Mina Totino and Derek Root exhibitions reveal lively abstraction in Vancouver

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      Mina Totino
      At the Charles H. Scott Gallery until September 5

      Derek Root: Where the Day Begins
      At the Monte Clark Gallery until September 18

      Many years ago, at a public forum about his work, photo-artist Jeff Wall observed that, despite all declarations to the contrary, painting wasn’t dead. It was undead, he said, “vampiric”.

      Wall’s funny and now iconic comment reflected on painting’s ability to survive multiple burials and exhumations since it was bludgeoned senseless—although apparently not staked through the heart—by the postmodern theories of the 1960s and ’70s. As a specifically modernist aspect of the medium, abstraction has enjoyed a similar, Dracula-like journey back from the grave. Once condemned for its formalist preoccupations and its inability to engage with social issues, abstract painting is now seen as speaking a universal visual language of form, colour, and gesture.

      As revealed in two concurrent exhibitions, one by Mina Totino at the Charles H. Scott Gallery and the other by Derek Root at the Monte Clark Gallery, abstraction in Vancouver is looking very lively, indeed. That these two shows overlap in time is serendipitous, since both artists were thrown into the public arena at the same moment. In 1985, they were part of the Vancouver Art Gallery’s legendary Young Romantics show of emerging neo-expressionists. Acclaim was immediate. And despite the fact that neo-expressionism was quickly usurped by photo-based art, Root, Totino, and their fellow alumni continued to investigate paint’s many and seductive possibilities.

      Over the years, Root has pursued both representational and non-representational painting, from realist images of people, poodles, and stadium architecture to mosaiclike patterns of dots, circles, and lozenges. For most of the last two decades, his art has been chiefly abstract, although a few years ago, he juxtaposed his abstractions with figurative drawings and paintings, as well as photographs. “I wanted to give the work a broader contextual feel,” he says in a meeting with the Straight at his exhibition. “It was a period of experimentation—conceptual thinking about how I wanted the abstract paintings to be read.”

      His new encaustic paintings resemble—and, in fact, are based on—collages. They appear to be composed of cut and torn pieces of uninflected colour, with simple, semi-geometric forms abutted against or seemingly superimposed over one another. Root likens these works to sculptures, saying, “The method that I use to make them feels more like building something than applying paint.” Employing moulds to contain the flow, he pours the pigment-infused liquid wax directly onto the canvas, where it sets without the intervention of brush or palette knife. His colours, which range from cerulean blue to chalky pink, salmon red, and lime yellow, achieve a subtle depth and translucency.

      These works are also transcendently luminous. Light seems to shine out of them, especially along the seams where one colour meets another. In their forms and juxtapositions, subtle parallels abound, from Suprematism to Milton Avery. As the artist intends, his abstractions also evoke a sense of place or a figure or a state of mind. Like their titles—Village Green, Letter to Theo—they are more than the sum of their elemental parts.

      Totino’s recent gestural abstractions meditate on the qualities inherent in the oil paint medium and the way the movements of her hand and arm leave a kinesthetic record on the surface of the work. Certain marks, such as broad, wobbly horizontal and vertical lines and thin, string-like curves and loops, recur throughout the exhibition. A series of small canvases, each 40 by 40 centimetres, bear the amusing and highly descriptive title, A situation wherein some ideas about painting are furthered by means of a quantity of small squares. Totino is fully invested in painting and its ideas—where it’s been and where it’s going, too.

      In a phone conversation with the Straight, she speaks of the long-standing “argument” between abstraction and representation that has taken place in her art. With her new works, she says, “I’ve just continued the argument further and my interests further. I find that the actual dealing with the paint itself and the qualities that are inherent in paint have quite a bit of interest. And I enjoy the history of it.” During the feminist revolution in art, she danced her medium around notions of gender, mind, and body. Recent preoccupations, seen here, include the way medium and mark speak of the time it takes to make a decision about their deployment.

      With their sense of temporality, their contrasting graceful and awkward brush strokes, and their unexpected colours—baby blue, DayGlo yellow, burnt orange—Totino’s paintings fully engage our minds and our eyes. They also make us smile.