Table of Contents
Introduction by Mona Filip
Last Things: Howard Podeswa by John Bentley Mays
In conversation over time: Stephen Andrews and Howard Podeswa
by Mona Filip
Shard by shard we are released from the tyranny of so-called time – Patti Smith1
Painting takes time – the time it takes to come into being and, later, the time it requires to be seen.
As one of the oldest forms of artistic expression, painting originated from a human desire to capture the experience and dimensionality of the physical realm in an attempt to organize reality and make sense of the world. However, painting is also a record of time, not only insofar as narrative content – as document of a historical moment or biographical insight – but also as visual evidence of its making. Once completed, the image can be arguably considered immovable and timeless. Yet the viewer’s eye will move across a finished work just as the painter’s has before. Traces of the artist’s process remain evident and compositional decisions release the pictorial space unevenly, offering a journey for the gaze to unfold. The immediacy of past gestures invites a present, durational experience. Time travel happens, as past and present overlap within the seemingly static instance of the painting.
For the past two years, time has been on Howard Podeswa’s mind more than ever. Reflecting on the current state of the world as well as personal trials, he has created a monumental body of work articulating an end-of-times cosmology inspired by artistic and scientific visions. Derived primarily from Dante’s allegories of the afterlife in the Divine Comedy and Stephen Hawking’s quantum theories, the exhibition A Brief History tackles innate existential anxieties, engaging in philosophical speculations about the very notion of time. Signaling a collapse of old global orders, Podeswa’s series moves from a feeling of sorrow and disquiet to one of hope, turning to concepts of astrophysics to explore what may lie beyond our known universe.
Before entering the gallery proper, one encounters an older painting of Podeswa’s, Watching Goya’s Colossus in my Sorels (2009), hanging beside the introductory text panel. Part of his From the Plains of San Isidro series, it depicts a self-portrait of the artist contemplating the somber fields of Francisco Goya’s famous painting. The looming colossus is absent in Podeswa’s version, but shows the crowds fleeing a black chasm that threatens to consume everything – an ominous reminder of dark histories and prophesies of doom, to which the painter bears witness.
A few years later, Podeswa stares into the abyss and summons us to face it with him.
Seamlessly shifting between realism and abstraction within vast canvases, the paintings in A Brief History take time to fully reveal themselves. Their complex and lush surfaces compel the gaze to alternately linger and wander. From darkest depths, their imagery reaches our eye at varying speeds, oscillating between a slow delivery and a sudden hurl forward. Figures and objects hover on the verge of emergence or disappearance. The material sensuality of Podeswa’s brushwork guides the eye across seductive fluctuations in the paint’s texture and thickness over large stretches of subtly modulated colours, drawing us in and demanding our time.
Matter is where the exhibition begins.
The gallery has been transformed: a black cube occupies most of its centre, separating the architecture into an inner sanctum and a surrounding portico. Two small paintings frame the elongated pronaos. To the left, a little wooden panel, Untitled 2014, offers the image of a crumpled black rag on a creamy white background. To the right, another identically-sized panel, Untitled 2015, opens the perspective from a dark passageway into a luminous opening – a deceptively prosaic beach landscape seen through the rectangular aperture of a culvert.
In the context of a series exploring ideas of hell and heaven, these modest works take on profound significance. The ordinary black cloth reads as a mourning shroud, a veil to be lifted and expose the human condition in its darkest hour. It becomes a monument to lost things, lamenting the loss of the tangible world. The culvert serves as insubstantial counterpart: the path of transcendence from embodied objecthood into limitless and atemporal space.
Between these two small paintings, an open doorway faces the viewer, offering access into the black room. The content of this virtual sanctuary remains hidden from view until the threshold is approached. Three choices lie ahead: follow one of the outer corridors to the left or right, or proceed straight ahead toward the open doorway. The visitor has to decide.
Turning left or right and following the peripheral walkways, a suite of large paintings greets the viewer with a cast of macabre characters and terrifying scenes – as much the direct decedents of Pieter Breugel’s and Francisco Goya’s arsenals of nightmarish ghouls as the horrific stuff of today’s global news. A sinister master of ceremonies wearing a red coat and holding a baton asserts himself as a gatekeeper of hell. He is gone in the next tableau, leaving open the way into a gaping dark pit that swallows the last glimmers of light. Around the corner, another monster with a spider-shaped body floats in a mass of viscous black and ghost-like figures. Further on, a spiral of wretched beings is suspended in free fall and, finally, a skeletal watchdog guards a menacing torture wheel strung up with bodies.
Reminiscent of Dante’s journey through the circles of Inferno, these scenes lead a vertiginous descent into the terrifying bowels of hell, while forming a transitory space toward the innermost chamber and the centrepiece concealed within. Upon entering, one is immediately positioned between two massive paintings and swiftly engulfed in an astonishing force field.
To one side is Hell, to the other, Heaven. The poignant, immersive compositions enfold the viewer in an endless universe.
Hell is a black hole. Seemingly all matter, the entire physical world, has been absorbed within its circular confines. Space is contracting, reaching maximum density. Time ends here, with neither sequence of action, nor horizon to provide reference: historical and contemporary events are tossed together in an uninterrupted, perpetual spiral of horrors. There is no escape, as the vicious circle appears to close in.
