collins identifiable by its lakeside coastline and community church, the CNR line and the mountain passes at the west ends of the community. Surrounding the figure of Lugi are human figures with their arms upraised as if in a free fall -- biblical images of the fall from grace or of religious ecstasy -- and animals, spiritual icons of native belief. On the right-hand side of the canvas is a large muddy red foot on fire. It is a figure which recurs frequently in Hartman's work, which, in his personal iconology represents the physical, non-intellectual man. To the artist this figure suggests both the integration and separation of man from nature. 

Other recognizable imagery includes the upturned bottle of J&B scotch which refers to Hartman's own habits, and the image of Jock Patience, a Shriner (hence the red fez) and former merchant and patriarch of the community. These are images, which although irrelevant to the narrative, situate it in time and place. 

The centre of the painting is shot with deep cadmium red, cadmium orange and hookers green. Toward the horizon are less saturated colours: pastel pinks, greens, yellows and oranges blend together and contrast to the strong, combative colours of the picture's focal point. Toward the left and right peripheries, dark blues, blacks and earth tones act as a sombre stage curtain. These peripheral grounds are characterized at times by the strong movement of paint in a gestural counterpoint to the colour contrast of the centre stage. 

The theatre analogy is appropriate here not only in Hartman's formal organization of the image. As much as the artist tries to integrate personal anecdote with history, and personal and cultural demons and saints and the landscape itself, one still experiences a theatrical separation from the enacted tragedy. Our raised viewpoint sees the unfolding of the passion, not unlike the report of a foreign correspondent, or an out-of-body experience. 

The complex of figurative and stylistic devices used by Hartman to deal with the subject of his experiences in Collins is turned toward the memory of childhood in the paintings Expulsion from Paradise, Port SevernResurrection, 12 Mile Bay and the Expulsion From Paradise As It Occurred On the Old Penetanguishene Road. Returning to the idea of the land of his birth as a theme for investigation, Hartman traded the legendary history of the Jesuits for a personal history. The south shore of Georgian Bay becomes the topographical background for anecdotal, childhood memories and events, strange and isolated Madeleine objects, and ecstatic figures and spirits. These signs and images combine to issue an emotional pitch similar to his images of Collins -- almost manic in their sensibility, they speak simultaneously of ecstatic joy and painful loss. The paintings seem to result as a need to explore the associative memories which the land thrusts back into his consciousness. Yet far from being merely childhood reveries, these images speak more of displacement, separation and loss. The naïveté of mere sentiment is confronted by itself -- revealed to be a longing for simple certainties and an escape from the demands of an adult life. 

From the legends of the Jesuits treated by Hartman in the early eighties, to the memories of Collins and his Midland childhood of the latter part of the decade, Hartman has recently begun to turn his vision to the present. In paintings such as Flying out of DorsetCape DorsetKadloona Come to Cape Dorset, and The Garden, the artist has attempted to ground his operatic vision in contemporary experiences. The Dorset paintings are a result of a trip to Cape Dorset in late 1989 under the aegis of a federal government programme for artists in the north. Having neither the familiarity of the place from prolonged and intimate contact nor the personal attachment, the Dorset paintings are journalistic in their approach. Hartman describes a monumentally foreign landscape with all the qualities of a romantic traveller. The images of light passenger aircraft and their cargo of government officials and southern dealers of Inuit art are like the dispatches of a foreign correspondent stranded in an airport. The images of Kenujouac, the Inuit printmaker and the motorboats of the fishermen who ply the Hudson Straits are superimposed over the settlement houses on the land. Above all, however, it's the land which Hartman records in these paintings of Dorset. Whether by intention or by default, it is the massive barren landscape of Cape Dorset that has captured the imagination of the artist in these works. The people and the events of this strange place are in the end unknowable, and it is only the landscape which the artist recognizes. Treeless and frozen it has become a traditional landscape metaphor, a reflection of the soul.

