David Craven, Don't Make Me Say It Again (2009), mixed media on canvas, 213.5 x 152.5 cm. Courtesy of the artist
If you live in a city, you’ve likely engaged in some inadvertent eavesdropping. Perhaps overheard a one-sided phone call or the conversations of passersby. But what may be a fleeting curiosity or an annoyance to some is raw material for the prolific and imaginative artist David Craven.
Craven’s art is the focus of a new exhibition at the MacLaren Art Centre in Barrie, Ontario. David Craven: Selected Works, 1981 to 2013 features two compelling bodies of work, which—although stylistically different—are both reflections of urban life.
One body of work, David Craven and the Cinematic, features a selection of paintings from the MacLaren’s permanent collection and the Art Gallery of Hamilton. Dating from 1981 to 1985, these black-and-white works can be seen as “psychological portraits” of the urban man, according to Renée van der Avoird, Assistant Curator of Contemporary Visual Art at the MacLaren. However, van der Avoird adds that the paintings can also be read as scenes from a movie. “We called the show the Cinematic because there are several references to filming devices,” she told NGC Magazine, citing Craven’s use of such techniques as close-ups, montage, and his “casts of characters.”
The paintings in David Craven and the Cinematic are also noteworthy because they’re from a period when Craven—whose works are included in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada—branched out from a more abstract, minimal painting style to figuration, after moving to New York City in 1980. “If you make a move like that to New York—from a comfortable life in Toronto—then you also should release yourself from some of the earlier baggage, take a jump and start doing something different and new,” said Craven during a recent interview with NGC Magazine.
David Craven, Just Another Angry Man (detail), 1984, mixed media on canvas on plywood, 260 x 252 cm. Collection of the MacLaren Art Centre. Gift of Ms. Barbara Stringer, 1998. Photo: André Beneteau
That willingness to take artistic leaps and constantly try new things is something that Craven has done “quite fearlessly” throughout his career, says van der Avoird. Indeed, Craven’s multifaceted art practice has been characterized by experimentation and a continuous exploration of the tensions between figuration and abstraction.
That exploration is at play in Craven’s more recent body of work, which the MacLaren has brought together in one exhibition space under the rubric of David Craven: Jump Cut. Dating from 2009 to 2013, the works in Jump Cut are an example of Craven’s “own unique brand of abstraction,” notes van der Avoird. Oscillating between two and three dimensions, they combine gestural marks, poured paint, collage, experimental shelf constructions—and yes, those overheard fragments.
“We have a ground-floor apartment in New York City,” says Craven. “You hear snippets of cellphone conversations coming by your window. You hear six-inch stilettos coming from the clubs, and you hear police pulling people over,” he adds, explaining how he began “intruding” those fragments into his work.
While Craven’s newer works undoubtedly have an element of playfulness—with their dynamic lines, bold forms, and block-like letters—commanding titles such as Show Me and Don’t Make Me Say It Again also suggest other, potentially darker readings. They point to the presence of authority and a lingering anxiety outside the frame.
“There is a purveying feeling of pressure that continues from those [1980s] works right into the current work, even though they have a flamboyancy around them with the giddy, bratty colours,” says Craven. “There is always this unspoken tension.”
David Craven: Selected Works, 1981 to 2013 is on display at the MacLaren Art Centre in Barrie, Ontario until June 22, 2014.
Robyn Jeffrey is a writer and editor based in Wakefield, Quebec.
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