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THE NEXT 7 DAYS:     EVENTS (19)     +     OPENINGS (12)     +     DEADLINES (9)     +     CLOSINGS (19)
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Tammer El-Sheikh
Adam Gunn at Art Mur
February 14, 2018

The first painting in Adam Gunn's solo exhibition, now on view at Art Mûr, is a riff on Courbet’s Origin of the World. With black and grey vertical brushstrokes bordering a glowing white void, Gunn goes for a deeper, more cosmic “opening” than Courbet’s. Titled Origin of the Universe, the painting sets the stage for a cheeky and philosophically probing show that sends up art-historical conventions at every opportunity. The collected works, all oils on finely sanded oval supports, show tangled, colliding, careening, swirling or falling things. Entangled tubes look like coats of arms for some Martian dynasty, and vaguely biomorphic objects in motion are blasted out of a thousand-year-old still life tradition like meat, stone, and bush salads in a Hadron collider!

Adam Gunn, When the Bad Thing Happens, 2017 (photo: Mike Patten)

The rules of the painting game are bent in Gunn’s work. His shaped supports are wonky tondos. Spaces and volumes are in correct perspective, but the views are properly out of this world. The images are hyper-realistic, but the artist doesn’t work with models. For all the rules he breaks, there are important ones he has set for himself too. First, the works are improvised. Gunn invokes Frank Zappa on this point. Like the musician (whose anarchist mantra was poached for the show’s title), Gunn directs his considerable technical skill at invention rather than imitation. As a second rule, the shaped and sometimes concave supports are safeguards against habits in the history of painting to imagine canvases as windows or screens. The usual terms of figure, ground, and contour are too clunky to describe the sheer activity of Gunn’s views. More nature vivante than nature mort, the works for him evoke an “unmediated visual field” or an experience of wide-open and wonder-struck seeing that lets in too much.

Gunn’s paintings are excessive and entropic. A viewer’s instinct is to classify what comes rushing out of them or to box-in that “too much” and give it a name. Vegetal, mineral, animal, and particulate matter fly across or circle around the centre of unruly compositions. In Far Flung Forces a mess of leaves and stones orbit with comet-tails around a white ball of fur, and In The Deep finds a similar arrangement of tightly clustered things caught in a green-blue undercurrent. Other works like the triptych In The Remote Parts, Kicking Things Up and Sneaky Stuff, and Trickle Down catalogue the lines of force that pervade Gunn’s imagination. Dirt and leaves move back and forth in a blaze or creeping reeds are shown surging up and reaching down from the pictures’ curved edges. More abstract works like The Other Side of the Sky suggest a netherworld from which Gunn’s more legible protagonists are summoned.

Adam Gunn, exhibition opening (photo: Mike Patten)

Gunn leads us occasionally through more recognizable terrain. His landscapes recall the coastal skies of his home province of Nova Scotia or his memories of gathering polished stones on the beaches there. However, the works are not at all sentimental. A bucolic, warmly coloured glade in All, Always, Forever, Never and Only turns apocalyptic as some blocky shrubs are pulled up and right toward a bruised sky. In When the Bad Thing Happens that same sky is split down the middle by a dramatic twister. On one side a severed finger and loosed boards from barns are sucked into the storm and on the other side a couple of keys, a log, and a cinderblock are frozen in flight against a crowded-out clear blue sky.

Gunn tells a story about his earliest feelings for the enchanted world these paintings describe. When he was ten years old he tried an attention management experiment while his mother was scolding him. He focused on her eyes, then her mouth, then her nose, and nodded to feign obedience. Gunn wondered what would happen if he were to study her face like an alien scientist who had never seen a face before. Thrillingly for the physics student and painter to be, things fell apart, as they so often do. The mouth moved into “inconceivably complex shapes.” The eyes communicated independently through brown/green/amber hues. Finally, as Gunn tells it, “there were pores everywhere, and hundreds of thousands of hairs (I estimate but numbers were also giving me trouble).” The exercise lead to a revelation – he could do this kind of “real looking” at will and make anything endlessly fascinating. Gunn began drawing obsessively around the same time and hasn’t slowed down since.

Adam Gunn: Anything, Anytime, Anyplace, For No Reason At All continues until February 24.
Art Mûr:
The gallery is not accessible.

Tammer El-Sheikh is a writer and teacher based in Montreal. His art criticism has appeared in Parachute, Canadian Art, ETC and C Magazine.



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