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GERARD COLLINS: PAINTINGS

[First published in 1991 as a curatorial essay for an exhibition at Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery in Halifax and then in 1992 in Arts Atlantic 43, Spring/Summer, 28-30.]

New Brunswick has had an illustrious history of painting which has included, among others, three artists: Miller Brittain, Goodridge Roberts and Jack Humphrey. Although there are contemporary artists of interest in Saint John today, they continue to work, as Saint John residents Brittain and Humphrey did, without the support of a university-level art school, and with no public gallery space devoted exclusively to contemporary art.

Like Gerry Collins, these painters looked outside their home town for an education. Collins was educated at St. Martin's School of Art in London, England; the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design and Dalhousie University in Halifax; and Dusseldorf Staatliche Kunstakademie in (what was) West Germany. Following art school, Collins had group exhibitions at the Grunwald Gallery in Toronto, in London,England, in New Brunswick, and in Nova Scotia; and solo shows at the Anna Leonowens and Eye Level Galleries (in Nova Scotia), and at the Windrush Gallery, Galerie Sans Nom, and 49 Princess Street Galleries (all in New Brunswick).

Although he has been exhibiting since 1977, no catalogue has ever accompanied a Collins show, and only two reviews exist, both published in the East Coast Canada magazine Arts Atlantic. So Collins remains a somewhat underground presence, even within the regional art scene. As fate would have it, he is still best known for having been hired at an hourly rate in the early '80s by one of his teachers, Gerald Ferguson,to "fill in" paintings for him.

Despite the isolation and obscurity, however, Collins has been a prolific painter since art school, hitting his stride in the early '80s with 100 Portraits; and then with the Harlequin Romance paintings (based on pulp novel book covers); followed by the Wallpaper paintings (portraits and still life with wallpaper motives); and most recently the Assembly-line or Factory-Made paintings. This exhibition gathers together work from the last few years, along with several paintings from the mid-'80s.

Collins' first post-art school exhibition was a 1985 show of 20"x24" likenesses called 100 Portraits, a fairly straightforward project. He took out a classified advertisement in the Saint John Telegraph Journal, and was interviewed on a radio program offering a free portrait to anyone who would pose for one--a good deal by anyone's standards. (Most of these paintings are scattered among the private collections of his sitters and unavailable for borrowing.) Collins encountered some difficulty in carrying out his program, however: " The problem arose.that after doing the first twenty paintings the work seemed very repetitive and boring. I think that the fact that I had decided to do the paintings in one set style without any variation in "vocabulary" made the portraits into a kind of drudgery when they could have been more spontaneous and 'fun'."

The public exhibition of the portraits became a performance supplement as the art gallery audience, which consisted mostly of the sitters and friends of the sitters, was literally given the art. Sheila Blagrave read the show as a veiled attack on art-world commercialism:

"Collins in giving the portraits away to the Saint John people he painted has made a strong statement about commerce and art and art appreciation....he himself has made no financial profit."
(Arts Atlantic, 1985)

Immediately after the Portraits exhibition, the artist began to create the "fun" that he missed in the tediousness of following through the Portraits program. He made paintings composed of layer on layer of freely painted images based on the pulp-art covers of the pulp-novels called Harlequin Romances. Collins painted as many as ten loose, free-hand versions of Harlequin covers directly on top of each other. The density of the final surfaces resembles some abstract expressionist paintings, and not a flat, cartoon, "pop" art style one might have expected from Collins' systemizing, task-oriented program. (Hung together, the Harlequin Series looks like a Pollock cut to pieces and the pieces framed.)

