Beautiful Ballads: Jeanie Riddle creates fertile tensions on canvas

Jeanie Riddle: Empire, from the series “A Song About” (2007): All works oil on canvas, 72 x 72 inches. All photos: Guy L’Heureux. Images courtesy the artist.Jeanie Riddle: Empire, from the series “A Song About” (2007): All works oil on canvas, 72 x 72 inches. All photos: Guy L’Heureux. Images courtesy the artist.

By James D. Campbell

The palette and form/mass situations of Montreal-based Jeanie Riddle’s paintings possess what I call an iconic ‘deep sound’. Her work reminds one of sax master John Coltrane’s signature thick-textured long notes in the middle register with their alluring minimal vibrato.

Riddle’s shapes, while reduced, are wonderfully expressive. They tremble, vibrate, magnify and fluctuate with pulsations of suggestive intensity in emotional registers that exert an earthy magic. Like Coltrane on sax or African singing, this plangent aspect – husky moan, butterfly vibrato – together with their simplicity of form, reminds us of the murmuring of a human heart.

Jeanie Riddle: A House in the Sun: From the series “To This Place” (2011).Jeanie Riddle: A House in the Sun: From the series “To This Place” (2011)That said, Riddle is more a builder of surfaces than a maven of images, more a spinner of home-worlds than a siren of stasis. Her paintings depict simple, specific forms, and the calibre of her chromatic invention in building a given surface is high and enjoys a clarity and declarative intensity characteristic of everything she does. (She is also an accomplished installation artist.) The reductive impulse and the domestic mien of her paintings squarely dovetail with her emphasis on domestic artefact rather than Modernist icon.

Her work seems to grow organically out of everyday life. But, the paintings themselves are far from quotidian or cornpone in their demeanour. In fact, they possess unusual vivacity and stake a powerful claim, both optically and somatically. Instead of betraying a fealty to outmoded and possibly archaic Modernist ideals, Riddle paints out of the heart of her own autobiographical consciousness and that of a shared life-world – and it shows. In no way dated, her work speaks eloquently to body and mind.

Perhaps this is because her handling of surface texture is so materially based, sensuous and unswerving. She embraces drips and blobs and drips that other painters might discard – those that seem a necessary evil when you're painting, no matter what your expertise – whether you are painting a canvas or a house. Riddle invokes the hardened, dried blobs on commodes and carpets and drips on walls, and specifies their beauty as worthy and inescapable. Rather than ‘fix’ them, she preserves them in her work as a way of keeping her painting grounded and immediate in terms of how we live now. Her paintings remind us of aniline dye on naugahide surfaces at home, although her iconography effortlessly transcends that reading in its Zen-like resonance and improvisational vibrato.

Her abstraction seems more organic than inorganic, and the fertile tension between organic abstraction and emotionally charged organism is resolved nowhere else than within the viewer’s own head and heart. Still, it lends these works a particular resonance – feisty, earthy, in-your-face and impossible to skirt or dismiss – that is, well,  inordinately invigorating. Riddle’s paintings are close to home, and all the more unusual and pressing for being such. She eschews geometric rigour – the hoary ideal of so many latter-day abstractionists, even now – in favor of something much more interesting, elastic and vital that always keeps us on our toes.

Jeanie Riddle: Nature: From the series “To This Place” (2011)Jeanie Riddle: Nature: From the series “To This Place” (2011)In her most recent work, the blobs have migrated amoeba-like over the framing edge. They have become more ambulatory even than the beaten drums they were before. The blobs have pooled and flexed, making the visceral claim the paintings stake on the libido of the viewer all the more intense. The form has become an architectonic device, yet at the same time anatomical. Muscular and supple, her shapes read as integument stretched out like tautened muscle tissue over the surface of the canvas as though it was human bone, part of a greater body we are not given, but which is gravid with suggestiveness.

If nature, culture and domesticity have served as a clearing-house for her organic abstract vocabulary so much the better. Her paintings often seem kindred to the abstract blobs of Myron Stout but impossibly magnified. Think of Stout not as antecedent but as a fellow traveler – both painters are and were notoriously bloody-minded individualists. (More about this unlikely affinity later.)

“I work with ideas from the everyday in a dramatic and bold way,” says Riddle. “I think about poetry and my daughter and God. About having creative energies and moments of exalted sensation. I have a fixation about economy and exhausting potential in simple forms. This is the exercise.”

Importing “ideas” from ordinary life means grounding abstraction in the full spectrum of a life lived. I believe that her painterly domesticity is subversive in the canon of abstract painting.

Evoking home

Jeanie Riddle: Minutes: From the series “A Song About” (2008)Jeanie Riddle: Minutes: From the series “A Song About” (2008)I have written elsewhere about the distinction between what painter Riddle wants and what Ad Reinhardt wanted for painting. For Reinhardt, it was important that his work did not reflect or inflect their surroundings. Riddle avowedly wants the opposite. She understands the need for a certain impurity – and a necessary adherence to new ideals rather than old models and old ways of thinking. Reinhardt often spoke of seeking out "a pure abstract, non-objective, timeless, spaceless, changeless, relationless, disinterested painting – an object that is self-conscious (no unconsciousness) ideal, transcendent, aware of nothing but art." Whether or not he achieved that goal for himself in his work is not relevant here. His utopian thinking – and the utopian signifiers that populate his work – is not on the same wavelength as Riddle’s own more modest, but no less important, intentions and goals.

