RONALD L. BLOORE
NOT WITHOUT DESIGN
by Terrence Heath, 1990
THE SIMPLE PAINTER
Even if illness had not forced an early retirement from teaching, Ron Bloore would probably still have come to his recent decision to give up lecturing and writing and concentrate on making art. His own logic demanded it; and, having faced death, his own mortality hastened him to the decision. He now says, perhaps still with a slightly challenging manner, “I am just a simple painter.”
In over thirty-five years, Bloore has certainly proven himself to be a prolific painter. In spite of a lifetime of full employment at the university, with only two years away from his teaching duties, he has managed to produce a steady and large number of carefully thought-out and constructed paintings. “Simple,” however, would not be the first word that would spring to mind in describing them.
Over the past thirty-five years, Bloore has not on the whole been rewarded as a painter by insightful reactions and reviews. Lacking the artist's statement of purpose and self-evaluation, most commentators have floundered before his unforgettable, but inscrutable surfaces of subtle variations of white-on-white oil paint and his series of repetitive imagery, each painting differentiated from the one before by slight changes in presentation.(1)
The first sustained formal analysis of Bloore's images and patterns was given by Barry Lord.(2) Lord very perceptively saw the formal care which Bloore lavished on constructing and working with image and ground in the white-on-white paintings of the mid and late 1960s. Where Lord reported on what his eye saw, he evaluated Bloore's concerns with a close, rigorous visual judgement. He was less successful when he looked for the origins and influences of Bloore's work. His attempt to trace Bloore's genealogy back to Abstract Expressionism is not convincing even on the formal, analytical level, and he became entranced, I think mistakenly, by the idea that the white of Bloore's painting could be seen as a sort of metaphorical light.
Theodore Allen Heinrich, a colleague of Bloore at York University, and a frequent contributor to artscanada, also wrote on Bloore's work, but his treatment of the work was largely descriptive with some attempt to ascribe representational allusions to his imagery.(3) Heinrich did recognize the importance of Bloore's work and emphasized that Bloore's interests extended well beyond Western culture. This theme was to be picked up and extended by Joan Vastokas who saw in Bloore's work “recognition of the spiritual content of those early mythologies and sacred works that communicate across the centuries.”(4)
The most extensive and serious consideration given to his work was a sixteen year retrospective exhibition of his paintings and drawings curated by Ted Fraser of the Windsor Art Gallery.(5) Painting by painting, Fraser traces Bloore's progress from 1958 to 1974. He rightly sees Bloore drawing from much earlier painters, such as Poussin and Lorrain, and Bloore's involvement in an intense dialogue with the art of non-Western cultures. Fraser also emphasizes and describes the careful craftsmanship of Bloore's painting as he works and re-works the paint surface to reveal its layers and depths. In the end, Fraser sees Bloore as a formalist, albeit a formalist concerned with “the elemental qualities of nature: form, colour, texture, space and movement.”
With the extensive and sustained rejection of non-representational work in both painting and sculpture during much of the 1970s and most of the 1980s, Bloore was regarded as an artist “of notable integrity and an admirable determination,” but the work was seen as a phenomenon at the periphery of the art world.(6) Only slowly, as interest in non-representational painting and Modernism as an historical development was kindled in the latter part of the 1980s, has Bloore's work once more begun to be noticed and discussed. An important step in this process was a drawing exhibition organized in 1988 by Illi-Maria Tamplin at the Peterborough Art Gallery. Even limited to drawings, which Bloore tends to do in concentrated and relatively short periods of time, the exhibition suggested the astonishing range and vitality of his imagery and handling of materials. Bloore approached these drawings in an open, spontaneous way, working quickly with no preconceived idea and manipulating the wet inks to draw out their component colours.
In the Spring of 1987, Bloore launched into a series of paintings, larger than any he has done before (except for public murals) and drawing together a lifetime of image making. These splendid paintings, numbering now over thirty, range in size from eight by eight foot to eight by twenty foot. The sheer size of the works raises what has been looked at as subtle differentiations into major statements of variation and interrelationship. Codes are established in continuities and surface rendering and then broken by allowing the raw masonite support surface to show through, sometimes in controlled geometric patterning, sometimes in unfinished looking areas. Pictorial space approaches the extended, real space of the colour field painters, but refuses to allow the viewer to abandon inquiring intellect for existential experience.
