martin pearce at Robert Birch Gallery (241 King East), to September 22. 416-955-9410. Rating: NNNN
there's something almost nos- talgic -- in the best sense of the word -- about Martin Pearce's purely abstract new paintings. His crumbly, layered canvases remind me of an archaeological dig. And as with mining the past, the delight is in the discovery.All about surface and process -- and reworking what's gone before -- Pearce starts by painting patterns lifted from Oriental tapestries, star atlases and other painters' work, then obliterates them by overpainting, sanding, glazing, scratching and gouging the painted surface.
But where his previous "abstracts" relied on images appropriated from art history and banal objects such as chisels and scissors to clue in the viewer, here the British-bred Toronto artist steps away from representation altogether.
What we're left with are thick, obscure paintings in chalky whites and muddy, vegetal blacks that have the raw look of buried walls -- or the stratified insides of your compost bin. (An exception is the predominantly pink painting of a 1930s fabric design, subtly altered, that fills the gallery window.)
Though a bit daunting on first look, Pearce's works are as technically masterful as they are dense with layers of meaning.
The lighter, looser paintings like After Sylvanectenesium, with its allusions to a Roman town in France, and Onteora, inspired by American still life painter Ellen Phelan, give the most immediate pleasure. Painted in broader strokes, they allow flashes of colour -- fleshy pinks, rich ochres, mint greens -- and sometimes shapes to emerge like lost images in an ancient fresco.
It's a big step for an artist who's built a reputation on painting decorative patterns to put work on the walls that looks like a black hole shot full of pellets.
Still, Pearce's new paintings are pleasing in an odd way. Maybe it's that all the layering and scraping mimic the ongoing process of life and death, reminding us that the past is always there, just below the surface.