Ever since I can remember its existence Greg Denton has been happily enframed by the renewing people and places of Guelph’s arts and culture scene. Known downtown as longtime musician, bookseller, and painter; he is also a painting instructor on campus. His practical and theoretical know-how combined with his daily commitment to the overlapping and busy fields of local artistic expression made him a natural choice as this year’s City of Guelph Artist in Residence. According to the city’s description, the residency ‘is a cultural initiative that embeds artists in a variety of public spaces’. Each year "artists are asked to engage the community in creative experiences. Engagement may include hands-on creative activities, collaborative creation of temporary works or exploration of broader community stories. The public space selected for 2015 is the core area of Downtown Guelph."
This year’s applicants to the position were asked to ‘draw inspiration from Lt.-Col. John McCrae’s poem, In Flanders Fields, and the theme of remembrance’. Correspondingly, this summer Greg submitted, then swiftly completed a ‘100 portrait paintings in oil, depicting living military personnel, cadets, and veterans from the Guelph area, in uniform and wearing a poppy on their lapel’. Entitled ‘100 Portraits/100 Poppies: Sitting in Remembrance’ Greg’s work begin its exhibition on Nov 2 at Boarding House Arts and shows until Monday Nov 30th.
Having barely any knowledge of painting, and thankfully not having any direct experience of war, I was eager to get a civic understanding of how paintings inform the public remembrance of such a complex, even controversial topic. The following is an excerpt from the recording of a conversation I had with Greg at the Boarding House on Nov 1st at a solid wooden table facing his paintings. For what words are worth, it’s a single sitting portrait of a bigger picture.
- Brad de Roo, who after watching Greg paint one of 100 poppies last few portraits during his final stint painting in City Hall, was surprised to learn that the uniformed gentleman Greg was painting had been part of liberation of the Netherlands in WW2, thereby helping to spare Opa & Oma de Roo any further formative hardship.
Could you describe how you paint?
There is a process that I think I go through as a painter. And there is a process as representational painter. I have an interest in light and shadow and how that’s constructing the form. I have an interest in how colour works within the field of light that I’m painting. I have interest in the space of the painting. You know, I tend to work technically, so that I am usually working with a rough gestural sketch to try to get a sense of scale and placement. And then I’ll tend to start mapping in warm and cool colour relationships and tonal relationships. And then I’ll start to elaborate from there on more particular things. And I tend to work as a single session painter. I’m working wet in wet and with a fairly direct painting style, and with a fair amount of body and brushiness to the paint. I mean, it’s not the way to paint. It’s one way and it’s the way I tend to approach the construction of things.
Is this style of painting prone to any mistakes? Does it allow for surprises?
Oh absolutely. One of the formative things for me in painting was thinking that they’re improvisational. Being a single session painter, there’s somebody sitting in front of me and I am trying to look at it in the here and now and make a painting. The painting is a record of those decisions. I used to love Francis Bacon, a British painter, and he talked about painting as a process of courting accident. And he was interested in also subverting what he called the illustrative aspect of the painting. So he would be trying to find ways of realizing the representation through the process and through the paint and in a sense have the paint itself invent the image, rather than the painting be a material through which you render the image.
So it’s almost like there’s a greater texture to it?
Yeah, well texture or surprise. Or accident, right? I tend to think that’s what’s really interesting about a painting and I often will argue that these are fictions, rather than representations of people. I’m usually pretty critical about the role of portraiture as the idea that I’ve interpreted somebody’s personality, or tried to distill it, or represent it. You know, I’m looking at somebody. I’m looking at their face. I’m aware that there’s a psychology in action and I think a psychology gets enacted any time you see something that looks like a face. You know, like the front of a car looks angry or placid. So I am looking for readable psychology in painting, but I tend to think that there is so much accident in process; the paintload, the contrast that happens – you didn’t cover something adequately or the edge of the paint rolled of the brush in a funny way and it will create a kind of mood and expression and in fact likeness and I’m really interested in that. One of my other projects was the three hundred and sixty five self-portraits and that was an attempt to track however many different likenesses of the same person that process could generate. And in a sense when I do this sort of ensemble projects they’re often narratives of that process.
This one effected that narrative because I think there was a higher demand on it as likeness, on not giving myself permissions. I was working to a set schedule.
This would be somewhat of an emotional experience. People are coming in representation of someone or embodiment of someone etc. Did the emotional side of the project ever come to the fore while painting?