Collins' use of a system or a set of rules to generate paintings produced the work, from the 100 Portraits to the Factory paintings, but as the '80s rolled on, not only did Collins more freely interpret his own "rules" for painting, but the rules themselves became formulated in such a way that almost anything the artist wanted to paint satisfied them (i.e. in the Assembly-Line paintings). Collins' work only superficially resembles "process" art of late-'60s and early '70s, in which the elegance of a verbal program most often lead to rather simple-looking material (like the white, minimalist open cubes of of Sol LeWitt). What characterizes Collins' work, however, is the richness and beauty that manages to find its way into many of his finished paintings, qualities that are intentionally and unintentionally avoided by many contemporary painters influenced by process art. None of the beauty or complexity of Collins's best painting can be divined from any of his programs, for example:

"There were 100 paintings in the portrait series. I wanted to do another hundred, only this time I would use the images from the covers of Harlequin Romance paintings. I was planning on using ten covers and on each painting to paint all ten covers, wet into wet. This would give me 100 paintings in total (ten covers on each of the paintings)....".(Note: all Collins' quotations are from 1991 correspondence with the curator)

Next came the "wallpaper" series, inspired by the odd jobs that Collins does to support himself: "They use wallpaper patterns as a background for some of [the works], with a still life, landscape, or seascape in the foreground...I like the idea of trying to use the wallpapers as a sort of memory trigger." (One work, Double portrait with Kitchen Wallpaper, began life as two of the Portrait series, paintings which were not picked up by sitters: Collins put them and overpainted a wallpaper pattern which partially obscures the faces.)

Collins' most recent works are the most numerous: the Factory or Assembly-line paintings of 1991, which are based on directly observed seascapes, local Saint John scenes, still lives, and motifs from various reproductions and photographs (even an old colouring book that Collins bought at a flea-market has been used used as a source). They bear assigned titles which have, as the artist puts it, a "numeric correspondence only" to an old hand list which he owns from a shopping centre sale. (By coincidence, one or two of these paintings almost match their titles.)
This work says "neo-conceptualism" loudly. It raids the cheap kitschy world of velvet and shopping centre art for imagery which is repainted in Collins's (usually) beautiful way. The Assembly-Line or Factory paintings start from a set of rules which allowed Collins the most latitude of any of his series:

When I was a child growing up in Saint John, there were few opportunities to view works of art. Thus, the first paintings to which I was exposed were 'factory' or 'assembly-line' works. In my parents' living room hung a vast seascape in which the moon, a large blob of white paint, shone on a choppy sea of palette knife strokes. I saw more of these paintings whenever I visited my uncles. In fact, over a period of only five years, my two uncles amassed a collection of nearly eighty paintings. Each visit, I would pick a new favorite; Neopolitan Village one week, Plaza Del Toros the next. My uncles were quite pleased when I expressed my intention to become an artist. 'Someday,' they would say to me, gesturing toward Montmartre, The Real Paris by A. Lovati, 'you'll be able to paint like that.'

Indeed, the the premise of the Factory Paintings allows Collins to fit any motif into the rules of the series.

In a number of ways, Collins' work of the past ten years is representatively 1980s painting: the work borrows its imagery from the "right" pop sources, like Harlequin Romance cover art, cheap wallpaper patterns, and factory-made paintings sold in shopping malls. The Polke/Salle/Picabia palimpsest painting technique seems right. Collins' arbitrary and deadpan titles bespeak the banal air of an artist raised in the era of Warhol, as does his occasional lapse into garishness and goofiness (like the large painting of a cartoon fish in this exhibition, P.E.I. Landscape with Blue Willow Plates and Fish (Lakeshore Beach).)

But most often the program starts to dissolve into the content of the paintings, the beautiful paint handling subverts the banal program, and the arbitrary titles, despite being overly Romantic, transport one into a little reverie:

From the Harlequin Romance Series:
Where the Kowhai Blooms
The Autocrat of Melhurst
No Orchids by Request
/
The Tower of the Captive
Return of Simon

From the Wallpaper Series:

Dying Tulips with Wood Panelling Wallpaper
Body-Builder with Sausage Wallpaper

From the Assembly-Line Paintings:
Near the Coast of the Island of Ishia
Mixed Bouquet;Old Classic Style

Collins' work should be "bad" painting. In the world of '80s painting, the word "bad" was not appropriated from the parlance of pop music's reversal of meanings: "bad".was never meant simply to mean "good". "Bad" meant "...trivially small or uselessly large scale, graceless or inert or unbalanced composition, garish or sour or random-seeming color, and indifferent or seemingly out-of-control paint handling." (Peter Plagens, Theories of Contemporary Art, ed. Richard Hertz, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1985, p.87)

