A Gift of Return: Graham Gillmore’s Great Expectations.
By Karen Moe.
Pig Boy Part 2 (from the series Lov Sic) Acrylic on Canvas with Mixed Media 80" x 60" Image Courtesy of the Artist.
If all art is autobiography, the work of Graham Gillmore is certainly a testament to that.
In an interview after the opening of Great Expectations at Toronto’s Division Gallery, he told me: “my work exceedingly relies on autobiography. It borders on the confessional.” In contrast to the drama of doom in Lov Sic, however, there is light-heartedness to the work of Great Expectations. Indeed, there is hope.
Gillmore unabashedly declares himself a romantic. In Great Expectations, this romance resides in the nostalgic aesthetic of his figurative work and his romancing of the loss of innocence. However, the rumblings beneath his over-determined saccharine never fail to delight with their sharp wit and dark humour. Gillmore explained how “the bubble is always just about to pop.” In contrast with the imminent explosions of Lov Sic, the bubble, the innocence, is given longer breath; the autobiographical child figures are allowed time to play. In Great Expectations, Gillmore is able to access and revitalize loss through the moments apprehended by his paintings. And, besides the satisfaction an artist always enjoys through work that attains their ‘great expectations,’ in these pieces, he is finding personal pleasure in ‘simply’ being the human.
In the panel “Rescue,” the artist’s everyday adventure sets out painted on the cusp of mid-crisis which could go either way. The boy stands tall in his potential triumph, waving a hat towards his destination with one hand while protecting a child-damsel with the other. A lamb encircles both girl and boy—a most cushy union—while a wide-eyed puppy wags a sprightly flag and George Washington commits his iconic cherry tree hack which will, most optimistically (Gillmore winks), result in a historical symbol of the virtues of honesty and truth.
Rescue Acrylic on Panel 60" x 72" Image Courtesy of the Artist.
But, they aren’t there yet! In true Gillmorian fashion, the narrative is unresolved: the children and animals are an instance of dynamic stasis. They are a delicious freeze-frame that can be savored as a momentarily arrested apparition. Caught here on the surface of the painting’s oceanic layers of pigmented urethane, this almost-triumph tips upon sinking into itself as the precious crew is pursued by a grim battle ship and a toy sail boat has capsized ominously on the raft’s prow. To make matters worse, beneath their vulnerable state of barely afloat are none other than the tortured ape and a most malevolent Mickey-Mouse from Lov Sic’s terrorizing “Pig Boy Part 2.” And, the heads of these sinister haunts are above water; the angst and threat of brutality laps up onto this sweet indulgence in rescue and, through a reflexivity between the artist’s painted narratives and the corresponding reminiscences of his childhood, Gillmore’s romancing of the fall from innocence re-asserts its omnipotence.
In the canvases “Balancing Act” and “Broom Ride,” even though they are splattered with protean paint blobs and stenciled body parts; even though they are revealed and concealed in a painted and erased tapestry of remembering and forgetting, the kids just might make it. The string-of-boy-balancers are confident with attention fixed optimistically on their goal. Eyes sparkle; lips are parted in the anticipation of a possible ‘Hurrah.’ Nevertheless, despite such endearing stoicism, the tautological composition is reminiscent of ducks being pinged off in a carnival shooting gallery as the primal vertebrae and formless globs come at them from all angles. But we don’t want them to fall! We want them to get passed the limit of the painting! But into what? Language? Civilization? The symmetry of the balancing poles and the boys’ obliviousness to the primordial assaults are the rising action in a plot of a sly assembly line nudging the unwitting boy-children into the linear drone of culture and its corresponding guarantee of violence. Teetering on an edge of transcendent imperviousness and impending plummet, the psychological machinations masquerade as play.
Balancing Act Acrylic on Canvas 60" x 72" Image Courtesy of the Artist.
The kids in “Broom Ride” seem to have more of a chance, though, as they could actually be getting through the swamp storm—for now. They exist in the magical world of childhood a bit longer than the boys in “Balancing Act,” marching to the beat of their exclusive childhood drum. The little girls are virtuously aglow and the leader is as steadfast as a Suffragette: her hand a determined fist ready to overcome anything that stands in the way of this nostalgic moment of purity.
Broom Ride Acrylic on Canvas 60" x 80" Image Courtesy of the Artist.