Then space expands again, slowly panning out into the painting opposite: Heaven. The white expanse surrounding the black ring of hell stretches out, gradually revealing that this is not all there is. A multitude of circles pierce the luminous field, each disclosing glimpses of other visions – fragments of a life encapsulated in memories, perceptual shreds just on the edge of recognition. The limitations and linearity of time and space recede, revealing an essential simultaneity of past, present and future as well as possible parallel worlds that co-exist tantalizingly outside the scope of our awareness.
The mythical ideas of heaven and hell provide Podeswa with an effective artistic stratagem, allowing him to examine humanity’s endeavour to fathom its transient existence while he presents sobering commentary on current global circumstances. His representations combine historical allusions with personal memories, recent natural disasters with social upheavals, in a sweeping view reminding us that painting is an instrument of knowledge, a tool for understanding the world and contemplating the unknown.
Still, A Brief History is also a deeply personal work, stemming from grief and burrowing to the essence of being as the fundamental question we struggle to decipher. “Life is measured by time but not wholly knowable through it.”2 Podeswa ultimately imagines us shedding time’s illusory grip, furtively eluding it to grasp the broader view. But an all-encompassing vision is not yet within our reach, as we remain subject to perspective and grounded in our fleeting moment.
We seek to stay present, even as the ghosts attempt to draw us away.3
by John Bentley Mays
Like masterpieces, as that word was understood in the art academies of old, Howard Podeswa’s Heaven and Hell are public proofs that the artist has successfully completed a certain regime of study, attaining a degree of mastery in the process.
But if Heaven and Hell conclude a particular training, it was not the sort usually parcelled out by the art world’s institutions. Rather, Podeswa’s recent education has been an arduous and exacting course in mortality, prompted by the last, difficult illness and death of his father and, around the same time, by his mother’s long hospitalization due to a mysterious disorder. These and other grave events in the artist’s life – all happening within the same short time span – occasioned anxious meditation on his own end, and, concurrently, on the distress and moral devastation that appear ever-present on the historical horizon of our era.
The thought of imminent death, of course, can incline a person to melancholy and mental scatter. But, as the eighteenth-century British writer Samuel Johnson remarked apropos of hanging, it also “concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Heaven and Hell are large, imposing results of such concentrated attention, and summations of what Podeswa learned about the last things faced by everyone. Their display at the Koffler Gallery in Podeswa’s solo exhibition, A Brief History, marks the ending of a critical passage in the painter’s career, and the start of the rest of it.
It is possible, I suppose, to regard these two paintings merely as formal ventures, and to judge them accordingly. From this perspective, the observer would probably admire the artist’s expressive, loosely gathered brushwork in Hell; his acutely imagined renderings of streets, landscapes and other sights in Heaven; and the seasoned handling of the craft and business of post-realist depiction in both works.
But unlike that of many other modern representational pictures, the composition of each canvas is decentred, gravity-free, centrifugal. The viewer’s eye is encouraged to roam, unresting, over the surfaces of Heaven and Hell, to pause only briefly to consider a glimpse of urban or rural landscape, buildings, faces, small vignettes of action. (Podeswa acknowledges a debt to Abstract Expressionism for its elimination of recessional perspective, its democratic distribution of attention-getting incident at any place within the painting’s field.)
The idea of composing in a circle, the artist says, came from the small, circular paintings of war executed by his father after liberation from a Nazi concentration camp at the end of the Second World War. A more public source, he notes, has been Goya’s wonderfully animated 1798 fresco, in the round main cupola of Madrid’s chapel of San Antonio de la Florida. It portrays Saint Anthony raising a man from the dead, to the mixed consternation, amusement and indifference of a large crowd. (Goya, whose art is never far from Podeswa’s mind, is buried in this small neoclassical church.)
In addition to being circular, Podeswa’s Hell is also turbid, and spangled with dramatic episodes and figures – and so is Dante’s high-medieval Inferno. Podeswa is not the first visual artist to be moved by Dante’s Divine Comedy and the drastic, apocalyptic visions summoned up in the poem. He joins a queue of interesting predecessors and colleagues that includes William Blake, Gustave Doré, Salvador Dali, and, at the turn of the present century, Jake and Dinos Chapman.
Viewers who remember the Dante-inspired drawings, canvases and sculptures of these and other artists will find in the Canadian’s painting of Hell something of the muscular rhythm embodied in Blake’s watercolours, for instance, though Podeswa’s work is altogether darker and more ominous, more stolid, and as deeply frozen as the bottom of the Inferno’s lowest circle. They will see here none of Dali’s piquant, over-intellectualized prettiness, but much of Doré’s romantic turmoil, gloom and drama.
If kinship of sensibility between Podeswa and his contemporaries is sought, then a cousin of Hell might be the phantasmagorical diorama of the same name by the Chapman brothers. Like Podeswa’s Hell, theirs is about the violent world of the last hundred years, not (at least not wholly) about some supernatural or post-mortem unpleasantness. The Chapmans’ assemblage of some 60,000 toy soldiers, first presented in 2000, features scene after scene of the morbidly fanatical, desolating reality that modern warfare has become. For both horrific pictorial detail and oppressive atmosphere, the British artists have mined the etchings by Goya now known as The Disasters of War (1810–1820), as well as more recent photographic evidence of atrocities and cruelties in modern war and genocide. The same prints by Goya, and the same modern iconography, have informed Podeswa’s imagination as he painted his Hell.