Most of the time, Collins is unable to make "bad"paintings, however deliberately "bad" his program. There is no need to appeal to a viewer's sense of a general notion of "good" and "bad" paintings here: the appellation "good" has an almost technical meaning in the art world these days. "Good painting", at least for people schooled in the studio programs of most Western art schools, is "colourist" painting in which figure, still life, landscape or abstract motives are tickled out across generously flat fields using decorative, spatially ambiguous forms. Peter Plagens again:

We all know by now what deliberately 'good' painting looks like: its scale is physically ambitious within a human limitation; its composition is interlocked and balanced; its color, whether loud or muted, displays a knowledge of key; and its paint handling evidences the presence of a nimble wrist. 'Good' painting looks, at its most orthodox, like one of Richard Deibenkorn's Ocean Park pictures, at its most agitated like one of Joan Mitchell's works, or, at its most attenuated, like a Brice Marden triptych. The trouble with 'good' painting, especially that by artists holding a reverse idea of the avant garde (i.e., in the face of pluralism, the closer to the most moribund late Cubist mannerism the better), is that it quickly becomes predictable....(Peter Plagens,The Academy of the Bad, reprinted in Theories of Contemporary Art, ed. Richard Hertz, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc. 1985 p.84)

If we associate '80s painting with the work of David Salle, Sigmar Polke, Eric Fischl, and Canadians like Ron Moppet and David Clarkson, then some of Collins' work could certainly find a place amongst it, but the place would be somewhere between the preconceived, arbitrary nature of the statements which initiate the painting and the painting itself. The talent, intuition and knowledge of traditional twentieth century "good" painting which Collins has internalized tends to work against many of the "bad" canons of "true" '80s painting. Very often, Collins is usually able to make the silk purse good painting out of the sow's ear of '80s art.


Cliff Eyland

Joseph Gerard Collins

Education
-St. Martin's School of Art, London, England
- Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, Halifax, N.S., Canada
- Dusseldorf Staatliche Kunstakademie, Dusseldorf, West Germany
- Dalhousie University, Halifax, N.S., Canada

Solo Exhibitions

June 1985 Anna Leonowens Gallery, Halifax, Nova Scotia
March 1985 Windrush Art Gallery, Saint John, New Brunswick
January 1985 Galerie Sans Nom, Moncton, New Brunswick
November 1983 Eye Level Gallery, Halifax, Nova Scotia
January 1981 Anna Leonowens Gallery, Halifax, Nova Scotia
September 1980 Anna Leonowens Gallery, Halifax, Nova Scotia
July 1979 Anna Leonowens Gallery, Halifax, Nova Scotia
August 1977 49 Princess Street Gallery, Saint John, New Brunswick

Group Exhibitions

March 1990 Grunwald Gallery, Toronto, Ontario
July 1989 Grunwald Gallery, Toronto, Ontario
October 1988 Gallery Connexion, Fredericton, New Brunswick
October 1988 University of New Brunswick in Saint John, Saint John, New Brunswick
September 1988 Aitken Bi-Centennial Exhibition Centre, Fredericton, New Brunswick
August 1988 Windrush Art Gallery, Saint John, New Brunswick
August 1988 Gallery Connexion, Fredericton, New Brunswick
February 1988 Centre Communitaire de Ste.-Anne, Fredericton, New Brunswick
August 1987 Windrush Art Gallery, Saint John, New Brunswick
June 1987 Jubilee Show, Observatory Gardens, London, England
July 1984 Inform Art Gallery, Saint John, New Brunswick
April 1981 Anna Leonowens Gallery, Halifax, Nova Scotia

Visiting Artist
June 1985 Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, Halifax, Nova Scotia

Awards
1991 Canada Council Arts Grant "B"
1989 Ontario Arts Council Grant
1987 Canada Council Short Term Grant
1986 Canada Council Arts Grant "B"
1983 Canada Council Arts Grant "B"

Purchases
1988 University of New Brunswick Dorothy Legassick Collection
1986 New Brunswick Art Bank
1990 Art Gallery of Nova Scotia

Bibliography
Blagrave, Sheila Gerard Collins:100 Portraits, Arts Atlantic, Summer 1985
Vaughan, R.M. Gerard Collins, Arts Atlantic 40, Spring/Summer 1991, p.22


Cliff Eyland is a painter, curator and critic who lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He works as a curator at the Technical University of Nova Scotia's School of Architecture.



