Harold Feist Surface and Colour

September 13th - October 20th, 2018
Gallery House
2068 Dundas Street West
Toronto, Canada M6R 1W9
T: 416 587 0057
E: info@galleryhouse.ca
H: Thursday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

“The whole world as we experience it visually comes to us through the mystic realm of colour.” -Hans Hofmann

There is a conscious arbitrariness at play in the work of Harold Feist, in the way colours convene on the picture surface and just as unexpectedly diverge or transform into each other. Favouring intuition rather than calculation, Feist pours diluted paint directly onto the horizontal surface and tilts it gently from edge to edge between his hands in a motion akin to gold-panning. Through close observation of the wet canvas, as though searching for a shimmer among plain rocks, Feist adjusts his movements to the momentum of paint in real-time. The result is a seamless ground with a watery appearance, giving the effect of rivers and tributaries flowing by their own internal forces. It captures what art historian Roald Nasgaard describes as the “surface activity of paint itself.” Freed from the gestural mark of the artist, each painting follows a course, although there is no prescribed outcome.

Feist, who was born in Texas, studied painting and Art History at the University of Illinois and went on to become a Hoffberger Fellow at the Maryland Institute College of Art, where he had hopes of apprenticing under the abstract painter Clyfford Still. However, after a year, a chance trip to Calgary with a friend landed him a teaching position at the Alberta College of Art, and with Still having become increasingly isolated in the latter part of his career, Feist immediately accepted. It was 1968, and by that time the Canadian prairies had already undergone a flourishing in abstract painting. Two decades earlier, Regina, Saskatoon, and Edmonton had become the site of workshops, galleries, and university courses taught by well-known American abstract painters who garnered the praise of New York art critic Clement Greenberg. Unintentionally, Feist came to share a geography with these painters and spent the length of his career in Canada with numerous solo and group exhibitions across North America. He had his first solo exhibition at the Glenbow Museum in 1970 and was included in an important group exhibition at The Edmonton Art Gallery entitled Prairie ’74, which focused on an emerging set of promising abstract painters in western Canada.

While Feist’s earlier works explored the build-up of paint on a flat surface, he increasingly moved towards the thin, all-over texture that was championed by an earlier generation of American abstract painters. He credits his style to Jules Olitski, Morris Louis, and Helen Frankenthaler with whom his work was frequently exhibited alongside at Gallery One in Toronto where he moved to after a decade on the Canadian prairies. It was in fact at Gallery One that Feist first met Olitski, who became a life-long friend and mentor. They shared a concern with feeling in colour, and unburdened by line or theory they preserved a youthful curiosity in painting, unafraid to ask: What if? What if I put yellow? And now green? These questions became an opening to new and unpredictable territory, trusting that the result would come if one was simply willing to propose a dialogue. As Greenberg wrote, it is an approach that seeks to “address the picture surface consciously as a responsive rather than an inert object.”

The spoke paintings, which Feist started making in the mid-1970s, feature a simple wheel-spoke motif. Its radiating structure is a generative form, allowing for countless possibilities to explore the relationship between colours. In the strong simplicity and repetitiveness of these works, there is also an element of ritual. As though sustained by a primal impulse, the same figure arises each time and the paint always branches away from the centre with an invisible energy urging it outwards. The spoke paintings have a dual relationship to scale. Simultaneously conjuring a micro and macro effect, it is as though one was looking down at the dendrites of a single cell and at the same time, through the corridor of an infinitely expanding galaxy. The sense of chance and experimentation in colour is mirrored in the titles of the works—fragments of the every day pulled apart and mixed back together, a parallel mechanism of abstraction that Feist creates as he removes phonetic sounds from their frames of reference. Feist describes his objective in painting through a metaphor of the body. While all humans are essentially the same—structures comprised of flesh, muscle, and blood—there are certain individuals who have a special quality. It manifests as a bright, assertive energy emanating from the centre of a person’s being. This energy is a perceivable sensation, although without scent or tactility. Feist’s paintings concentrate on this intangible element—a total presence—which can only be understood through experience rather than by concept, logic, or evidence. Mixing and co-mingling, the colours in Feist’s work seem to naturally arrange and evolve in their own beingness, enabling the spectator to shed knowledge and detach from systems of thought, only to embrace perception.

by Jo Minhinnett