Beyond common sources, however, the resemblance between the two Hells ends. The Chapmans’ is sensational, newsy, even hysterical, swerving uncomfortably close to tabloid kitsch. Podeswa’s, on the other hand, is subtle, involving. Instead of appalling the viewer with over-the-top theatricality, it invites us to consider the complex hells in which modern people (even in those temperate zones of the West where peace and public order prevail) find themselves imprisoned.
In a vignette near the centre of Podeswa’s Hell, for example, police cruisers are stalled in dark, flooded streets. Night crowds in upon the cars, transfiguring the ordinary cityscape into a churn of shadows, vague forms that could be the ghosts of buildings. An enormous head, its ears pointed like those of fiends in medieval art, its eyes shut, rises above a parapet not far from the cruisers. The demon appears to be sleeping, perhaps dreaming of the paralysis that has overtaken the street below. In fact, the tableau with the police cars could be the demon’s dream, and is surely a potent symbol of the spiritual immobility – the stale boredom, dead-endedness, and absence of personal progress – that is many a contemporary person’s idea of hell.
But what is the force that condemns one to this paralyzed state? A clue to answering this question resides in another passage of Podeswa’s Hell. There, the artist quotes part of Goya’s urgent, moving Procession of Flagellants (1812–1814), now in Madrid’s Museo de la Real Academia de San Fernando. Podeswa’s citation shows the penitents (as Goya did) in a religious parade, their naked backs bloody from scourging themselves and being whipped by their companions, their heads crowned by tall, humiliating dunce caps. In his 2003 biography of Goya, critic Robert Hughes writes that the original conveys the contempt of enlightened opinion for “this sadomasochistic piety,” and, by extension, for the “violent and superstitious culture” of Spanish Catholicism.4
Actually, as Hughes points out, the practice of public devotional flogging had been outlawed in Spain a generation before Goya painted his Procession. The work, then, was likely intended as less a commentary on the present than a reminder to fellow-liberals of bad old days that must never be allowed to return. Podeswa’s appropriation of this striking imagery in our time, the time of his Hell, brings its anti-masochistic message into the present, and proposes to inoculate viewers today against psychological and religious extremism.
It might be argued – though one would have to be pretty naïve to do so – that open shows of self-destructive contrition are so repulsive that their recrudescence in our age is unthinkable. But this underestimates the power of the guilt that once drove Catholic flagellants to make spectacles of themselves, and now drives the self-lacerating neuroses afflicting the modern multitudes. Podeswa has described his Hell as a picture of “the end of days,” the violent, vexed end of history predicted by the prophets of Israel. It is a time, or some version of it, that Podeswa and many of his contemporaries think we live in now. His Hell is perhaps best read as a tentative portrait of human being, and the moral self, at the end-time: transfixed and self-destructive, trapped in turgid darkness haunted by fears, and rendered impotent by pervasive, unexpiated guilt.
But if Podeswa’s Hell is the worst situation we can imagine, then his Heaven is the best he believes we can hope for in this world: a polycentric awareness and embrace of the multiple dimensions of reality. The rectangular frame of Heaven encloses space in which many rings or discs drift freely, their circular forms emerging from or sinking into the flat, white field. Some of these shapes are empty, blank, merely geometrical. Some resemble suns or green, blue and multi-hued planets that have just condensed, a second after the Big Bang, from cosmic dust and fire. Other circles contain brisk, brushy swatches of abstract paintwork, while still others open like round windows on outdoor scenes.
The scenes, Podeswa told me, are places that have stamped themselves indelibly on the artist’s visual memory. He sharply remembers, for example, the entrance of the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw, for reasons his father’s life and suffering in Poland make easy to understand.
The significance to Podeswa of other images, however, is less immediately specific and obvious. In one of Heaven’s memorable circles, the artist recalls the rooftops of the low, plain shops and warehouses that crowd the margins of the commuter railway west of Toronto. Every day, thousands of people see those roofs out of train windows, and very few travellers, I suspect, take any interest in them.
Podeswa was one who did so. Working in an important modern tradition rooted in French Impressionism, he has identified an ordinary spot within the suburban industrial sprawl as a site of epiphany – a making-visible in architecture of the densely woven fabric of human initiatives, histories, activities and desires typical of every place in which value is produced – and commemorated it in art.
This, then, is Heaven: not an otherworldly destination of the pious and righteous, but a state of grace and openness that enables one to see everything experienced in life, from stars to the most commonplace fixtures and furnishings of everyday life, as extraordinary. It is consciousness that cannot be attained wholly through schooling or reading. We learn it, if we learn it at all, in harsh confrontations with the limits of the real, such as the loss or threatened loss of loved ones, and the facing of our own death. Extremity of this sort offers us the alternatives eloquently laid out in Podeswa’s Hell and Heaven: to succumb to bitterness, dread and guilt; or to accept release from the vanity of thinking one can live forever, and open the mind and heart to the beauties that can well up, at every moment of awareness, in even the least things of the natural and human orders.