List of Works

All dimensions are in inches, height x width, and all works are oil on canvas except were noted. All works collection of the artist except where noted.

1 Forest in the Mist 1991 (40x32)
2 Farmer Character 1991 (32x40)
3 Scene of Italy 1991 (40x32)
4 Scene of an Old City 1991 (40x32)
5 Still Life with Delphiniums, Red Curtains, and Blue Pitchers 1990 (60x54)
Collection: D. Cochrane
6 Still Life with Dying Tulips and Wallpaper Panelling 1990 (60x54)
Collection: Art Gallery of Nova Scotia
7 Landscape with Pink and Red Wallpaper 1989 (60x54)
8 Double Portrait with Kitchen Wallpaper 1989 (24x40)
Collection: G. Ferguson
9 Rose Wallpaper with Calyx Lilies, oil on linen, 1991 (52x58)
10 P.E.I. Sunset, Planetary Conjunction, with Cow Wallpaper, oil on linen, 1991 (68x62)
11 Wood Scene in Genoa 1991 (40x32)
12 Evening in the Woods 1991 (40x32)
13 Aoste Valley 1991 (40x32)
14 Still Life with Fruit 1991 (32x40)
15 Room Interior with Wallpapers, oil on linen, 1991 (68x62
16 Flowers in Vase 1991 (40x32)
17 Summer Landscape in Holland 1991 (32x40)
18 Summer Day in Italy 1991 (32x40)
19 Normandy Fishing Village 1991 (32x40)
20 Blue and Gold Wallpaper with Apple Trees, oil on linen, 1991 (52x58)
Collection: R.&B. Stears
21 Still Life with Fruit 1991 (32x40)
22 Evening in the Village of Ellsberg 1991 (40x32)
23 Scene of Venice 1991 (40x32)
24 Sailing Ship from the Old Days 1991 (32x40)
25 P.E.I. Landscape with Blue Willow Plates and Fish (Lakeshore Beach), oil on linen, (68x62) 1991
26 Impressionistic Scene 1991 (40x32)
27 In the Middle of the Forest 1991 (32x40)
28 The Creek by the Woods 1991 (32x40)
29 Scene of Italy 1991 (40x32)
30 Where Kowhai Blooms (Harlequin Romance Series One) 1985 (52x40)
Collection: S. Gurholt and W. Cooper
31 The Land of the Lotus Eaters (Harlequin Romance Series One) 1985 (52x40)
Collection: G. Ferguson
32 No Orchids By Request (Harlequin Romance Series One) 1986 (52x40)
33 The Bride of Kylsaig (Harlequin Romance Series One) 1986 (52x40)
Collection: T. Bider
34 The Return of Simon (Harlequin Romance Series One) 1986 (52x40)
35 Palace of the Peacocks (Harlequin Romance Series Two) 1987 (52x40)
Collection: J. and T. Boyd
36 No Orchids by Request (Harlequin Romance Series Two) 1987 (52x40)
Collection: T. Bider
37 The Tower of the Captive (Harlequin Romance Series Two) 1988 (52x40)
38 The Autocrat of Melhurst (Harlequin Romance Series Two) 1988 (52x40)
39 The Return of Simon (Harlequin Romance Series Two) 1988 (52x40)

GERARD COLLINS
PAINTINGS

15 AUGUST-22 SEPTEMBER 1991

CURATED BY CLIFF EYLAND

Art Gallery
Mount Saint Vincent University
Halifax, Nova Scotia

Acknowledgements: Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, The New Brunswick Ministry of , Gerald Ferguson

ISBN

©1991
The Art Gallery
Mount Saint Vincent University
Seton Academic Centre, 166 Bedford Highway,
Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada B3M 2J6
Text ©1991 Cliff Eyland

Printing:
Photography

Cliff Eyland: (902) 420-7629, 422-8618, Fax 423-6672
Art Gallery MSVU: (902) 443-4450, Fax 445-3960

Cover:

Captions:

Foreword

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