DAVID BOLDUC: Five Decades
Paul Kuhn Gallery, Calgary
April 18 to May 16, 2015
By Jeffrey Spalding
David Bolduc, "Damber Chowk," 2006, oil on canvas, 78" x 64".
Recently, there have been numerous attempts to resuscitate interest in the flagging reputation of painting. Most often it can be credited to the efforts of proponents of ‘provisional’ painting. Certainly, we should be grateful for small blessings. However, to my mind, this tendency often equates with lukewarm, tentative testing of the waters: ‘dedication without commitment’. If you prefer such ironic quotations of art’s glories to bring a smile to your face and a devilish twinkle to your eye, then don’t bother visiting the Paul Kuhn Gallery. Season after season, it continues to deliver impressive exhibitions of stalwart patriots of the medium, notably: Mark Mullin, Ashleigh Bartlett, Geoffrey Hunter and the magisterial Otto Rogers. They demonstrate that affectionate attention paid to the material properties of paint is the lifeblood that pumps vitality into the body of the venerable aged practice of abstraction. Even within this distinguished roster of achievements, the gallery’s Bolduc five-decade survey is an utter triumph.
David Bolduc, "Night Lite," 1989, acrylic on canvas, 54" x 67".
David Bolduc (1945-2010) was our leading maker of poetic, lyrical colour abstract paintings and the inheritor of the mantle of modernism within the legacy of Jack Bush and Gershon Iskowitz. He came to attention in the early 1970s through his exhibitions at the prestigious Carmen Lamanna Gallery in Toronto. These works were taut, refined all-over monochrome compositions operating within the tradition of reductive, geometric abstraction utilizing homogenous treatments or a single mark-gesture repeated consistently across the entire surface. They were shown in the company with pieces by a band of minimalist-inclined painters: Brice Marden, David Diao, Les Levine and Paterson Ewen. By the mid-1970s, Bolduc and Ewen were breaking free of this mould. Both had spent time studying at the school of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and their new work sprang forth with vivid colour and accentuated linear mark-making. Their works in the 1975 exhibition, The Canadian Canvas, signaled the dawning of a new hybrid art. While Ewen gravitated towards New Image figuration and landscape, Bolduc evolved a unique approach to central imagery abstraction. Perhaps this exhibition connects back together both ends of this spectrum.
David Bolduc, "Jasmin," 1974, acrylic on canvas, 76” x 65”.
Bolduc’s art of the early 1970s, such as Jasmin and Untitled #1 (both of 1974) re-assert a strong figure-ground relationship. A hovering central main motif articulated in bold impasto polychromatic acrylic squeezed and drawn directly from the tube contrasts a monochromatic and often subdued stained, aqueous background. Untitled #1 extends the modernist dialogue with a tip of the hat to lessons from Jack Bush, Robert Motherwell and the edge-painted accents of Jules Olitski. (As Picasso insisted: “All artists borrow; great artists steal.”)
Jasmin pulls out in Bolduc’s own signature direction. In so doing, he became the locus of the evolution of a tendency strongly associated with a generation of Toronto painters referred to variously under the rubric: exotic or eccentric modernism. The paintings in this survey trace his career-long obsession with colour, pattern and collage.
David Bolduc, "Untitled #1," 1974, acrylic on canvas, 77” x 64”.
For all their modernity, their compositional form harkens to antiquarian appearances gleaned from time among libraries of rare, hand-stamped leather book covers and decorated bookplates. His sensitivity to this history prepared him to contribute exquisite illustrations to a number of handmade books and accompaniments to finely crafted literary publications.
Bolduc, well read and widely traveled, accumulated lessons from a lifetime spent exploring the pleasures of the rich visual history of civilization. Works such as Assi Ghat II, 2004-2008, pay homage to his admiration for an inclusive array of places and aesthetic traditions. His peripatetic wanderings took him to Paris, Spain, North Africa, Mexico, Turkey, the Middle East, China and India as well as clear across Canada. His art draws upon and celebrates our vibrant collective artistic heritage: Persian miniatures, Oriental rugs, African art, Asian calligraphy and the splendours of the inventive progressive art of the modern age.
David Bolduc, "Lake Land," 2001, oil on canvas, 36” x 32”.
Bolduc’s later works in this exhibition express his mastery of the application of sumptuous layers of exquisitely delicate tints and tones of oil paint. Seen in the flesh, it is their tactility and sheer physicality that take precedence over their chromatic, compositional qualities. This sends us off to contemplate his Automatiste proclivities, learned from his Montreal relationships. Yet their symphonic interweaving and counterbalancing of thick and thin, loud and soft-spoken, is reminiscent of the marvelous juggling achieved by the finest of Tom Thomson’s oil sketches. Bolduc’s 1970s’ works customarily pitted a comparatively quiet, uniform understated backdrop against an animated, spirited middle. The later works diversify this compositional treatment. Paintings such as Damper Cyhowk, 2006, add extra complexity across the entire surface, perhaps with a nod towards characteristic devices associated with Hans Hofmann and Russian Suprematism.
As this exhibition demonstrates, Bolduc extracted incredible diversity out of a fairly consistent and confined approach toward abstraction. This ought to be enough. However, in later life, the forms in his works and their titles allude to vestiges of natural appearance: trees, florals, still lifes and landscape-inspired motifs. It seems incongruous that an inveterate abstractionist should return us to contemplate introspective narrative allusions. Here, they conjoin with the legacy of Paterson Ewen, the Group of Seven and Van Gogh’s Starry Night. I’m sorry, there is nothing provisional, conditional or half-hearted about that form of devoted dedication, and it shows.