Stephen Andrews visited Howard Podeswa several times over the past two years in his studio, observing and discussing the process and development of the painting series that eventually became the exhibition A Brief History. These are edited transcripts of several recorded conversations.
SA: Let’s start with the title of your exhibition: A Brief History. Do you want to tell me what it means to you?
HP: The title was inspired by Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. I’ve always loved that title because it opens up so many questions. First of all, the book is a history of time. History is about the movement of time, so to examine the history of the thing that’s the structure behind it is really compelling. Then there’s the fact that it’s brief despite being a history of the universe, but of course any history has to be brief…
I recently saw the Hawking movie, The Theory of Everything. That made me want to read the book, because this man with an amazing mind has offered his knowledge, written in a way he thinks we can understand, so how can you not read this thing? And you know about the difficulty, the physical difficulty he went through to get it out there. So I read it and I was just bowled over. The ideas behind his thoughts and studies have all been interests of mine for a long time, and they underlie this body of work. That’s the beginning of it, but it sets off many other avenues for me.
SA: I love the contradiction in the title itself. We obviously think of a life as something that’s long and very storied, not something brief. That contradiction excites me because there’s something in your work about a life lived, about the small narratives that make up that life and trying to find something philosophical and grander about that subjectivity; how it fits into a larger understanding of one’s place in the universe.
What I find strange is that figuration and abstraction happen simultaneously in these works. We can kind of recognize those little circular moments – some are memories of things that happened to you, right? Some images are taken from newspapers, but others are actual stories from your life.
HP: Yes, some might be memories, like a hike in the country during a visit to see my brother – that specific landscape will be in here. Or a view out the window of a train on the way to Toronto.
SA: But my initial impression when I see them is that they are these very abstracted, almost molecular fragments.
HP: That’s the way in which these works bridge my interest in a gazillion things. It sounds a bit much, but all these ideas are currents that run through it. On this one level that you’re talking about, of how the paintings morph real things into abstract moments – these little circles or mini worlds – this transformation has to do with how I see perception. When we perceive things, everything is stored away as little bytes of knowledge. That includes the image of the thing, associations we have with it and so on. They’re all just tiny aspects of the thing and it’s how they resolve together in the mind that gives us the whole. The mind reconstructs this thing every time it has to think about or imagine it, even when you’re actually seeing it, because what you see is only an internally constructed image.
I see the mind as having these thoughts that are tied together – that’s one level.
SA: So it’s almost as if memory has been atomized and we’re looking inside the synaptic material of the mind.
HP: We are walking around inside the mind – that’s exactly it.
SA: So this is really a case of looking into Howard’s brain?
HP: Yes, but I believe that it’s anybody’s brain. I’ve been reading a book by Ray Kurzweil called How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed. He’s an artificial intelligence theorist who worked on practical things like voice recognition. He describes the mind as connected units, based on his background in software engineering. Then he makes links to biology, where they’ve found units of thought that really do operate this way, exactly as he’s describing them. It’s a really simple mechanism of units, like the ones I’ve described in these paintings, that recognizes little bits of things that are then combined, in real time, into coherent images.
I feel that when I perceive things I don’t perceive the whole, I’m not very good at that. I land on all these tiny little details and I’m quite aware that instead of this being a background process for me it’s really in the foreground; I’m very conscious of it. I’ve always been interested in showing that somehow in painting. But, as I said, that is one side and then physics and Hawking is another side.
SA: Your paintings have an interesting engagement with the way people read visual images. Generally speaking, a type of scanning goes on when one looks at paintings, and you’re playing with that.
HP: When I see you come in from the background and I recognize you, how does that happen? Is it because of an overall perception? Or do I land on some peculiarities of your profile, of your face, that make you particularly YOU to me? It’s those particulars that we see primarily. The whole is something we have to reconstruct as a second step.
Then, in terms of the fact that we have a brief history on the planet – I feel as if at the time of death, or as we reach that end and the mind is turning off and all its filters come down, we start seeing things the way they really are. All the effort put into assembling a coherent picture dissolves and this is what we see.
SA: We’ve talked before about space and time, and the Big Bang and the Big Crunch, those two concepts about the beginning and end of time. When you talk about these moments of unraveling, they could happen at any point in those theoretical suppositions. This could be the universe expanding, or your mind expanding, or you contracting and diminishing and moving toward the event horizon of your own existence.
In these particular works, I read quite clearly the relationship between the self and the stream of time. Talking about a life lived, you began this series of hell paintings at the time of your father’s death. That singular moment in your experience changed everything. I see the death of your father as crucial in the development of this set of works culminating with Heaven and Hell.
HP: Yes, in many, many forms… First of all, to give you some background, my dad was a painter, his father was a painter, my father’s brother was a painter. This was how they made their living in Lodz, Poland. I am thoroughly aware of the weight of legacy, though there’s also something great about having this heritage. My dad died not long after we had a show together. I found it very hard to continue the work I was doing in the studio; it was so far removed from what I was dealing with. I think events like that, if they are an opportunity for anything, it’s to see the veneer over real facts disappear and reveal the truth, that we are a brief history and then… the end. It can be very frightening to confront that fact. So I tossed away everything I was doing and started to work on a painting that was entirely for myself and that I didn’t think anyone would ever want to see.
