So you’re on a highway and this highway is the only way to get to where you’re going. And yet you know you will never actually get there. Sometimes the fog rolls in and it’s so damn thick that the white line disappears before you; the road is rugged and your car breaks down and the map is all wrong, and when you ask for directions, people say “Why do you want to go there?”
And the highway is painting. To be a painter is to be on a highway to nowhere. Many have come this far, but no one has been where you’re going. To be a painter is to be crazy in love with process; to be a painter is to wrestle with colour like Jacob and the Angel: “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” The real journey, the real war, the real revolution takes place in your mind, not on the canvas. Make no mistake, it’s epic.
John Climenhage is nothing if not a painter. The studio is stacked to the rafters with paintings and piled with books – some Heiddeger, Bill Burroughs and Samuel Beckett, Delacroix’s journals, Bringhurst on Haida mythology and often poetry or something on quantum physics. There’s a big old armchair, oriental rugs and some unremarkable 3″x5″ photos of Canadian landscapes stuck to a board with masking tape, a drum kit and a crusty palette with gnarly gobs of cadmium orange and ultramarine squeezed on like mortar. These things might be the starter gun or the ignition. Everything else from there on is an internal process. Climenhage is a man of action, inward or no. There is no passive voice here.
The title of the exhibit may sound extravagant, but Terre Sauvage: The Topology of Anamnesis is robust, dreamy, fearless. A self-reflective wilderness and a mirage. Visiting artist David Pearl remarks that somehow Climenhage gets away with things he shouldn’t be able to get away with.
Was it always like this? There were months of dividing the boards into sections with straight lines like a pie before these greasy reflections emerged. Should the lines be red or white? There were false starts and forays into the “souvenir hunter” narratives, women in precarious canoes, even hockey players slashed on with a palette knife in reds and blues. Not the landscape of heaven.
Not this apparent tossing of parallel planes like scrambled eggs at our feet. Not the autumn leaves glowing on the event horizon of shorelines built of jerry-rigged granite, smeared by the bruises of storm clouds blowing in off the lake. Not the quotidian other-worldliness of thought and feeling left to dry on a piece of wood. More of a shamanic adventure than a daydream. Just another highway finished, but for the painter never finished.
I spill, I swerve, I swim, I spin, I slither. I agitate, I am reckless. I fall backwards, dangle, hover, suspend, reflect. In Terre Sauvage there is plenty of action. Except that there is no I.
Curator Maralynn Cherry notes that Climenhage picks up the dialogue on wilderness where the Group of Seven left off. And as much as I resist invoking that spectre, it’s true. He goes deeper into Emily Carr’s dark vertiginous forests, into nature’s animus, and introduces us to a sort of multi-dimensional Mandelbrot set with his chunky cloud formations, overreaching trees, somnambulant rivers and liminal horizons. A single branch suspends an entire island at its tip for no logical reason. We see the landscape simultaneously from an insect’s and an eagle’s point of view. Apparently, just like that, paint has transfigured the laws of physics, of time and space.
Terre Sauvage: The Topology of Anamnesis
Art Gallery of Peterborough
November 14, 2014 – January 18, 2015
Photos: John Climenhage