1990, Untitled No.XXXI, Catalog No.33, 244x366cm, oil on masonite, National Gallery of Canada
These paintings can only be seen as a deliberate bid for serious consideration by an art world that has not come to terms with his work. But beyond this professional ambition, Bloore is attempting to realize his belief that an artist must speak to his or her society, must give form to the images of meaning, and create a panoptic presentation of the retained values of our culture. To follow Bloore in this undertaking is to attempt to articulate meanings and significances about which he has refused to speak, to attempt to accompany his visual speech with verbal speculation. Ultimately, such speculations are a very separate exercise from seeing the paintings; obviously, the very act of writing about them becomes the trap which Bloore himself has refused to fall into.
What are these values, these characteristics of the North American experience “which make it a valid contribution to the enrichment of the human experience"?(7) What are these unseen realities which form a part of a unitary experience of being human on the planet? Even if, as Bloore has insisted, there are “no secrets, no messages,”(8) what are the meanings of these non-representational works? The following speculations are offered as meditations on the art of Ron Bloore. They come from the paintings rather than lead to the paintings. Each viewer has to begin the contemplation of the visual language alone.
His images are structured, balanced, juxtaposed, repeated, discontinued and continued; but, however much I become aware of the ordered and pre-determined construction of Bloore's paintings, the dominant impression is one of floating, seemingly random imagery. The obvious reason for this impression lies in what is not in Bloore's paintings. His images are related neither by a baseline nor by any hierarchical ordering. They may be centered in themselves, as in the circles and star-like images, or they may be held in semi-grids of pattern. They are not, however, positioned in a superior/inferior relationship to one another, as objects in any form of perspective are related to one another or as importance is ascribed to images through relative size and positioning above and below. The rejection of perspective and its one dominating viewpoint and of privileged space in the pictorial composition are the stuff of 20th century art. They are part of the rejection of Academic art even when representation is not at issue. In this, Bloore is using and furthering the visual, formal language of his century. But, what does it mean?
Bloore, I believe, sees one of the profound and lasting values of our civilization in its democracy. It seems almost trite when it is said perhaps, because words have made it trite. By “democracy” I want to indicate more a complex of ideas than a political system. It would include the positive aspect of the one-to-one relationship of people, not ranked by social status, the respect for individual freedoms and opinions, and the potential to be judged on accomplishment. It is the society in which persons are not absorbed into a family or tribal relationship by necessity or ritual. It is also basic, I think, to Bloore's non-elitist tenets about art. He has railed against art museums and other institutions by which “we justify art to ourselves on the basis of ideas derived from non-egalitarian societies.”(9) And, he has been instrumental in furthering major artists, such as Jan Wyers, who work outside the privileged system. His admiration for Miro, whose images float free in pictorial space, may well be based upon his recognition that Miro was giving visual expression to the same perception of a value that characterizes the thought of Western culture. Miro's comment about Western art's decadence after Neolithic times is particularly interesting in that they too did not use the conventional baseline and hierarchical ordering of pictorial space. Perhaps the cave walls, which have been assumed to exhibit the unorganized and occasional depictions of men and animals for magical or spiritual reasons, are organized, pre-hierarchical compositions.
1987, Oct. 11, Fraser Island, Lake Joseph, 46 x 61cm, Sunday Sketches
The one conclusion about the value of the deregimented image that Bloore is not sympathetic to is the one based on the argument that deregimentation is a product of our technology. The technologies of mass production and mass communication are by their nature egalitarian but are also potentially totalitarian. The result of technological advancement has led to the use of technologies without consideration of the “real world” of cultural and societal values.(10) The artist, for Bloore, is witness to a humanistic multiplicity of human endeavour. The historians and theorists who would categorize art into movements and teleological patterns are one of the artist's enemies in their quest for unitary explanations and one-dimensional cause and effect paradigms; their mode of thinking is directly related to the one which created totalitarian technology.
