On Dreams

André Ethier

new paintings
January 17 - February 15, 2014

untitled (thirty-five)
Untitled (Fourteen)
On Dreams
On Dreams
On Dreams
On Dreams
On Dreams


untitled , 2013
oil on masonite
14 x 11 inches

Portraits and Tactics - Andre Ethier and the forces of unfreedom

by John Bentley Mays (pub. Canadian Art, Winter 2014)

With art school behind him, André Ethier touched down in Toronto shortly after the start of this new century and soon had most of what he needed to launch a painting career.

He found comrades and a psychic home, for instance, in the anarcho-bohemian art, music and party scene headquartered in Kensington Market and the galleries and clubs of Queen Street West. He discovered suitably dissident exemplars among the artists of the millennial moment, including Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy and Raymond Pettibon in California, and Peter Doig everywhere.

Like Kelley, Ethier sang and played guitar in a garage-rock band while, again like Kelley, making images that showed no respect for the elite, prim art world pieties prevailing in North America and Europe during the ascendancy of neoliberalism. Rock was said to be dead, and so was painting, he recalls, but he rocked and painted anyway, and generally minded his own business at a time when minding other people’s business was in style. He was having nothing to do, in any case, with feminist orthodoxies, identity politics or the academic traffic in big ideas, or the high-polish Conceptual photography on the walls of every contemporary art museum in the world at that time, or with painters who created work that looked like photographs. For Ethier around 2000, as for the Symbolist artists and writers at the fin de siècle, the realism of the photo was the foe of art that sought to evoke rather than describe, and that saw its job as probing below surfaces into the deep structures of affect and sensibility.

Ethier did not defy realism frontally, like a revolutionary, but rather more subversively and obliquely, twisting its codes of representation back on itself. He made jittery, nervously funny paintings of flowers, bunched together and stuck into a brain or a busted shoe, and of male, cigarette-smoking bodies that were liquefying before our eyes, as if afflicted by a horrible disorder. He depicted a human head made up of red globs and bulbs, with a single, staring cyclopean eye and lips like hot chilies, and a man-faced beast sniffing blood-red flowers in an ill, lurid landscape. When not oozing or suppurating, Ethier’s men (each one a self-portrait, the artist now believes) were frequently bearded hobos or homeless outcasts badly needing a shower. His palette ran to the sick end of the spectrum, with livid reds, sour yellows, and bright and foul oranges.

His common visual dialect was something mixed down from late, stale de Chiricos, Heinz Edelmann’s Yellow Submarine, the irrealism of French Symbolist artist Odilon Redon (an early favourite) and the eccentric, lame-joke Mannerism of Giuseppe Arcimboldo (whose portraits of people composed of vegetables and what-not are among Ethier’s acknowledged sources.) This may be just a personal quirk of mine, but the paintings that Ethier’s work calls to mind most readily are those of Arnold Schönberg. Like Schönberg’s loose, raw portraits, Ethier’s pictures from the first decade of the century disturb because they skirt the edge, not of insanity, but of every known propriety.

Rather than accompanying many fellow artists of his generation into the genteel, comfortably liberal practices of late Conceptualism, he fashioned a painting persona for himself from the stuff of popular culture, becoming the white adolescent male of every middle-class North American father’s nightmare. I do not wish to suggest that this turn was heroic or daring, or anything other than interesting. But it strikes me as interesting indeed that a young artist would want to become, of all things, this feared figure in the mythology of late modern consciousness, the anti-type of the Ralph Lauren man: a naïve and boorish teenager, deeply ignorant about most topics other than sci-fi and comics and music, given to petulant brooding among his psychedelic posters when not fitfully making what he and his indulgent high school teachers consider “art.”

This wasn’t who Ethier actually was in his teen years, it seems, or in his twenties; and it certainly is not who he is now, at age 36. Nor were the art world bugaboos against which he arrayed himself as simply unengaging as he (or, rather, the teenager in whose name he painted) appeared to believe. But, since the beginning, Ethier has needed to work from a conspicuously oppositional place—hence his adoption of the contentious teenager persona—and he has also needed big enemies to define himself against. The art world, as it always does for emerging artists with outsized attitude, graciously supplied enemies galore.

