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Courtesy of the artist.
Kim Dorland, "Alley," 2006, acrylic and ink on canvas over wood panel, 60” x 48”.
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Courtesy of the artist.
"Eastview Sev #2"
Kim Dorland, "Eastview Sev #2," 2010, acrylic, ink, spray paint and copper leaf on wood panel, 96” x 216”.
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Courtesy of the artist.
"36 Olympic Green"
Kim Dorland, "36 Olympic Green," 2007, oil, acrylic and spray paint on canvas over wood panel, 72” x 96”.
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Photo by Sian Richards.
Kim Dorland works in his Toronto studio
Kim Dorland works in his Toronto studio.
ANGST AND EXUBERANCE
Kim Dorland reflects on his troubled teens at Contemporary Calgary
By Murray Whyte
It’s summer in Toronto and Kim Dorland is just back in the city after a cleansing near-week in Georgian Bay. Occasional breaks from the studio are crucial for Dorland, who paints with such feverish intensity that basic needs, like food and sleep, sometimes seem like frills he fits in around the edges, if at all.
Consider: Dorland is painting for two shows this fall, one with his Toronto dealer Jamie Angell, and a second, Homecoming, an expansive survey that opens Oct. 16 at Contemporary Calgary. And this, of course, alongside a career-spanning book project sparked by his massive solo exhibition last year at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, for which he filled the Toronto-area gallery with dozens of works, a good many of them monumental.
“I’m pretty crazy right now,” he shrugs, as he leads the way into his studio, a bunker-like industrial space in a rapidly gentrifying portion of the city’s west end. He plays down his hectic pace a little, saying he’s only doing a handful of new works for the Calgary show, which largely focuses on paintings he made as reminiscences about his rocky upbringing, mostly in Red Deer.
Then you see one of them: A three-panel work, 18 feet wide and 8 feet high, that shows a green, steel railway overpass that spans the six lanes of Highway 2, heading north. Airbrushed graffiti festoons the structure, a barely there presence on the painting’s surface. Above it, though, the sky is a thick sea of blue and white in Dorland’s signature style – fist-sized globs glisten, clinging tenuously to the surface, giving off the unmistakable odour of wet oil paint. Rough, gestural swipes cleave the surface in other spots, or pinwheel off in various directions.
As much as it’s his hallmark, Dorland’s exuberance for his material has its drawbacks. Over his five-day holiday, blobs of cloud and sky have let loose the surface, leaving tracks. “You can see here, where it’s rolled down the front,” Dorland says, pointing matter of factly to a trail of white that slices the bridge from top to bottom. There are at least three more dribbles along the painting’s span. “It’s enough to drive you nuts, especially when you start getting into the finer detail,” he says. “But I’ve been doing this for years. It’s a waiting game. If it lets go, you just scrape it off and start again.”
As a painter, Dorland likes to show his tracks. For a little less than a decade, Dorland, who just turned 40, has been producing paintings that exult not just in the materials he uses, but also in his gutsy hands-on techniques. A Dorland painting just wouldn’t be finished without things getting a little dirty, and that can create challenges. In the studio, for instance, a not-quite finished painting of Kurt Cobain, a personal hero, his back turned to the viewer, glows red in a sea of black. It’s already potent and oblique, and that’s a problem. “I love this,” Dorland says. “But now I need to figure out how to make it mine without fucking it up. Or fucking it up just enough.”
Things being fucked up, of course, were a regular feature of Dorland’s early years, and not just as a painter. He was raised mostly by his mother, who moved frequently. “We were very, very poor,” he says. “White trash, basically.” His father was in and out of their lives, adding to the strain.
Then, when Dorland was 17, she kicked him out. On the street in Red Deer with nowhere to go, his girlfriend’s family took him in. There, Dorland says, he had the strange feeling of the ground beneath his feet. “For the first time, I had a reason to look at my future, and realize I had one,” he says. “Art crept up quickly after that.”
In the stable environment of a middle-class suburban home, he discovered coffee-table books on the Group of Seven. His eye snagged on the edgy naturalism of Tom Thomson, the woodsy painter who died before the group officially formed, and something twigged.
