Vincent London at Galerie Youn

It was an unusual week in Montreal. I can’t recall a time when there were so many shows that were devoted to more or less sensual depictions of the human form at once. Artothèque dug through its archives to put together a show of lesser and better known artists that spanned the past century. William Bymner, Ernst Neumann and Tom Hodgson were all there in small works. “Nous somme nus” The show was of the academic study variety. Meanwhile, Joyce Yahouda featured the watercolours of Nadine Faraj about nude feminist activism. And Parisian Laundry featured several large nudes by Elizabeth McIntosh and a nude superimposed with industrial design by Sandra Erbacher in the show “Jupe bleue, un blonde, des calculatrices et un nu couché” that tied together most of the thematics that seem to crop up around the nude body – nostalgia, abstraction, humour. In their work, they take on a distinctly retro flavouring. While Erbacher’s work overtly borrows from old magazines and design, McIntosh’s strangely resembling some of Greg Curnoe’s nudes from the early 60s.

But the really interesting show was at Galerie Youn as part of their fourth anniversary celebration. “Cut Out” is the work of Montreal painter Vincent London. It features nearly a dozen oils that straddle the figurative and abstract, flirting with imagery and colour choices that suggest photo spreads in French “Lui” magazines from the 70s and 80s. With the exception of one, rather out of place work, the paintings are all from 2016. The majority of them involve women in bikinis being soaked, swimming with astronauts, jumping up and down, or being filmed with VHS equipment. While almost all of the paintings in the show are fairly small, they do not possess any significant intimacy. Instead, they feel more photographic, both in dimensions and in the sense with which they seem to trail after some past or future moment. This provides them with the air of the slightly sentimental. While his work more than superficially shares in its thematic considerations of the artists above, there is a squalid and satirical quality to them that distances his work from the classy hospital art aesthetics of the others.

Purple and orange dominate the palette. Even the orange underpainting often shows through, giving the works a vague and slightly sickly glow, like spray tan. Within this patina, he balances several other elements: the figurative, the ground and, for lack of a better term, the abstracting. The ground tends to fall into two different modes. The more ‘natural’ aspects, such as distant mountain ranges, have the effect of being engraved or laser etched into the murkiness that he establishes. The latter is a coagulation of different densities of oil paint accumulated and scraped away to create a ragged surface that shows off its sculptural creation. This grounding is blurry, a sort of indistinct swamp of encrusted colours. And this contrasts rather starkly with the way that he models his figures, both in face and body. For the latter, he provides each figure with a unique and unlocatable light source that delineates their bodies. Spotlit for optimal exposure, they are closer to the porn aesthetic than the striptease. The only stripping that comes through is in how he scrapes down his paint.

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Most of the faces of his figures have a skeletal quality to them, often smeared with caked-on whore’s makeup. The gelatinous quality that the faces sometimes possess plays against the sharper lines of the various objects that the figures grind against. Though the lines that fashion most of these objects are distinct, they are never hardedged, there is a thinness and fragility to them that errs against the geometric abstraction they flirt with yet provides them with only tenuous stability. The figures themselves tend to be lodged amid these shapes culled from the pseudo-abstractions of modernist design. Bodies are given fragile lines comparable to that of the objects and their contours are sketched in with the orange and lighter shades shining through. Combined with their curves, this provides them with a balloon texture. Appropriately, the image of a sex doll and skeleton coincide. He even seems to mockingly comment on such a combination. In J’aime me Trampoline II, he places a bikini clad model, her ass to the viewer, trampolining with a skeleton, that old figure of the memento mori. Finally, these qualities – the gelatinous, the mask-like, the fragile lines – find themselves recapitulated in the way he deals with water. To one side is the rendered of sharp, little lines in an array rainbow colours for the streams of water lurching toward bodies. To the other is a thick surface: the pool water that resembles blow-ups of germ plasm or viruses within which the blow-up doll bodies of the women float.

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London’s imagery was created by first making collages of material from disparate sources and then painting it. This is a common enough technique and it usually looks like what it is. With him, that’s not quite the case. In fact, its roots in other material seems to be largely extraneous for the finished product. Less a representation of the cut and paste aesthetic, more a filtering and remixing of an image that distorts it into something more alien. His paintings over the past few years have also tended to operate from found images and art history gags, but the final products now seem more refined and less illustrative. It doesn’t always work. Sometimes the image becomes too mottled or too opposed. For instance, TV Game Show plays up the variance between the human figure and geometric figure too broadly. His affection for references can also become a distraction from what he’s managed to create, placing the work closer to jokes than the more complicated space of absurdity he can pull off.

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