Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Even Man In

Review by Rory A.A. Hinton

Georgian Bay, Towering Sky, 2009
John Lennard

In his "At Home With Glenn Gould" interview Vincent Tovell asked Gould about his musical influences. Gould mentioned Arthur Schnabel. Tovell asked what it was about Schnabel that singled him out. Gould answered: "Well, I think in part it was the idea that Schnabel seemed to be a person who didn't really care much about the piano as an instrument. The piano was a means to an end for him, and the end was to approach Beethoven." 
     Gould used the words 'in part' (in part) because he was attentive enough to have known that for Schnabel approaching Beethoven was merely the means to another end. Schnabel was a musician in inventive transition. Gould could relate (hence the influence). Because he transitioned between part composer, part conductor, part critic, and part musician (among his other partitas), Gould seemed to be a person who would have known about and approved of music critic Harold C. Schonberg's creative claim about Schnabel: "[He] was the man who invented Beethoven."
     Schnabel approached Beethoven to invent Beethoven. His piano was merely a translation device to accomplish this task. Schnabel's musical modus operandi is based on the idea that Beethoven is an artist of note because his work, like all great works of art, is an instance of serious generosityGreat artists like Schnabel recognize the generosity of Beethoven's work in that it beckons you to approach it with aesthetic admiration (the erotic enthusiasm of the Eroica). Some never get beyond the admiration. Schnabel did. That is serious business.
     This example from the history of music illustrates the criterion for great art (of any genre). Inventive artists like Beethoven are worth approaching because there is a generous method to their serious madness. Their generosity consists in the opportunity their work creates for us to approach the object of artistic expression. But their seriousness consists in reminding us that acting upon this opportunity demands something of us. This is certainly true when it comes to Schnabel's influence behind Gould's music. Gould's inventive approach to Beethoven (let alone Bach) constrains you to realize that if you want to experience more than just "a momentary ejection of adrenaline" in art (as Gould describes it), then you must gradually work at understanding the structured harmonic whole of an artistic work that makes this adrenaline possible. This gradual awareness produces something much more satisfying: a state of wonder and serenity. Only generous art worthy of that serious name produces that satisfying result. But it comes at a price. 

Brooklyn Bridge, NY
John Lennard




     The price listed for Lot 44 at the Canadian Contemporary Art auction held by Waddingtons on March 08, 2012 was between $2,800.00 - $3,200.00 CND. The price realized for this lot was $3,360.00 CND. The lot was entitled Brooklyn Bridge, NY. The painter of this lot is John Lennard. The price for his paintings are on the rise.
     Ryan Green from the prestigious Master's Gallery in Calgary, Alberta knows a good investment when he sees one. His recent decision to show his work is an institutional confirmation of Lennard's status as one of Canada's leading contemporary painters. Roberts Gallery in Toronto, Ontario is no less discriminating. It recently listed a Lennard 2009 work entitled Georgian Bay, Towering Sky for $10,000.00 CND in an exhibition that featured a number of his other paintings. It was purchased by a pair of private collectors who recognize the historic significance of, the contemporary interest in, and the future returns for this painting and the body of work it represents. While there is certainly more to Lennard than merely describing him as an "artist to collect" (as one magazine recently classified him), it still pays to collect his paintings. John described the significance of Georgian Bay, Towering Sky to me in one word: risk. That word does double duty: it describes his work as an artist and his worth as a human being. Investing in Lennard is well worth the risk. Wherein lies the profit? Certainly not on the margin.
     Despite the promising profit margin for collectors, Lennard is not a marginal painter. He does not waste his time with fashionable trends. His work is clearly centered within the pictorial tradition of modern art (his debt to J.W. Morrice is unmistakable): "It is important to look more to the tradition of painting," Lennard insists, "instead of looking for inspiration in what other contemporary artists are doing. I try not to get caught up in the latest fashion or trends. I feel that way you will be closer to finding your own voice."
     Lennard's lack of interest in fashion trends to the contrary, it is best to interpret him as working with a voice that is similar in tone to the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen, who said of his working method: "Demolish the rules, but keep the tradition." This is the voice of a generous tradition and a serious demolition. All great artists speak through it. Wilhelm Worringer goes so far as to claim that this voice (a decidedly volitional one, on his reading) dialectically spoke within the tradition of modern art (from Piccasso to Pollock) in order to make abstraction comprehensively possible. It should therefore not be overlooked, nor undervalued: "The element that impresses me most when I see another artist's work," Lennard states, "is if their intent is pure in what they are trying to convey. There are many elements that make up a strong piece and they can be personal. I enjoy seeing a piece that comes out of the tradition of art with one's own signature. That is what I hope to accomplish in every painting." Lennard runs the serious risk of signing his name on a generous tradition. This is not safe, and for good reason. Safety in art borders on the margins of dishonesty. It also produces derivative pictures.
     At first it might seem counterintuitive to think of Lennard's work as located within the pictorial tradition of modern art, at least as this is represented by the work of the Group of Seven. This counterintuitiveness is fueled by the brand of abstract means by which he paints. However, the representational tension between, say, the Group of Seven and the Painters Eleven that you get in Lennard's work is as deliberate as it is liberating. His work is a decisive commentary on the risk an artist takes by demolishing the rules without destroying the traditional context that gives them sense (if not substance). The same can be said of Kazuo Nakamura who, because he broke the rules in similar fashion, is correctly described as the "odd man out." Lennard is best described as the even man in. He evenly demolishes the rules by painting beneath, between, behind, and beyond the tension of two traditional tendencies in Canadian painting. He has found his move. 