After high school, Dorland enrolled in Red Deer College to study painting. “It gave me the recognition that I was actually good at something,” he says. “For the first time, I had drive, and I still have it today.”
Dorland has always painted in an autobiographical mode, although it’s often less than literal. (A near-finished zombie painting in his studio seems a loose metaphor, no doubt, for something close at hand). His Alberta years provided rich source material. “I had a lot of shit to deal with,” he says. “It was pretty rough.”
In the mid-2000s, Dorland, by then living in Toronto, worked his way through it, painting the world as he knew it in those hardscrabble days. These are the works at the core of his show at Contemporary Calgary. One, 36 Olympic Green, is foundational, both personally and stylistically. It’s the address of his home after his girlfriend, Lori Seymour, now his wife, convinced her parents to let him stay. Like so much of Dorland’s work, it’s mundane, but searing. A boxy hatchback in the driveway is transformed into a dark inferno of muddy browns and greens. Thick swatches of paint explode on one side of the frame, and the house glows a sickly orange-red. Through the window, bathed in warm light, a figure sets the table, and the scene finds its balance. Everything about it screams refuge and, for Dorland, it was.
The mundane terrors of his teenaged years in the suburbs ooze from Dorland’s canvases like living things. In Eastview Sev #2, teens mill around an erupting brawl in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven store as an oppressive brown sky and fire-bright red trees charge the work with an air of dread.
In Alley, two recreational trailers sit hunkered together under a fractured sky, the picture alive with nervous energy. Even innocent-looking images, like Trampoline, vibrate with repressed anxiety: A girl, faceless, hangs suspended in mid-air, her head turned to the viewer, who is positioned at the edge of a battered fence. The scene is unremarkable, yet uncomfortable, freighted with the unmistakable sense of being caught in the act.
This is Dorland looking back on the world from which he escaped: The oppressive landscapes of anonymous housing tracts, made airless by the close confines of boredom. Other early paintings, of teens clustering around bonfires at bush parties or skateboarding in parking lots, carry the same veiled threat, their intensity amped up by impossible day-glow colours and a weirdly claustrophobic air. One painting due to show in Calgary, though, bottles up all the repressed frustration and impending doom, channelling it through the beginnings of what would become Dorland’s mature, signature style. The Loner, done in 2005, is loaded with the angst that a teenage Dorland, listening to Nirvana, must have felt. In a scrubby field, a lanky teen in high-tops slumps against a massive tree, smoking. He wears the uniform of a certain generation’s disaffected youth: Long scraggly hair, a lumberjack jacket, a rock T-shirt.
But he also wears Dorland’s stylistic stamp: Vigorous brushwork and fearless colour. “It’s when things really came together – the scale, the colour,” Dorland says. He points out, however, that it’s acrylic, not oil, that formed the foundation of his deep love of painting’s presence as a physical thing. “That material sense came later,” he says. “But this is where it started.”
In the years that followed, Dorland grew as a painter, and as a person, counting milestones like fatherhood and major shows. His work changed, he acknowledges, as he worked through the troubles of his teens and began to focus on a new theme, the forest.
Although he’d been working to mash landscape painting with his aggressive tendencies in technique and colour, the McMichael show put a fine point on it. To his initial leeriness, it set him alongside his longtime idol Tom Thomson. He spent months painting landscapes en plein air to internalize the experience.
Here and now, however, the dynamics of parenting his two young sons are providing all the angst-filled fuel Dorland needs. “Lori and I just came back from the grocery store with them, and we were like, ‘Oh, my God,’” he laughs. “Having a family is an amazing thing – it gives you so much. But it can be really, really tough. So I’m kind of done, I think, at looking back at my life with nostalgia. I’m really just dealing with the present.”
Kim Dorland’s exhibition, Homecoming, runs at Contemporary Calgary from Oct. 16 2014 to Jan. 18 2015. Also showing in C2 at City Hall, is Voted Most Likely, an exhibition of Alberta artists curated by Dorland.