However, the boy-child’s returned gaze in “Broom-Ride” shifts this playroom into the realm of the uncanny. He is both of and not of the painting. This is the home that never was a home as it conflates the familiar with the strange. The boy knows something; he has been here before; he has returned. Beneath his luxuriously lashed, bow-mouthed androgyny is an indignant wisdom only accessible to one who has experienced beyond the frame. He knows where the broom-ride is headed. The boy-child activates the alchemy of the painted memory: Gillmore has painted his personal child phantom, bristling incongruous in its existential mixture of distance and intimacy. Playfully, the painted boy is petulant and appeals to his artist (self) to let him stay a little bit longer. And, Gillmore, within the self-reflexive dynamic of artist/subject, has the pleasure of letting him (self) do just that. His boy-child, brought to life through his painting, gives the artist the gift of return.
The panel ‘Momma’s Worry Papa’s Worry’ is an opulent glut of innocence. Gillmore’s sly ambivalence is fully active here as his kewpie doll stable all gape in horror in their jumbled state of apocalyptic irony. Like the shadowy surfacing of a dream, Gillmore told me how his innocent archetypes have risen en masse through his “multiple glazes, washes, pours that mimic the way in which the unexpected (and at times uninvited) interlopers of memory, dreams, and the unconscious take hold.” Fully manifested, these symbols of purity are in mid-violation and compound into a heavy viscosity that overwhelms the painting-scape. The mob is further smushed as it gravitates into a 1970’s Volkswagen Beetle—such a density of a mid-pathos plunge being compacted into a literal symbol of the artist’s childhood. A picnic basket has been cast aside; the lamb is very concerned; pigs dive for cover as the painting is poised to slide off of its panel. And, painted in the sweetness of little boy blue, Snow White gasps and clasps “How dare you!” as her reign oozes downwards in a river of urethane, pigment and turpentine.
Momma's Worry Papa's Worry Acrylic on Panel 60" x 40" Image Courtesy of the Artist.
The mixed media work, “Please Don’t,” is the apex of the rising action narrated through the figurative and the point in which the plot simultaneously thickens and falls. Composed of seed bags, a child’s quilt and a splayed mass of fridge magnet letters, “Please Don’t” both beseeches and actualizes the symbolic falling into culture and language. The child’s blanket is palimpsested along with a spermatozoic foundation and a topping of phonemic spew. With a dark swoop of Gillmorian humour, the first utterance is a chiasmatic trap of (mis)-communication and psychological pathos: “Please Don’t Fuck off and Die.” What to do? Either way, we are fucked. And, we laugh in spite of (or to spite) ourselves.
Please Don't Fuck Off and Die (detail) Seed bags, a child's quilt, fridge magnets. Image Courtesy of the Artist.
Gillmore explains how his word paintings are rooted in “the psycho-poetics of interpersonal relationships.” The diptych, “Writ (for RR)” is an allegory of the age-old story of romantic love and the great expectations that paint any new beginning with the willing naiveté reminiscent of the starry-eyed child. In this allegory, the words as both symbol and image trace the collapse from the interpersonal density of the beginning of romance to the repression, distance, and silence at the end: ‘Writ in Gold, Then in Lead, Then Never Told.’ Inversely mimetic to the child’s fall from innocence into language, the propensity of the fallible human to be deliciously deluded over and over again by romance dissolves into a (non)utterance of ‘nothing more to say.’
Writ (for RR) Acrylic on Panel 60" x 80" Image Courtesy of the Artist.
In this current chapter of his art and autobiography, Gillmore confides how “the darkness has been usurped a little by a feeling of hope and clarity.” There is an acceptance of the psychodramas he has painted for over twenty years; indeed, the traumas that suspend meaning and confound resolution are less rupturing and the unrequited is momentarily retrievable. The artist, through his art, is celebrating a renewed state of Great Expectations as he finds himself, through his self-reflexive relationship to his personal life, “dancing more in the studio.” In an interview with ARTUS in 2012, Gillmore wondered,
There are times when I question whether my subject matter is appropriate and where the line should be drawn between the public and the private. Still, my position has always been to begin with personal observations and then watch how others react to them.
From an artist who has always created from his heart, how could it be otherwise?
See Karen Moe's article on Graham Gillmore's Lov Sic in Border Crossings Magazine.