Absolutely. One woman started crying when I painted the poppy. She didn’t expect that. She didn’t expect it to be such an emotional punch. The symbolism of it hit her. Some people seemed to be very proud and some people seemed to express a lot of gratitude that the culture they are apart of us is being honoured. I was painting a lot of living veterans. There was a lot of emotion. There were times when I teared up.
People were probably telling you stories too…
That’s it. I’m painting some 96 year old guy who was 17 years old and on the frontlines going into Holland in the war or on Juneau beach on D-Day and you think about who you were as a 17-year-old and you realize the history of this person – the history that they embody.
Has this project changed your understanding of remembrance or memory?
This project allowed me to address something that I think has been happening over the last few years. I’m getting older and meeting older people and have more friends who have passed away and mortality and the images I have of these people in sketchbooks and paintings bears a different meaning to me now than it did when it was more of just a chance to do a formal exploration.
The likeness and recognizability of a person, and the portrait as an emblem of that became something more significant.
How do the individual portraits interact with your piece’s overall form?
I was interested in meeting them as people, rather than symbols. But also this was a chance for me to take what I do in terms of a repetitive form and in terms of trying to find a motif that repeats in the painting that isn’t the portrait but ascribes a different meaning to it.
The idea of a hundred people wearing poppies and the chance to make that a field of poppies appealed formally to me. Military I think of as a predominantly green culture, if I had to ascribe a colour to the idea of the military. So it seemed this was a real opportunity to make a green field with red poppies, which are contrasting colours and would give a chance for the poppy to be vivid. I realized if I am gridding them on a wall with spaces between them than I will want a white wall because it will make white crosses and that will extend the field as well.
I was also looking for a certain scale. I had to decide what size to make the paintings in order for the work to be sizeable and I wanted something mural scale.
Something that you cannot necessarily take all in a field of vision?
Yeah. Something that’s going to fill a wall. It’s 15 feet long and that seemed like a reasonable expanse. And I think there is an allusion to colour field painting. Barnett Newman, and that sort of thing; in terms of the scale and the fact that your vision is absorbed with colour. It fills your periphery. You’re not looking at it as a picture - it really is a field that you are absorbed in. It’s a green field. It can be seen as an allusion to colour field abstraction or an allusion to landscape.
Did the political landscape around the time of painting this complicate things?
It wasn’t ever an explicit part of this. There was a huge diversity of opinion in the people who were sitting. Some people very supportive of the Conservative Party.
There’s always this debate around Remembrance Day when people complain that its celebrating war and you’re always trying to position how you feel about that – are you celebrating war or are you honouring sacrifice and remembrance and what exactly that role is and I think this project sits in that territory. I think it can generate that debate, but I don’t think there is anything about it that is politicized in terms of taking a position on that.
Your piece is illustrative of the space of remembrance, rather than divisive?
What I think is really interesting about it is that when I’ve encountered military portraits historically I’ve often thought they are paintings of the uniform, paintings of the idea of valour, of dignity. I was focusing on their faces in a public space.
I tend to think I painted these people as people and as vulnerable people.
What would you like to be asked about your artwork that is normally overlooked? Are their every any misconceptions about it?
People get engaged with what I do in terms of an individual portrait - and I am interested in these as individual portraits - but I think that my work comes at it from two angles. I feel like people aren’t adequately engaging in what I do as a format and as a form and may not see they colour-field references or the fact that this is a representation, that it’s an ensemble.
They are interested in the figurative side of it more. I’m interested in context.
I’m up against a tradition of figurative painting. People can look at it and understand what I am doing within a set of readymade standards, and what I think I am doing is actually trying to reframe that and shift that, so that it's put into a context and seen as a kind of contrivance that establishes it as being a portrait rather than a figure painting. People see that I am portrait artist, but they don’t see that I am an installation artist.
What books would you recommend to get a fuller view of painting?
Frank Stella’s Working Space. A phenomenal study about the idea of what space is in a painting, and what pictoriality is, and looking at it from a historical viewpoint. I think it’s a beautiful book for his lucidity and his knowledge as a practicing artist.
Francis Bacon’s interviews with Sylvester were huge for me as student, even more so than his paintings.
Clement Greenberg, always. Even though he can be really prescriptive and problematic.
Ross King’s book on The Group of Seven, Defiant Spirits.