SA: You said your dad would have liked certain aspects of these paintings, the parts, not the whole?
HP: That’s very true. I started to make this work with him in mind, almost as a memorial to him, or a way of dealing with his death. In our last show together, one of his pieces was a painting of a small black circle within which all these horrors are happening. He painted another piece with a group of three similarly horror-filled circles. I asked him how he created them and he said he had been assembling things that he remembered, that had happened, with newspaper articles and magazine photos. He put them together in his paintings to reconstruct this world and it struck me because, without realizing, I was doing exactly the same thing. Every day, on my way to the studio, I was picking up something in the paper that struck me – the flood in New York happened while I was doing these paintings, for instance… All the implications I was seeing on a personal level, I was also seeing them on a societal level that year. Society was erupting, the changeover of regimes in the Middle East was happening. It just kept coming and coming, and I was engaged in the same process as my father, working out the same thing within the circle. I think he would get a kick out of that to some degree but, somehow, turning it into a huge abstraction of an enormous circle on the wall would be too oddball for him.
SA: But he must have understood abstraction, having gone through the war, the concentration camps… Sometimes the events literally don’t make any sense, so you have to think in abstract terms to really describe them…
HP: Well, there’s a painting that he made in the camps and that survived with him – a portrait of the guy standing beside him in the camp, who was also painting. But it’s no abstraction. In fact, it’s such a great, lively likeness of this guy that it could have been painted under totally different circumstances; you have no idea that this was painted where it was [Kaufering Concentration Camp]. So his response wasn’t abstraction, it was to be more realistic.
Let me take this one point further. The very last painting he did is of a couple of apples, which was a subject he pursued his whole life, very much like a conceptual artist, trying to achieve a particular quality. He achieved it in this painting. This painting is the most hyper real in one sense, because it’s an apple that you want to grab and eat, and at the same time it’s totally abstract, just these bits of paint. So I think he actually did reach this quality – a kind of abstract, almost holy quality of “object-ness” – and he perhaps finally grasped the ungraspable in this painting.
SA: It’s intriguing that his painting is of an apple; if you think of biblical narratives – knowledge is there. The last painting before he dies – when I believe you know everything – is that of an apple! I’m also thinking of Alan Turing, the computer scientist. There are a couple of different stories about him being poisoned with cyanide, but apparently the myth is that there was an apple beside his bed, with a bite out of it.
Speaking of apples, it seems the fruit really doesn’t fall that far from the tree, because we were looking at your dad’s palette and the way he organized colours on it was similar to the way you organized the colours on your large canvas, Heaven.
HP: Yes, it is striking that the whole progression of colours here is exactly the arrangement you can see on my father’s palette. Dried up blobs of paint go from these cool, greyish blues on the lower left hand side – exactly as in my painting – then things start to warm up to alizarin crimson, which is sort of purple, then more hot, cadmium red, then they swoop down toward greens. It’s exactly the same order!
SA: Why did he organize his palette that way?
HP: Because there’s a natural progression from cools to warms. As a painter, you’re always thinking cool versus warm and you often don’t want to mix the two too much. Or when you do, it’s a very important issue. If the blues touch a yellow they totally obliterate it. All you get is green; the yellow doesn’t stand a chance. You’ve got to keep the blue tucked away, it’s too powerful! You keep the warms together because they can live with each other; they’re part of the same region of the spectrum.
SA: So he must have taught you that.
HP: He did. I remember him – one of the first times I was in the studio when I was quite young – telling me about the difference between a cool red and a warm red. And I was thinking: what the hell is he talking about? A cool red? What’s cool about it? Red is hot isn’t it? How can red be cool and hot? Then, he showed me what he called cadmium red light, which is a colour that oil painters love, and I looked at it and said “it’s orange!” And he said, “it’s not, it says red!” And I told him, “dad you’re calling it red because it says that on the tube but to any person looking at it, it’s orange!” These were my introductions to the colours…
In fact, I was really impressed that my dad knew the difference between this blue and that blue. He explained to me that a particular blue would be good for making greens but not purples, and that’s why you need the cooler blue. I was just amazed – what guy’s father knew that kind of thing?
SA: Well, when you’re that age, your parents don’t know anything, do they?
HP: But he had this down, you know?
SA: Didn’t he also say that there was a way of finding colours without looking for them?
HP: Yes, he impressed upon me that once you have your palette system you shouldn’t change it, because you want the hand to automatically know where to go for a colour while you’re painting, so as not to break this rhythm in your brain. That hand-to-brain seamless communication, I know it now to be the hallmark of being in a good painting zone. He really got that it shouldn’t be broken. I still follow that advice.
What I don’t follow is that I’m very wasteful, which would make him very angry with me and he wouldn’t let me touch his palette. I put out blobs of paint – he was just horrified. Look at the waste I’ve collected over the years.
SA: Well, it’s a sculpture of sorts…
HP: He’d absolutely lose respect – this American wastefulness…
SA: Have you ever thought of that as a painting?