He lost no time in taking them on after earning his degree in art from Concordia, then setting up a studio back in Toronto (his boyhood home-town) in 2001. Word about his painting quickly got around, first in his Toronto circle—which included Jay Isaac, Seth Scriver, Brad Phillips and Amy Bowles—and later in New York. His first solo show opened in Toronto in 2003. Within the next seven years, his paintings surfaced in New York, Madrid, Los Angeles, Miami, Paris, Berlin and elsewhere, prompting critics in both the mainstream media and the art press, as well as collectors of new art, to sit up and take notice.

Then, around 2010, Ethier came to the end of the row he had been hoeing successfully since he launched his career. Looking back at the events of that year, he says, “The medieval imagery, the browns and beards, sci-fi, fantasy, adolescence—it all came together, coalesced, and exhausted itself.” This recognition that his adolescent persona had taken him as far as it could, and that he now wanted to do something “lighter” did not precipitate a profound emotional crisis—he never stopped painting; he never became depressed or confused—but it did herald a certain sea change in the way he made his art.

Toronto gallery goers will have a chance to sample the results of this shift in January, when Paul Petro Contemporary Art raises the curtain on Ethier’s first Canadian solo show since 2007. I can’t tell you what will be in this exhibition. The artist himself doesn’t know at this point, and he will not know until just before the opening. That’s because he works the way he does: descending into the basement of his house each weekday morning, painting his small works on Masonite sometimes until dusk, turning one out every day or so—then excerpting his favourites from this methodical, steady flow of production when asked to come up with a show. He likens the physical act of his painting to writing, and contrasts it with sport or any other activity that involves vigorous bodily movement. An Ethier display, in other words, is always a few episodes lifted from a novel-in-progress, or (to change the image somewhat) an extract from an endless psychoanalytic monologue that goes on, day in and day out, without a deadline or climax in sight, and without, as he says, “waiting for inspiration.” (Ethier is proud of his work, but even more proud of his work ethic.)

But if the new paintings I saw recently in his studio are anything to go on, the upcoming showcase at Paul Petro will surprise viewers unfamiliar with what Ethier has been doing since 2010. A kind of psychologically shadowed abstraction has emerged, for example, taking the form of gaseous globes of colour that float, like glowing balloons, against gloomy grounds, or of fields of compulsive squiggles that resemble clumps of wet weeds or strands of curly hair.

In the recent figurative paintings of flowers or men or still lifes, the obsessive and surreal grotesquerie of the work before 2010 has been shunted aside, to a degree, in favour of a more careful mise en scène aesthetic. Instead of filling the frame with a startling body or head, for instance, Ethier now allows for tableaux that occasionally feature costumed, disguised figures, furniture, architecture, and even the odd touch of luxe, calme et volupté. (In a reference both to himself and to his newfound interest in Matisse, he gave the title “Kind of French” to his 2012 solo exhibition at Derek Eller Gallery, his New York outlet.)

If a change of manner has certainly come to pass in Ethier’s work since 2010, it would be a mistake to exaggerate the impact of this transition. The newer paintings tend to be more compositionally and technically sedate than the older ones, less garish, histrionic and emotionally barren, but they can still disconcert and baffle, and even annoy. The newer self-portraits, especially—a cartoonish head, a hairy stumble-bum staring out of inky darkness, a gangrenous green face with a rotted nose and bloodshot eyes—continue to speak from places outside the bounds of painterly respectability, from the lairs and piss-reeking back alleys of the unofficial city.

This territory of dejection and the characters (as in a movie) who inhabit it, of course, have been visited often by artists in the last hundred years. But to regard Ethier as merely another tourist in the run-down end of town would be to miss the harsh, convincing poetry of specific dispossession that moves below the surface of his painting.