Bloore also does not see the extreme individualism of the arts as basic to its retained value. The artist is one with his or her society and is by nature of the work anonymous. Artists should not be classified in schools and movements. Similarly, the free floating image is not isolated or fragmentary. The whole is held by repetition and patterning.
The retained value in Bloore's work, then, is not an extreme individualism nor an amorphous equality. Bloore's images speak of non-structured, floating freedom which is held together and harmonized by structural patterning and repetition. The whole is not made up of parts, but of the relationship of entities that are not totally singular and separate. Indeed, there is no whole and there are no parts. Our mathematics and symbols can broach this “truth” which counters both our Aristotelian and Platonic thought.
A second retained value which I see in the art of Ron Bloore is what might be described as the “tradition of revolution.” Bloore appended a note to his manuscript of the essay “Radicalism in the Visual Arts” which stated simply: “The question is the tradition of the twentieth century.”(11)
The question here must, I think, be seen as a disruption. It is not the questioning of Socrates which serves to move the discussion on to a larger, more profound and seamless philosophic presentation. Nor is it the questioning of the Scholastics, endlessly abrupt as they were. Their goal of harmonizing authoritarian faith and authoritarian reason was assumed to be possible. It is rather the question of the challenge and the manifesto, in a word, of the incitement to revolution. Psychologically seen, it is a state of constant unrest and dissatisfaction. It is not just asking the next question on the triumphal road of progress; it is simply asking the next question. It is the intellectual assault on all our assumptions.
Within the development of 20th century art making, the avant-garde is rooted in that questioning. Every convention of painting and sculpture - ideas, traditions, materials - has been thrown into question. But, the upheavals resulting from the questioning are not unilinear, much less progressive. They are not one generation rejecting the one before it and moving on to a more enlightened realization. It is a questioning that leads to another question. Similar questioning has gone on in every aspect of Western society. It is a questioning which no longer advances knowledge, each answer building on the one before, but which advances our knowledge of our lack of knowledge. The answers peter out, but the questioning goes on.
1990 in the 265 Adelaide West studio, photo by T. Heath
Western society values this questioning for its own sake. It is exalted in our educational system as “the enquiring mind;” it is half-heartedly deplored in our fashions as “change for change's sake;” it is incorporated in our political system as “parliamentary debate.” The word revolution no longer refers to the orderly progress of the planets around the sun, but refers to change in all aspects of our societal life.
A part of this questioning is the ongoing demand to re-assess situations, to go back to the basics, to return to the roots. Indeed, our word radicalism derives from the Latin for root. We go back to childhood in our psychotherapy; our accountants do zero based budgeting exercises; our poets return to breath as the basis of poetic clausulae; we say, we are “born again.” Revolution is always reform; the questions asked are meant to be curative.
Bloore captures the question in a number of ways. It can be seen in the broken images - discontinued patterns which trail off or grow faint; circles that are split in half and set back-to-back, rejecting completion; geometric shapes which are so soft-edged they deny the very concept of geometry; circles shaped by radiating lines which form a circumference simply by the end of the lines themselves. These images question not only the ideals of the perfect whole or completed form, but their own right to a form. Like the concept of the tradition of revolution, there is an inherent self-obliteration in the images. The revolution against tradition becomes a tradition, but one which is continuously striving to destroy its own essential patterning.
Bloore's palette of whitenesses acts like the tradition of these discontinuous images. It unites and subtly differentiates them, sustaining their form and relating them visually to one another. White is the revolution in that it is a return to “ground zero.” White is the root of all colours and Bloore draws from it the suggestion of that spectrum of hues without ever abandoning their origin. In his recent drawings he has moved to the opposite end of the spectrum and, using black inks, he has drawn colours from black's supposed lack of colour. In each of these cases, Bloore is using white and black as an icon of the ground zero of the question.