HP: I am actually, half-jokingly, thinking about it. Whereas before it was totally random, now I am at least half-aware of where I’m putting something, with the idea that who knows…
SA: It represents time in some ways. It reflects a process and there’s something about it not being intentional, or at least initially unintentional – it’s like a time capsule.
HP: It makes me think of how, as you go through life, you cast off cells, parts of your skin … Eventually, we’re renewing ourselves over and over again. This could represent the castaways. If you collected all of that matter, this would be it. Your anti-matter self.
SA: Can we talk a little bit about the move beyond the hell paintings? The hell paintings were a passage generated by a particularly dark patch that you were crossing. At what point did you decide to move out of that, toward these lighter paintings?
HP: The hell paintings derived from this feeling that it’s all going to end, which is an essential fact of life, for all of us. I started thinking about the end of time in general and the idea of this Big Crunch – the theory that there isn’t enough velocity or energy for the universe as it was created to continue expanding. Eventually it will start collapsing again into this super black hole, which will be the end of everything. That is one possibility. And on the other hand, I’ve been thinking about the beginning of the universe, which was an explosion: the Big Bang. Seen between these two all-encompassing, framing events, our existence seems just a blip in time.
As a child, I always believed that time happens all at once and that there is no front and back, or space in which time flows. It’s all an invention, while in reality everything is happening all at once and the brain is a mechanism that gives us this interpretation of past and future time so that we can get around. So this representation of everything condensed back into a black spot in my painting Hell reflects a synthesis of all these ideas.
SA: You were a pretty precocious child, if you were thinking about these kinds of things…
HP: It’s a weird thing. I even remember telling myself I should record this idea so I can remember it when I’m older! That’s how precocious I was, thinking I shouldn’t forget this.
SA: This smaller piece, Study for Heaven 1, contains a circle and a particularly white square. At first I didn’t notice them; it was on the second or third viewing that they popped out and suddenly became the subject. In many of these works the subject seems so decentralized, but here was a moment of focus that intrigued me – why did you put those there? In this particular detail of the painting, there are lines of perspective moving toward a vanishing point. It could be the light that one goes into when one dies, or the myth of that. But I also see in it a refusal to interpret the metaphor of “going into the light” as a negative for us, the living. I often think of the metaphor as representing the coming out of a tunnel, coming out of a period of darkness and moving toward a new beginning. It wasn’t until I noticed the diagonal lines leading toward that particular moment in the painting that I began to see this direction we’re moving into as an even brighter outlook. Is that coming out of some intuitive place, or is it how things evolved? What was happening in this painting before it reached this point? Because it seems that the making of these paintings is inscribed in every moment as you explore their surfaces, in every corner.
HP: This aspect was not there, originally. While working on the painting, I may look at an area, maybe that circle, and feel that there’s a weakness. It’s not doing something, not sure what, but I know something has to happen that’s not happening, there’s a dissatisfaction. So I work on it and eventually an image appeals to me and imposes itself. I really try to go with my gut, with what feels important to do in there. The image is of a water canal that goes underneath a roadway – the word escapes me…
SA: A culvert?
HP: A culvert, thank you, going out to a beach in Muizenberg, South Africa, where I spent a fair bit of time. This image was sent to me by a friend who lives there, Thomas Cartwright. He is also an artist and we’re doing a project together, painting each other’s cities.
I painted that culvert and became aware of the image’s mystical feeling, of the associations within it, which is why it ended up in Study for Heaven 1, though quite differently, because the actual culvert is dark.
As I was placing the square over the pre-existing circle with those lines from the culvert, I immediately noticed it was shattering whatever experience we have of time and space in this painting and cutting through to something else. In that box is almost a kind of tunnel or warp in space.
SA: The painting refuses a simple interpretation. Because the white of the rectangle’s upper part is so bright, it is an element on its own and almost has a form. When you look at it quickly, that’s what you see first. But then you see a landscape and suddenly you’re looking through a window. There’s the other small painting of the window, Untitled 2015. I was wondering if it was similar…
HP: It’s actually a painting of the same image.
SA: Everything you’re describing is very abstract, there’s very little information there. That’s my favourite thing – pareidolia – the mind forcing meaning even onto the most abstract or unreadable images.
HP: That’s where the connection to my father lies. These spheres are elements I’ve taken from his legacy about the language of painting. I’ve splintered them into abstract and figurative images the viewer wants to associate with particular meanings that may or may not have anything to do with my own intention.
SA: I’ve enjoyed being party to the development of these paintings, coming in and seeing what changes had occurred. With Heaven, I was really surprised today to see things that jump out now that weren’t there before, like this really articulated landscape on the bottom.
HP: That happened yesterday, that’s how fresh it is.
SA: And you have started to address the white space. Every square inch of these canvases is activated. Even though we’re focusing on the circular elements, if we let our eyes wander, the edges of the painting are also very rich.
HP: Sometimes the white seems even more important to me: it’s the field. The circles create points that define a field and it’s this created field that is the most significant. I want the viewer to feel as though they’re inside the field’s fabric.
SA: If the subject is space and time, then this contradiction you’re playing with – what is the field? what is the background? – is in fact the subject of the work.
