Text accompanying STRIKING FIRE OUT OF THE ROCK Exhibition.
Writtern by Scott Waters
Crucibles and Fulcrums
In Matt Bahen’s work there is nowhere to rest. Paintings that, at first blush, appear both pastoral and impasto assert themselves as relentless stackings of marks upon marks with little pause, and like the words of Cormac McCarthy, the author of this exhibition’s title, these marks drone on, assembling, insisting upon a monotony of experience which is equal parts white noise and narrative.
This white noise also finds equivalence in Haruki Murakami’s explanation of why he runs ultramarathons: his is an attempt to enter The Void. By running through the world, the world slips away. This question of the void finds constant place in cultural production (Jonathan Lethem created a central character around “The Lack,” and James Elkins has written about the paintings of Mark Rothko as being either “unbearably full” or “unbearably empty”), and so through words or marks or steps, image or narrative, we enter the sublimity of the human condition: a cataloguing of endurance and calamity.
What we’re not engaged in here is an academic compare-and-contrast, or a laying out of possible interpretations. Instead, we are drawing allegiances and flying flags. McCarthy, Joseph Conrad, and T. S. Eliot are the authors of trauma and revelation central to Bahen’s practice. But they’re also thoroughly invested in the Modernist emphasis on language’s material structure, and so there’s a necessary synchronicity between Bahen’s mark-making, Eliot’s graceful, jumbled metaphors, and McCarthy’s steadfast war against punctuation. Materiality, yes, but with arms wrapped around narrative’s mortal refrain. Given Bahen’s long-standing involvement with Toronto’s homeless community, these ideas move from voyeuristic concern for struggle and assert themselves as a tangible presence and weight in the painter’s life.
The temporality and accessibility of storytelling are elements that contemporary painters and their acolytes might tend to look at, or through, in order to access the self-referential qualities of plasticity, opacity, and fluidity. Heavyweight names like Kiefer and Guston burble up through the surfaces of Striking Fire Out of Rock, and rightly they should, as process is paramount both in these paintings and in Bahen’s broader practice. Nonetheless, it’s the telling of tales and their innate potential for offering redemption through a crucible that informs the more salient readings. Guston became infamous for returning to figuration, much to the disappointment of that musical Puritan John Cage, who lamented: “you used to live in such a beautiful country.” But for Guston, there was an inseparability of mark as material metaphor and narrative scar. With each step, Murakami learns how to continue living in the world; with each heavy daub, so does Bahen.
But Bahen’s country is anything but beautiful, just as it is centrally defined by beauty. Canvases almost sag under the accumulated weight of pigment and binder. Eliot’s Lilacs find parity of psychological, if not physical, scale with the scarred hulk of the oil tanker Kurtz as it pushes monotonically on; dogs fight amongst a church’s ruined plaster and desiccated floor, playing out the human struggle between ferality and grace; dense murmurations of starlings hang like buckshot over a dead sea. Painting KURTZ on a tanker is blunt—lacking in subtlety, perhaps, but bearing the emphatic assertion of a thing which can’t not be said. These paintings are not observational; there is no scenario in which the artist gazes wistfully at a snowy marshland en plein air. They hold a hope (against hope) for humanity, but should not be mistaken for historical or documentary evidence. They surely aren’t mementos of place. Though Bahen is reluctant to use the word, these paintings are a philosophical endeavour.
And so we come to a tipping point, one at which Bahen himself is not completely comfortable: it is the arc through the narrative to the philosophical and on towards the spiritual. Just as the dogs fight amongst the ruins of belief, Bahen seems to be painting at the edge of precarity: cautious to succumb too bodily to hope, but retaining the redemptive possibility of the agnostic. It surely isn’t happenstance or brevity that caused him to remove the reference to divinity from the titular McCarthy sentence, “striking the fire out of the rock which God has put there.” If these paintings serve a partial function of exorcising the world, it’s because Bahen is, via his viscous surfaces and eschatological implications, coming to terms with the many ways in which living is a daily crucible that finds awkward symbiosis with the esoteric and seemingly rarefied world of calling oneself a painter.