The Garden is a treatment of the artist's own backyard. The location is not far from the site of many of the Jesuit history in the Midland-Penetanguishene area. This painting, however, is firmly rooted in the present. Figured in the image is the garden on the north side of the family home, the concession road which cuts diagonally from the bottom right-hand side of the canvas to the top centre, and the neighbouring house across the road. Religious iconography is recognizable on the left-hand side of the painting. A pietà is flanked by a winged angel in the upper left centre. Just to the left and below that is a small Golgotha crucifixion and to the right is a burning hand. The green landscape of the Penetanguishene is subjected to an apocalyptic sky of deep blue, sulfurous cadmium yellow and crimson red. The centre foreground of the painting is characterized by its darkness and agitation focused only by the inclusion of a crouching figure and a bodiless head with an elongated, twisted neck. On the other side of the concession road the ground itself has become crimson red. 
In The Garden there is little in the way of personal anecdote; no clearly recognizable personalities and no indications of designations that will inform us as to the members of the Hartman family or their personal tragedies and tribulations. The artist, his family and his home have been abstracted into the garden itself, surrounded as it is by a firestorm of spiritual and physical uncertainty.

Naming Collins is a painting that has the character of summation. Nearly 10 years after having left the community of Collins Hartman has succeeded in creating a work based on the subject which speaks not of the immediacy of the events of that place, but recalls them at a distance. The ghostly figure of the artist hovers in the rose coloured sky naming the place. The place, Collins, seems bathed in the glow of sunlight, with only the CNR passes, its hilly western and eastern boundaries, darkened. The cold dark blue lake is the ground upon which is figured the pietà of Collins. Whose body? Victor Kwandibens, Lugi, Charlie Mesnigeesik, Richard Spade, Luke Yellowhead, the artist himself? This pietà is all bodies who have tried to find some kind of satisfactory relationship between the earth and the sky. 

Gordon Hatt

  1. Blaise Cendrars from the Prose due Transsibérien et de la petite Jeanne de France.

Works in the Exhibition
  1. Collins, 1988, ink on paper, 28 x 38 cm, sheet.
  2. Charlie M.'s House, Collins, 1987, ink on paper, 28 x 38 cm. 
  3. The Store/Post Office/Patience Home, 1988, ink on paper, 28 x 38 cm.
  4. Margaret Nothing's House, Collins, 1987, ink on paper, 28 x 38 cm. 
  5. Walking to Armstrong, Collins, 1987, ink on paper, 28 x 38 cm. 
  6. Telling Stories in John Spade's Winter Camp, Collins, 1987, ink on paper, 28 x 38 cm. 
  7. Mike Yellowhead Dividing the Moose, Collins, 1987, ink on paper, 28 x 38 cm. 
  8. Scraping Skins, 1988, ink on paper, 28 x 38 cm. 
  9. ‘Shaganash' Bearing Gifts, Collins, 1987, ink on paper, 28 x 38 cm. 
  10. Luke Taken From His Family, 1988, ink on paper, 28 x 38 cm. 
  11. The Residential School, nd, ink on paper, 25.5 x 34.5 cm. 
  12. Victor K. (After the Moose Hunt the guides and Hunters Drink), ink on paper, 28 x 38 cm. 
  13. Victor's Funeral, Collins, 1987, ink on paper, 28 x 38 cm. 
  14. The Prayer Line, 1987, ink on paper, 28 x 38 cm. 
  15. North Spirit Lake Baptism, 1988, ink on paper, 28 x 38 cm. 
  16. Wrestling with an Angle, nd, watercolour and ink on paper, 25 x 34.5 cm. 
  17. The Day Lugi Cut His Hand, 1989-90, oil on canvas, 210 x 165 cm. Collection of the University of Lethbridge. 
  18. Naming Collins, 1990, oil on canvas, 480 x 165 cm. McMichael Canadian Collection. 
  19. Expulsion From Paradise as it Occurred on the Old Penetanguishene Road, 1989-90, oil on canvas, 240 x 330 cm. McMichael Canadian Collection. 
  20. Expulsion from Paradise, Port Severn, 1990, oil on canvas, 210 x 165 cm. (Private collection). 
  21. Resurrection, 12 Mile Bay, 1990, 210 x 265 cm. Collection of the University of Lethbridge. 
  22. Kadloona Come to Cape Dorset, 1990, oil on canvas, 165 x 480 cm. Collection Canada Council Art Bank 
  23. Cape Dorset, 1989-90, oil on canvas, 165 x 420 cm. 
  24. Flying Out of Cape Dorset, 1989, oil on canvas, 120 x 165 cm. 
  25. The Garden, 1990, oil on canvas, 90 x 240 cm. 

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