Xtra!

Number 596, Aug 30, 2007

Pretty Disasters.

Our humanity is flawed and fluid.

John Monteith’s works in Undercurrents, his new show at XEXE, are made of layered, oil painted sheets of mylar — the images resembling reflections on pools of water. In various shades of greens, purples and blues, the work looks, at times, like a lavish version of camouflage. The paintings are beautifully done and a pleasure to look at. But looking for content beyond the surface seems moot, at times. Maybe that’s just the point. After all, these are literally paintings of surfaces.

Simply titled by number, these are the kind of works where content largely comes from what a viewer decides they want to see. Intricate, meandering shapes and lines ripple across the page. The patterning of the work hints at the shape of a body reflected on the water’s surface, just out of sight. An obvious point of reference is the pool paintings of David Hockney. However, unlike Hockey’s work, Undercurrents provides no landmarks such as diving boards or buildings for context. Monteith’s paintings look more like they are situated in the land of unicorns or an emerald swamp than they do a backyard pool.

Monteith has participated in several group shows at Toronto galleries such as the now-defunct Zsa Zsa and Burston, as well as Spin and the Toronto Alternative Art Fair International. Since his move to New York City to work on a master of fine arts degree from Parsons, he has been branching out with small shows in Brooklyn. Monteith exhibits regularly at Toronto’s XEXE Gallery where he has had a number of solo exhibitions prior to Undercurrents.

A recurring theme in Monteith’s work is the body: How it looks, how it’s remembered, and how it’s hidden. In Undercurrents the body is obscured to the point where recognition requires imagination. It seems as though he is taking the shape of a body and playing with just how far it can be distorted before it is no longer recognizable. Distorted and stretched, the boundary between the body and its environment evaporates.

In his statement on the exhibition, Monteith writes of his use of bodies: “Their presence suggests a reclamation of humanity by nature through oil spills, rising tides and other natural disasters.” I can’t totally wrap my head around the phrasing, other than to say we humans are putting our fingers where they don’t belong. If this aspect of the work hadn’t been suggested to me, I wouldn’t have caught on. These paintings seem too pretty to be catastrophic, but then again, as artists we can say anything about our work to justify it.

Seeing art and reading statements like this brings out a mixed bag of thoughts, especially if there seems to be a disconnect between the two. One can theorize about water, fluidity, and global instability, but in the end, can’t the work just be pretty for its own sake?

Undercurrents
August 16 - September 15, 2007
XEXE Gallery
624 Richmond St W, Toronto, ON M5V 1Y9