I first met John Luna in the early spring of 2009 when I was involved in a two person show at the Slide Room Gallery. If I remember correctly, the project was initially billed as co-curated by John and Wendy Welch. So when I met John, on what was a dismal opening night, I was prepared, thanks to Google, to ask him about his work and his time spent in Jakarta. What I remember most vividly about him was the way he quite literally cringed when I said to him, “So, you’re a painter”.
“…you could also start reading themes of enclosure, of entrapment, into the box like lines that occur in so many of the paintings, and extend that to an effect of working in such a small space.” 1
Since that time John Luna has blossomed into a star on the Victoria art scene. That’s the kind of thing even more likely to induce cringing, but I think it’s true. I ran into a young art student of my acquaintance the other night who told me that he’s taking a course on art criticism at UVic, taught by Mr. Luna. This same person proceeded to list all of the ways in which John Luna is involved in the scene. Just this summer, for instance, he was in a two-person at Deluge, he was a juror at the Sooke Fine Art Show, he teaches at VISA, has been in at least one group show at the Slide Room and he is currently having a one-man show at Xchanges Gallery.
This latest show, 0110, at Xchanges is mostly a collection of deconstructed paintings with an installation of studio stuff just outside the main gallery. The problem with Xchanges gallery is that it’s a small space with low ceilings and during the week it is used for life drawing programs, so work tends to be pushed to the periphery of the room and in the case of 0110 it gives the entire show a somewhat constrained feel. The paintings are big, at least they feel big, and they do not hang directly against the wall, but instead hang a few feet out and are rigged with rope and hardware from both the ceiling and the wall. In a few cases, maybe even all, the shadows of the works are projected onto neighbouring works, thereby creating a doubling of the pattern of boxes and lines and in this way increasing a sense of tightness and suggesting something akin to bondage.
“…he had a well-developed sense of personal mythology and of what critics might want to hear; in the end the story is a bit of both.”2
This sense of control, of being controlled, is in no way hysterical. It is not a claustrophobic bondage. Rather it seems to hearken back to a bygone era indicative of personal fortitude. The show at Deluge, with Luna’s paintings in counterpoise to an installation, by Tyler Hodgins, of new, clean cardboard boxes, reminded me, on a completely visceral level, of my Grandfather’s basement. A place most clean and dry and useful, where years of family detritus was stored in cupboards and in piles, and where my cousins and I, as children, would play (although play seems too shallow a word for the excitement of our togetherness) during great family parties when our parents would eat and drink and talk and laugh far into the night. But why a basement? On first look, the paintings appear broken, destroyed; they are after all referred to as deconstructed. The frames are visible, the canvas torn and shredded. Other materials are involved: tape, paper. There is an appearance of binding, of being put back together. Just the kinds of things one saves, in an out of the way place, in hope, perhaps, of a day when it’s time to try again.
Then again, on second look, these paintings are made up colours (as well as shapes), as paintings, deconstructed or not, tend to be; colours, that again, suggest another time, not in a personal history, but in art history. Taupes, blues, umbers, creams, and sometimes hints of reds or pink. It wouldn’t be surprising to find that Luna’s deconstructed works began life as traditional landscapes of the Group of Seven sort, painters principally active between 1920 and 1930. That was a time of human frailty, the kind most of us, who live in Canada, haven’t experienced: war, uncontrollable disease, economic collapse, hunger, joblessness. And so, John’s paintings come imbued with patina because they act as reminders of those days so different than our own, but also of the people. People like my Grandfather and many many others who are all dying now. Their generation has lived and endured and succeeded and now they have reached the end of life. They were a dignified people, totally unlike the Baby Boomer generation, and John’s paintings remind me of them for the reasons I’ve mentioned but it must be said, as well, that the power of great art to influence and to effect is a mystery that, after a certain point, is impossible to explain.
“…the surfaces are busy and dense like stucco or tweed, or thick as an elephant’s hide, but with exquisite veils on top, a mix of roughness and fragility, aggression and sensuality….”3
Contemplating the 0110 show at Xchanges brought to mind another, almost startling, revelation. (I say almost startling because although the work is engaging, there is truly nothing jarring. It is too familiar and too quiet to be disturbing.) The paintings began to present themselves as meat. Or, and this is probably more accurate, as bodies without skin, so that the muscles and bones and organs are exposed. Although the flesh does not glisten and is not red, it is unmistakeably the body exposed. A body dried and preserved, no longer fresh in it’s anguish or it’s love, but still existing, still a part of the framework of a life spent thinking and remembering. It is an almost academic venturing into the concept of shapes that suggest, but the persistence (would it be appropriate to say obsessive) recreating of the body/painting reveals something akin to passion, albeit more a courtly ardour than a lustful one.
There is such a gentlemanly respect for the subject, such a careful avoidance of the lurid, or the sensational that the work becomes more than the work. It is also revealing of the artist and a seemingly unusual sensibility. In a time when apparently normal people read novels and watch movies about the most grotesque violations to the human body as a form of socially acceptable entertainment, the unlooked for kindliness, the gentleness, with which John Luna approaches his work and his struggle is absolutely sublime.
1. Edemariam, Aida. “Francis Bacon: Box of Tricks.” Guardian 5 September 2008: Arts.
2. Edemariam, 2008.
3. Kimmelman, Michael. “Old School Bad Boy’s Messy World.” NY Times 24 September 2008: Arts.