HP: The paintings echo the way Einstein thinks about space/time. He describes gravity as similar to a massive object bending, as something heavy in a mattress would bend that surface, making everything naturally fall into it. Because the surface itself is bending that is how it influences things.
SA: That’s curved space?
HP: Yes, that’s right. This is one way to view these circular bodies in the paintings. We’ve talked about them on an existential level. Let’s return to thinking about these things on the physics level: the Black Hole and Big Bang. There is also Superstring theory, which asserts that there are many more dimensions, more than we can experience, created at the time of the Big Bang. These paintings play the game of imagining what these parallel, invisible universes might look like if, somehow, our vision could be expanded and we could see them all simultaneously.
SA: In hindsight, the big Hell painting seems like a close up of one of these circles in the Heaven painting, even though it pre-dates it. As you moved away from the dark period that drove you to paint hell, you reached a different understanding that led to the new image in which suddenly the edges come into focus and we see these other moments that don’t necessarily represent hell.
HP: Yes, this reflects the process that happens on a personal level – which is where these paintings started. First, there is the shock of someone very close to you dying and what that means existentially. As a species, we have gained consciousness of our fate, and it’s not a good one, ultimately.
Next, once you confront the black hole, life still goes on somehow and you begin to see a broader, more philosophical picture of it. These paintings came from that place, that personal journey. But also, if you think about the universe collapsing into a big black hole, which is exactly how we began, isn’t it appropriate to think that we could be the result of some other universe’s big collapse? And when the Big Bang happened, not only were all the planets and stars created, but also the very idea of space and time. Beyond this boundary the concepts of space and time don’t exist. This is as big as our universe is at the moment as it’s expanding, and many other universes are undergoing a similar process. Should this all end, there’s something optimistic about the idea that we are the sigh of a pre-existing collapsed universe that gave rise to many others.
SA: It’s interesting to think of how you want to install these paintings. There’s the sense of a slow zoom out from the Hell painting. When we think of the rectangular format of the canvas, we imagine it to be limited within a timeframe. In fact, it’s rather a continuum: if we imagine zooming out from the painting, we find it exists within this sphere, and if we keep zooming out, we find this sphere to be associated with the other grouping of spheres that exist in the Heaven painting. This might be fascinating and further amplified by placing these two paintings face to face. What are your thoughts?
HP: I like the size of the two large paintings, Hell and Heaven, primarily because I want the viewer to be immersed in an experience. I like experiential art where a person’s experience is the artwork – the experience a person has in their body next to the art piece.
SA: But isn’t all art about affect?
HP: In the end it is, but some works seem to be almost primal, soliciting a response in the body.
SA: If we imagine the mind and the body as two separate things… It’s never been my view of the world that they’re distinct.
HP: Initially, I wanted the Hell and Heaven paintings to bring about that experiential feeling in the space created between them. But then I wasn’t completely sure about placing them face to face in a room together because I also liked the idea of this single Hell painting and a single “anti-hell” or “post-hell” counterpart painting. I thought, “Why do I need the other piece on the opposite side of the same room? Wouldn’t that muddle the issue?”
SA: Well, it situates the viewer in the middle of the space created between the two paintings.
HP: That’s the counter argument – the two facing paintings create a force field that you can experience when you’re in the middle.
SA: Logically, just in installation terms, there’s a top and a bottom to the paintings, but each one of the represented circles contains its own world whose top and the bottom have no relation to this particular orientation.
HP: No, and I even flipped the Heaven painting partway through its execution. In that sense, top and bottom are to some degree arbitrary. On the other hand, the particular movement and sense of where the viewer is situated relative to the orientation does determine a compositional top and bottom. The paintings are not as effective when flipped the other way.
SA: What I mean is that in each individual moment in the paintings, if you think about the spheres, not everything is oriented in a north/south, east/west direction. Those coordinates are utterly subjective if we think about a geocentric perspective on the universe. Why is the globe always understood with North America on top and South America down below? In space, north and south don’t exist. And when we look at Study for Heaven 1 and we see this one larger circle crossed by what we read as a diagonal horizon line, we are in a dialogue with space time where north, east, south, west don’t have any logic.
HP: We have been transposed to some other parallel universe with slightly different rules of physics…
SA: Well no, the same rules of physics apply but without that organizing mind that needs to rationalize things as top or bottom.
HP: But couldn’t you also look at it as a little rip in space and time through which you get to peer into this other universe behind this white skin? And who’s to say what kind of orientation is going on in this other world? In a sense, every one of these circles is like the big circle in Hell, pulling apart that skin and letting you see underneath.
Another one of my sources of inspiration for these works is Dante’s description of hell and heaven in the Divine Comedy. I came to realize a remarkable thing about his vision of hell: it’s not populated just by mythic figures as would traditionally be the case, but also by current and historical figures that were familiar to people in his society. And that is exactly the case with my painting of hell. My images draw from current events going on in contemporary society as well as history reinterpreted through the old masters. All these references are filtered in and collaged together.
