Text by Eric Cameron
Images of Jeffrey Spalding's
Neues Bild (Rotunda, Winnipeg) 1976/2009
Newton's Prism: Layer Painting
Spalding's Layer Painting
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Above: A detail of Jeff Spalding's multi-layered wall painting at Alberta's Trianon Gallery, 2009.
JEFFREY SPALDING THEN AND NOW
by Eric Cameron
In high school, Jeffrey Spalding added diagonal lines to the existing reticulations in a small exercise book and, over the resulting grid, was able the work out patterns of interaction of the three primary colours. As an undergraduate at the University of Guelph from 1969 to 1973, he fulfilled the potential of these early speculations in several series of interlocking triangular paintings that, from an ideal realm of systematic order, exude what I once referred to as "a nice jingly-jangly sort of exuberance" but now recall as a sumptuously opulent radiance. In the perspective of hindsight, it is in such a realm of ideal order, that he may seem, at one time, to have been most completely at home.
System was subsumed under process, when, as a graduate student working with Gerald Ferguson at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in 1976, he tested the underlying theory by applying a hundred and fifty washes of alternating complementary colours to each of (maybe as many as) ten mostly four-foot-square canvases [see below]. Confirmation of his theories far exceeded his expectations. The resulting black was blacker, more intense, than any to be found in a jar or tube offered for sale by artists' colourmen. Yet over their unremitting darkness, each canvas gave off a subtly distinctive glow, its own unique aura. These works were not only among the most remarkable artistic achievements of their time, they gave rise to explorations of the process of layering by artists at NSCAD as accomplished and diverse as Garry Kennedy and Mary Scott, as well as to scarcely less accomplished, but less consistently sustained, ventures into the process of layering by artists like John Murchie, Paul Hess, Bruce Campbell and Gemey Kelly (at this point, I should acknowledge my own indebtedness).
ABOVE: Jeffrey Spalding's
Red/Cyan Blue, 150 Coats of Transparent Paint, Spring 1974
acrylic on canvas 17-7/8 x 17-3/4 x 1-1/2 inches. Collection: Gerald Ferguson. Photograph by Bob Talbot, courtesy Jeffrey Spalding.
Along the way, someone - it may have been me - suggested he should also learn to draw. To the extent that drawing entails a link with the real world of things depicted and, by extension, with the world of lived experience and the existential frailties of humankind, it creates a tension with the ideal order of systemic abstraction. This tension is always evident in those works that, in their many different ways, introduce depicted subjects into the systematised process of manipulating paint. His almost entirely black paintings of Niagara Falls of the mid 80s may be allowed to stand in for all the rest. As his brush repeatedly reenacts the movement of water towards the brink, his art and his life alike may be seen to hover on the edge of obliteration and oblivion. Such works have a performative aspect that also implies a personal, autobiographical aspect. I am reminded of one of Gerald Ferguson's most remarkable works, a small drypoint in which, confronting the small plate in front of him, he sets himself the task of bringing the needle Close to the edge, but not going over the edge.
Signs of self-doubt, self-denial and even self-destruction were already even more apparent in works like Jeffrey Spalding's removal paintings of ten years earlier, in which he first applies paint in several layers and then removes most of it from panel or canvas by sanding or some other process. The self-destruction of those works was planned in advance as part of the creative process, but it is from this same years, specifically 1977, that he now dates the practice of "periodically subjecting my work to a purge, obliterating or overpainting my prior art... a cleansing process that challenges me to rebirth, to break free from my habitual past." The admission of the need to break free from his past affirms, paradoxically, the extent to which the past stays with him. Many an artist would be content to assign past failures, along with past achievements, to the pastness of the past and move on. For Jeffrey Spalding, everything is assigned to an ideally (eternally) perfectible present, perpetually to be refined and corrected in a constant state of preparedness for the ultimate (aesthetic) judgement day. Moreover, what is corrected is not just a collection of inanimate objects, but the life that created them, his own.
Jeffrey Spalding's art practice gives a distinctively eschatological twist to the doctrine of modernist self-criticism. Having made such provision as he could for his own aesthetic salvation, he found it a short and completely logical step to become concerned for the salvation of other artists less able to save themselves. Since the early eighties, as he informs us, he has been searching through thrift stores in search of paintings in need of "redemption," paintings on the brink of being consigned to the dumpster. Over these, he works with spray-paint bought in cans from the hardware store further down the street, often applying the paint through stencils taken from a shelf nearby (nods in the direction of Gerald Ferguson are easy enough to detect more than thirty years after graduation from NSCAD).
ABOVE: Stacks of untitled "corrected" thrift store paintings by Jeffrey Spalding, 2004.
How much of Jeffrey Spalding's rhetoric of redemption is said tongue-in-cheek, even he may not be able to say with a straight face. If there should be a shade of cynicism somewhere amid the protested-too-much piety of his pronouncements, it is well to remember that cynicism is commonly acknowledged to be the reverse side of idealism. If he seems to sneer at idealism, it may be precisely because, deep down, he has never ceased to be an idealist.
The resurrected/corrected works are utterly intriguing. We can take it for granted that Jeffrey Spalding's "corrections" will have raised each piece to a level of formal refinement to which it could never have aspired before, but that does not make the original artist one iota better than he or she may originally have been. What it does do is make him or her immensely more interesting. I would defy anyone looking at these works to resist the temptation to spend more time peering beneath the surface of Jeffrey Spalding's corrections in search of the original image and the original hand than contemplating the purely aesthetic achievement of the finally corrected outcome. Signatures on the back, snippets of biographical information, as well as the price asked by the junk store, attain a level of interest they would never have had without his intervention. The image may have been sacrificed but the image-maker has been redeemed. He or she lives on in our fascination. Was that what Jeffrey Spalding really, really, really wanted?
Numerically, the junk store correction paintings dominate the  exhibition at Stride, but there are other works from other phases of his past development that he has brought in for purposes of contextualisation and many references to his earlier artistic practices are to be found in the junk store correction paintings themselves. Add to those the layered mural harking back to the seventies that he recently accomplished at Trianon Gallery [see image above] in Lethbridge and the 2009 horizontally brushed-out panels at Trépanier Baer, so reminiscent of his paintings of the eighties, that become landscapes by a process I will call annotated abstraction and it becomes clear that nothing has been left behind. His history folds in on itself and, once again, "All is always now."
What were not represented in the Stride show [earlier this year] were the early 150-layered four-foot-square black paintings from the mid seventies, but I did see one of them some months ago, brought out from Glenbow's storage racks for the benefit of visiting critic Thierry de Duve. My first response was one of dismay. Technically, it had held up well. There were no unsightly cracks and the paint was nowhere flaking from the canvas. But the work had utterly lost its youthful radiance, a dull, leaden opacity of surface having taken its place. It was only later that I was able to see how profoundly significant that transformation was.
Jeffrey Spalding has had his triumphs (the Order of Canada among them), but he has also had his challenges. Through them all, he has presented the same genial, affable front to the world. Dorian Gray-like, the black paintings - that signature project to which everything else seems repeatedly reanchored - confess the ravages of life in art. I would most dearly wish I could see the whole set of black paintings brought together again - or better still [National Gallery take note] the whole set brought together again along with a broadly representative selection of works from every phase of his career. I do not know of any body of work in our time that, through its dedication of art to art-as-art, could present such a profoundly human message.
Eric Cameron, August 2009