A third value, which I see in Bloore's work, is the unrelatedness of size in the 20th century. I think this may be one of the first and most consistent ideas evident in Bloore's work. One of the memories Ken Lochhead has of Bloore's interests when he came to Regina in 1958 was of the microcosm/macrocosm relativity of structure in painting and the patterns of prairie farming seen from the air.(12) The prairies themselves impose a radically new concept of scale on someone used to measuring height by trees and distance by ranges of hills. Bloore's inclusion in an article on Northwest Indian sculpture of a photograph of a Blackfoot blanket strip is particularly interesting in relation to his own early work.(13) The blanket strip has two circles of radiating beads spaced equidistantly apart. The difference in size is striking but the Blackfoot artifact is the same structurally as Bloore's double circle painting done in 1960. The ubiquitous use of reproductions in art instruction has helped to distort our concept of size, but also to appreciate art for qualities other than size.
1969, April, 143x140mm, oil on masonite, Private Collection
In particular, Bloore was skeptical about the American interest in sheer size of painting. Size is a part of the history of monumentality: the bigger than life sculpture of a king mounted on a pedestal high above the heads of his subjects, the overwhelming spaces of cathedrals and palaces, the location of society's markers on hills and mountain tops. Even in the midst of the striving for the biggest and the best on the North American continent, size was becoming irrelevant or, at least, subjected to a new measure. Historically, the measure of monumentality was the size of the human being. The “Cartesian perspectivalism” of Renaissance perspective and ocular art was based on the human as a viewer.(14) Bloore's choosing to do small, delicate drawings at the early Emma Lake workshops was, in part, a serious attempt to question the messages coming from New York.
The confusion of size with ambition or seriousness, which Bloore saw in the theories of Greenberg, was basically old-fashioned. As soon as the concept of art as representation of perceived reality is broken, then the value of art is no longer seen in its dimensions. The size becomes unrelated to quality. Bloore, for example, saw in the small pre-historic Inuit carvings one of the great visual accomplishments of world art.
The assertion of quality as unrelated to size was more than a rejection of human scale as an arbiter of artistic ambition or accomplishment. Bloore, I believe, sees that even within the Western ocular tradition there has been a revolution in viewing which has displaced the human eye as an instrument by which to relate sizes. The microscope and the telescope have extended the scope of the eye; the fiber optic camera and the satellite viewing have displaced the eye from its human context. The accumulated effect of these developments is to extend our visual experience beyond our physical experience, and, because the iconic tradition is based on metaphor, the challenge of the 20th century is to use a visual language which can create the icons of meaning in a world in which the content of experience must be purely formal.
How can the great dialogue of visual language be carried on when it is not accessible through human scale experience? Essentially, the answer to that question is that the artist humanizes understanding, not through privileged seeing, but through the imaginative creation of tangible icons. Whether the work is successful or not depends on the dialogue happening. The conversation, for Bloore, must be understood, but the artist must abandon neither the visual means of speech nor the nature of the values which must be communicated. He sees art as humanistic. Science speaks in the highly abstract and specialized language of mathematics. Art is sensual, immediate and human and can speak only in human terms. In order to assure understanding, Bloore appropriates forms and practices which have carried on the dialogue of art in both our own and in other cultures. He says, “The artist seems to find in preliterate imagery fundamental concepts of universal forms.”(15) Bloore has also found imagery in nature and in contemporary society. But none of these visual appropriations can be used any longer for illusionistic representation. That is the breakthrough of the 20th century artist of western society. Successful icons must be appropriated and radically reformed to the needs of the 20th century. One of Bloore's strongest assertions of his humanistic measure for art making is his practice of traditional painting as a handcraft. He does not use the gestural brush; he builds his paint up with palette knife and works it to a fine and relatively impermeable finish. He sees each work as unique and will not produce multiples. I think he sees the production of an oil painting as culturally important as a recognized and accepted act in our tradition. He would appropriate this handcraft tradition to further intellectual and emotive understanding.
June 2004 in the Spadina Avenue studio, photo by L. Corbett
What Bloore will not do is provide a commentary on his work which will remove the necessity of entering into a dialogue with the work itself. In an age of interminable artists' lectures, interviews and explanations, Bloore remains silent. His floating images, exploding stars, broken lines, textured spaces, circles, nets, lines, and arches, his discontinuities, polishings, and scratchings, his monochrome paints and inks of many colours - are all offered as a part of the 20th century dialogue. They aspire to the iconic significance of the great images of other civilizations. If they communicate successfully, they will be art.