The white, male, teenaged avatar whose dreams Ethier painted before 2010 (and still does paint, it seems to me) is, after all, real, and not some figment of the sociological imaginary. The paintings make him real, present. We recognize him as someone in the real world, where many of us have met him, numbed by the agitation and sappy sentimentality of market-driven youth culture, morally and existentially adrift, bored stiff by education that makes no serious intellectual demands on him. He is not a “problem.” Rather, he is collateral damage in an economic and social order dominated by trendsetting adults whose relationships with the human and natural worlds are marked by exploitation and mediocrity.

When he dreams, for example, of what is meant by male adulthood in contemporary culture—so we learn from Ethier’s self-portraits—he imagines futures for himself as a cold, invulnerable fragment of classical statuary, cut off above the knees, castrated; or an indigent, isolated bag-person; or a cartoon-like stereotype of a he-man, devoid of depth, emotion, tenderness. These are the soulless roles that mass culture offers to the young, vulnerable male whose situation is the focus of Ethier’s creative thinking.

Where can he go to avoid assuming one of them? Political activism does not seem to be an option. He retreats, in Ethier’s fantasy, not into primitive innocence (which is unavailable to us in any case), but, tragically, into what is most ready to hand: the hyper-sexualized, hyper-conflicted phantasmagoria engendered by mass culture, where he dreams its dreams and sees its visions. Quite understandably, he refuses to mature, doggedly cocooning himself among his posters and CDs: the noise of the deranged culture that has absorbed him.

But Ethier’s art is about more than the anxieties and resentments of teenaged males. It raises provocative questions about the project of contemporary painting itself: its cultural task, and its moral urgency, in the present moment. Faced with another desolate man or neurotically tangled abstract, we find ourselves wondering: What is the point of making such images now? What is the point in looking at and taking them seriously?

There is none—unless one believes, as I do, that spiritual survival in the urban civilization we’ve got entails (among other things) voluntary confrontations with the destructive drives that bedevil modern consciousness, as the effects of these drives are mediated by serious artists. Ethier is surely one such artist. Painting is the field on which he performs his daily encounter with the illness that interests him, systematically and patiently, without drama, as a kind of steady employment. And the gallery where these paintings hang is, or can become, the site of our own reckonings with the turmoil and cultural emptiness symbolized, in a variety of registers and weights, in Ethier’s work.

The symbols we find there draw their forms and complex energies not from the unconscious mind—if such a thing exists—but rather from the media environment that is outside and all around us at every moment, the invisible atmosphere in which mass culture’s tangible images, sounds and signs ceaselessly churn. It is the tainted air we breathe, permeating our bodies, desires and our interpretations of the world.

Like clouds in a windy sky, however, artworks can make visible the secret energies operating in this oppressive atmosphere. They can, and in Ethier’s case they do, represent mental and emotional states coarsened by electrified industrial modernity, condensing them into shapes in which we can recognize ourselves and perhaps—I write this without much optimism—glimpse the outlines of our era’s discontent. In doing this, Ethier’s small paintings propose no strategies of resistance or transcendence. They attempt no diagnosis. But they perform the valuable work of giving effective, memorable expression to sensibilities informed by forces of unfreedom.

- John Bentley Mays, Toronto, November 2013

In The New York Times Ken Johnson wrote: "André Ethier's funny, faux-naïve paintings resemble the works of a self-taught, semi-talented high school stoner steeped in heavy-metal music, fantasy novels and the visionary arts of the French Symbolists." (Derek Eller Gallery, NY, Art In Review, 17 April 2009).

ANDRE ETHIER (born 1977, Toronto) is a Toronto-based painter and musician. He attended Etobicoke School of the Arts for Visual Arts and received a BFA from Concordia University in 2001. Ethier paints portraits, figures and landscapes in oil. His work has been described as a grotesque realism and is influenced by neo-expressionism, primitive art, underground comic art and the works of Giuseppe Arcimboldo and Odilon Redon amongst others.