After – or before – geometry and the voluptuous stuff of her paint, Jeanie Riddle touches on domestic realities and the condition of her being here; being, that is, in a world, a woman in the world and of the world, and a mother who paints, painting. She would never espouse the separation of self and other, or segregating painting and world. She wants to close the breach between thing and world, push button order and the human act. She values porosity and open communication above all.

It is clear that Riddle is less influenced in this work by Modernist stalwarts like Ad Reinhardt or Barnett Newman than by her own deeply-felt need to reinvent abstraction on her own terms, no-holds-barred and no disclaimers proclaimed a gauche, a droit.

Riddle’s work mirrors in pirouette-like (inverse) fashion Stout’s repudiation of the Abstract Expressionists in their magnification of scale for maximum brouhaha by moving himself toward small, highly concentrated black-and-white abstractions in which all signs of spontaneity seemed to have been quelled or  evacuated. She does the reverse but with a similar rejection of heroic and overarching ambitions. Riddle, like Stout, is painting both within the current and against the mainstream. Her source material, her inspiration, is subversive because it has a decidedly feminist and domestic cast. My domestic life, Riddle seems to say, segues with my paintings in the first person and the present tense. It empowers and is irremediably wed to these paintings. In this respect, she has voided her abstracts of the clamorous echoes of yesteryear and invested them with something brave, new and strange.

In experiencing Riddle’s paintings, I am also reminded of Stout’s work in that she is not imposing her paintings on the viewer – no bludgeoning with a blunt instrument here. Her forms are as self-sufficient and have the same autonomy as his do. Riddle makes paintings that occupy space in the way that objects do, without becoming demonstrably sculptural. If they can be interpreted as symbols, it is because they refuse fixity and taxonomy. Think of shape here not as delineated contour but as constructed exaltation, epiphany, continuing tension. Think of it as an evocation of home.

Domestic artefacts

Jeanie Riddle: Because I Have Answers: From the series “To This Place (2011).Jeanie Riddle: Because I Have Answers: From the series “To This Place (2011)Riddle said of her Black Paintings (and this is still true): “They speak to the everyday visual information surrounding us like graffiti and advertisements as well as pollution, branded products, concrete or the black of a fast car. They are a response to these observations and are translated through minimal static gestures on the last painted layer and the potential meanings between painted thickness. Using reduction as my process, I develop a relationship with these physical maps, and the paintings at their very best become territories of the subconscious and surface areas where one can delve.”

I would argue that all her paintings are consummately domestic artefacts. Not for Riddle those Modernist barricades the blueprints of that are delivered Caesarean-like on the bed of theory. She remains firmly on the earth and of the earth. What looks at first glance like a bold blob or elongated tendon suddenly reveals itself as an untidy plenum of meanings, and a vibrant cartography of domestic life and all that that entails.

Riddle’s paintings are resolute objects: they have a resounding street vibe, but they also embody big, beautiful ballads. Consider Coltrane’s soulful work on the Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer song “I’m Old Fashioned”. Riddle’s forms will take you there, even if she is anything but old-fashioned in her thinking or her painting.

Since she started out as an artist early this decade, Riddle, who is also the director of the Montreal gallery Parisian Laundry, has been methodically developing a radical and empirical sculptural/installation practice rooted in the techniques and ideals of modernist painting. In no way, however, is she subservient to them. Her specific preoccupation has been with extending the term limits of the experience of painting beyond the ends of critical late Modernism. Her use of unorthodox materials and terminologies to provide new subject matter frees painting into a wholly open future. The forms in her paintings, like the sempiternal glance of angels*, offer us an asemiotic and pristine moment of communication. If we choose to partake, they connect us with immediacy to the powerfully instinctual comforts and rituals of domesticity while retaining a sense of maximum risk. Riddle’s paintings are generous in resonance even at their most mournful; they build a new home for art at the heart of the Real.

 *Gary Genosko: Lecture Two: "The End of the Book and the Beginning of Television" in McLuhan, Baudrillard and Cultural Theory (1998) at
Riddle’s paintings and sculpture were recently on view in the solo exhibition 1 Restoration at Concordia  University’s FoFA Gallery in Montreal. A second solo exhibition, Several Infinities, opens later in February at the Maison de La Culture Nôtre Dame de Grace, Montreal.

James D. CampbellJames D. Campbell is a writer on art and a curator based in Montreal. He is the author of well over 100 catalogues and books on art and artists. Recent and upcoming publications include monographs on painters Paul Bureau, Michel Daigneault and Mirana Zuger. Campbell also contributes frequently to many art magazines, including Frieze, Border Crossings, Canadian Art and others.