I realized that the entire painting series is a direct parallel to Dante. The whole story begins with Dante falling asleep and waking up in a dark place where this figure comes before him. It’s Virgil, the Roman poet, who says he will take him through this dark place peopled with all sorts of monsters and creatures. This is the way through hell to purgatory and eventually to the other end, almost through a kind of tunnel, to paradise. The premise of this show is similar – the viewer is met by a painting of me looking out over Goya’s Colossus – your tour-guide to the show – and in another painting, Study for Hell, there is a red, top-hatted character, a Master of Ceremonies that takes you on the journey through hell toward heaven.
SA: Do you know Botticelli’s drawings for Dante’s Divine Comedy?
HP: No, the only ones I know are by Doré. Growing up, my bedroom was in the basement and my dad’s library was down there too. We had a copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy with Doré’s engravings. That’s been in the back of my mind while painting some of this imagery.
SA: Botticelli made schematic drawings of hell and the various circles, there’s a lot of circular imagery. When they get out of purgatory, Virgil can’t go to paradise because he was born before Christ. So Beatrice comes to take Dante on the final leg of the trip. They become very abstract in Botticelli’s drawings, these little flames in concentric circles, different than the circles of hell.
HP: There’s an analogy here…
SA: Right. And the Botticelli drawings are almost like a film, like a storyboard. Virgil and Dante are seen together several times within the same frame as if they’re moving through it.
HP: Could we see them as co-existing parallel universes of Dante and Virgil?
SA: I think you’ll find the connections fascinating.
HP: It’s interesting that when Dante comes to describing paradise, he does so in a very abstract and poetic way, versus the realness of hell. This transition from representation to abstraction is also happening in my paintings over the course of this series. This is a whole other lens through which to think about the work.
It is a great privilege and pleasure for the Koffler Gallery to organize the first presentation of Howard Podeswa’s stunning new painting series, A Brief History, and to produce the accompanying catalogue that complements the experience of these complex works with further perspectives on the artist’s creative process and ideas.
The captivating conversation between Podeswa and fellow artist Stephen Andrews offers insights into the genesis of this work. Periodically visiting Podeswa’s studio, Andrews was in a fortunate position to witness the development of Hell and Heaven. We owe him gratitude for deftly revealing the layered intellectual and emotional charge of Podeswa’s thought process. Profound thanks to John Bentley Mays, who furthers our understanding with his penetrating analysis and remarkable prose. Our appreciation extends to Toni Hafkenscheid for his skillful photography, Tony Hewer for the elegant design of this catalogue, and Shannon Anderson for her astute editing. Our thanks as well to Alrik de Ridder for his patience and accuracy in transcribing the Podeswa and Andrews’ recordings.
We are indebted to Jonathan Weisz for the loan of Watching Goya’s Colossus in my Sorels from his private collection. It is a key work that beautifully completes this presentation. The dramatic design of the exhibition would not have been accomplished without the expertise and attention of a dedicated installation crew led by the incomparable Corinne Carlson.
The artist would like to thank Mona Filip for her unwavering support and vision, as well as Joy Walker, Jeremy Podeswa, Stephen Andrews, Andrew Jones, John Brown, Stanzie Tooth, John Bentley Mays, Gary Michael Dault, Corinne Carlson and Andrew Bugden.
None of the work we do would be possible without the generous support and enthusiasm of our funders, donors and patrons, the commitment of our staff and the guidance of the Koffler Gallery Advisory Committee. Nor would it have significance without a receptive audience embracing it with thoughtful outlook and a thirst for knowledge, fostering its reach through meaningful dialogue. Most of all, we thank Howard Podeswa for his passionate mind and generosity of spirit, for bringing this work into the world.
1 Patti Smith, M Train (New York/Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015), 215.
2 Ihor Holubizky, PREDISPOSED (…to thinking through the eye of mutual convenience) (Hamilton: McMaster Museum of Art, 2015), 47.
3 Patti Smith, 247.
4 Robert Hughes, Goya (New York: Knopf, 2003), 335.
Howard Podeswa lives and works in Toronto, Canada. Over the past twenty-seven years he has exhibited his work in Canada, the U.S., and South Africa. His paintings are held in numerous private and public collections including The Donovan Collection, The Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Ciba-Geigi AG, SEI Investments and The University of Toronto. His work often begins with personal history as a catalyst for meditations on art historical legacy, physics, theories of perception and the state of the world.
Stephen Andrews was born in 1956 in Sarnia, Ontario Canada. Over the last twenty-five years he has exhibited his work in Canada, the U.S., Brazil, Scotland, France and Japan. He is represented in the collections of the National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Belkin Art Gallery, the Schwartz Collection, Harvard as well as many private collections. His work deals with memory, identity, technology and their representations in various media including drawing, animation and painting.
John Bentley Mays is an award-winning Toronto writer on art and architecture. He was art critic of The Globe and Mail for 18 years, and his criticism now appears in magazines, catalogues and the website johnbentleymays.com.
Design: Tony Hewer | Editing: Shannon Anderson
Digital publication to the exhibition Howard Podeswa: A Brief History
Presented by the Koffler Gallery | January 14 to March 27, 2016 | Curator: Mona Flip
© Koffler Centre of the Arts, 2016, in collaboration with the individual contributors. All rights reserved. ISBN 978-1-928175-08-7.