R.F.M. (ROBERT) MCINNIS, A Retrospective of Figurative Paintings
Front Gallery, Edmonton
Until October 26, 2005
By Gilbert A. Bouchard
One of the unspoken joys of live theatre is the freedom it allows always curious human beings to break taboo and stare in an abashed and unbroken way at strangers for wonderfully long periods of time.
This thrill goes beyond surface voyeurism and feeds into a hard-wired human reality. Homo Sapiens, being social animals, necessarily put a huge value on reading faces and all their myriad and subtle expressions, a skill we’re trained in (albeit not overtly) from birth.
Live theatre and television, writes Peter Steinhart in “The Undressed Art: Why we Draw,” are so engaging as artforms (specifically TV, what he dubs a “people watching technology”) in that they feed into our hard-wired fascination and societal need to see and read faces — a reality that has also been addressed historically by portrait painting and drawing.
The flipside to this situation is that there can be too much of a good thing.
Case in point, nudity on the live stage has always been deployed in a limited fashion because the same voyeuristic intensity to the media that allows us to read faces so effectively (maybe even unnaturally effectively) also makes nude scenes unbearably uncomfortable. Actors I’ve spoken to say that a live nude scene on stage leaves them (and the audience) feeling wildly more vulnerable and squirm-worthy than disrobing on film.
So, imagine my surprise walking into R.F.M. (Robert) McInnis’ all-female, retrospective portrait show at the Front Gallery and feeling the same sense of uncomfortable vulnerability I’d feel during a protracted nude scene in an intimate theatre setting.
My friend Ray (who was attending the show with me) remarked in a whisper that walking into the gallery filled with such strong women characters (many seemingly staring at us with some edge, some nude, most clothed) was akin to walking into an intimate gender specific coffee klatsch that we were pointedly not invited to. Staying means fighting the irrational sense of being an interloper.
This unease we feel has everything to do with the power the Alberta-based McInnis has earned over four decades as a master of the portrait and also a master of an indirect, edging-on-abstract style he calls “expressive realism” (a focus on emotional veracity rather than slavish ‘aboutness’ or photorealism).
In a nutshell, the formally-trained painter (boasting a impressively high level of technical ability) gives himself the freedom to pick and choose in an extreme fashion what artistic tools best work for any given image. While a room full of McInnis women-on-canvas is undeniably all his work, the emphasis is unique one piece to the next because of how he privileges emotion and radical freedom of gesture.
Hence, some images are heavy-line, mono-chromatic and look more like drawings than they do portrait paintings. Other paintings have relatively detailed and realistic backgrounds, while some only have spare colour fields, sometimes edging into the slightly surreal (one image titled Green Shadow gives its subject an eerie green corona). Some of his women (who vary wildly in age, body type and pose) have high detailed hands and bodily features, others are nearly cartoonish in their simplicity of rendering.
One could spend an afternoon in the gallery walking from image to image deconstructing element after element, figuring out that artistic reality’s impact on the specific image and the field of pictures.
In particular I’m fascinated with how deft he is in carving out such a broad range vis-a-vis the gaze and vulnerability of his subjects.
Some subjects look off demurely, but others stare right at you with less than gentle looks and more than one subject is painted in a rather defensive pose (ironic in one image — Black Towel — where a highly defensive pose is given to a bare-breasted model).
McInnis even addresses the touchy subject of the painter’s gaze by subtly painting his own reflection into the darkened window of one painting.