Finding The Move, 2010
John Lennard


     What is the painterly equivalent of approaching Beethoven for Lennard? The answer to this question requires an answer to another question. During a conversation over dinner one evening in Toronto I asked John what he was reading. He said he was reading Martin Heidegger's book What Is Calling Thinking? Heidegger's book is a philosophical commentary on what it means to think as a person within a tradition. This kind of contextual thinking must be learned. Heidegger writes: "We come to know what it means to think when we ourselves try to think. If the attempt is to be successful, we must be ready to learn thinking ... We learn to think by giving our mind to what there is to think about." It is not without significance that Lennard was reading this book. What is called painting? We come to know what it means to paint when we ourselves try to paint. As such, we must be ready to learn painting. Lennard has learned precisely because he gives his mind over to what there is to paint about.  
     If thinking is a response on our part to a call which issues from the nature of things (what there is to think about), then painting does the same thing. The best pictures open up an encounter with reality as we experience it. What does this mean, exactly? Using Warhol's jargon, it means being receptive to the reactive opportunity that life provides to get away with something in style. In this sense, painting is like playing a musical instrument (Lennard is an accomplished musician). As Pat Metheny once put it, he is not so much a guitarist as he is an artist, and the guitar is merely a translation device for his art. Lennard is not so much a painter as he is an artist, and his paintings are translation devices for his art (so is his music, his capacity as a university squash instructor, and his penchant for chess).
     John's paintings provide the space for us to think about what it means to be, as Michel Foucault once put it, "historically condemned to history." Lennard does not mind the condemnation. Georgian Bay, Towering Sky is generous enough to present you with the fuzzy artistic line that resides between a scenically representational bay and a sexually abstract sky, but serious enough to force you to refuse to choose between either realistic representation or existential abstraction as the interpretive framework of this literally multi-layered painting: a towering life is never lived on the horizon of a binary relation. Brooklyn Bridge, NY is generous enough to invite you into a decidedly New York state of mind, but serious enough to challenge that mind to consider the political, economic, and ecological implications of a post-9/11 Manhattan skyline: a less than towering sky indeed. Finding The Move is generous enough to inspire you to consider the game of chess as a metaphor for a life well found, but serious enough to force that metaphor into descriptive service by reminding you that the outcome of the game of life is as variable as the totality of moves on a board comprised of 64 squares: sometimes in life we never do find the move (ask Bobby Fischer).
     It is not without note that Lennard is an accomplished musician with a Rollins-like capacity for jazz improvisation. He once told me the story of playing and recording with the drummer Bob Moses in New York (Moses was part of a trio that included Pat Metheny and Jaco Pastorius on Metheny's debut recording Bright Size Life). In response to John's question about the form and content of their musical collaboration, Moses said to him: "You don't know anything. I don't know anything. Let's see where this takes us." This comment is a perfect description of the conceptual importance of John's work. It is generous in that it lets you in, but serious in that it requires something of you. If you enter in you must be willing to take yourself somewhere. Lennard's art forces us to face the following question: "You don't know anything. I don't know anything. Are we willing to see where this takes us?" Lennard seems to be a person who doesn't really care much about painting as an instrument. Painting is a means to an end for him, and the end is to approach reality so we can reinvent it. 

Glenn Gould. "The Subject Is Beethoven." Complete CBC Broadcasts 1954-1977 (DVD 1). Sony Classical, 2011.
Liz Garbus. Bobby Fischer Against The World. Mongrel Media, 2011.
Martin Heidegger. What Is Called Thinking? Harper Torchback, 1964.
Michel Foucault. The Foucault Reader. Vintage Books, 1984.
Pat Metheny. Bright Size Life. ECM Records, 1976.
Roald Nasgaard. Abstract Painting In Canada. Douglas & McIntyre, 2008.
Robert Mugge. Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus. eOne Films, 2009.
Vincent Tovell. At Home With Glenn Gould. CBC Radio, 1959.
Wilhelm Worringer. Abstraction And Empathy. Ivan R. Dee, 1997.