The Relevance of Realism: John Hall at the Kelowna Art Gallery


John Hall, Doll (1971), acrylic on canvas, 162.5 x 411.5 cm assembled. NGC

An exhibition at the Kelowna Art Gallery is challenging perceptions and prejudices about Realist art.

John Hall: Travelling Light. A forty-five-year survey of paintings examines the career of Kelowna-based artist John Hall, whose highly realistic paintings explore the qualities of light while confirming the enduring significance of a traditional style.

“Realist artists have a hard time in the contemporary art world,” said curator Liz Wylie in an interview with NGC Magazine. “People think they just sit there and paint what’s in front of them as realistically as they can, without exploring underlying issues. It’s considered an old-fashioned approach to art.

“In Hall’s case,” she goes on to say, “there are existential questions that you start to think about if you look past the realism. If you ask why he picked that doughnut, or what the meaning of the coffee cup is, you’ll really get into what he’s grappling with as a highly intelligent, intellectual person.”


John Hall, Jump (2009), acrylic on canvas, 76.2 x 76.2 cm. Collection of the Alberta Foundation for the Arts

Hall was born in Edmonton in 1943, and studied at the Alberta College of Art and Design and the Instituto Allende in Mexico. He taught at the Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, and at his alma mater in Alberta, before accepting a permanent position at the University of Calgary from 1971 to 1998.

For 45 years, he has painted everyday objects from fruit, candies and dolls to garbage bags, trinkets and light bulbs. His current exhibition — organized as the fourth in a biannual series of Okanagan artists — seeks to present the entirety of his career in a chronological way. “It’s a matter of putting one foot in front of the other, and off you go,” says Hall.

Although Hall has always painted in the Realist style, his approach has evolved over the course of his career — something that he says is immediately noticeable in the exhibition itself.

“The subjects fly all over the place, and there’s a full range of colour, subjects, and sizes,” he told NGC Magazine. “I see it as a fun opportunity to look back over my career, to find themes, and to pick up on where they started.”

Doll (1971), for example, is a giant triptych some 4.1 metres high. On loan from the National Gallery of Canada, Hall refers to it as “a whopper.”

Nuclear Fever (1994) is also quite large. One of Hall’s personal favourites, it consists of a collection of items obtained from a friend — including a porcelain parrot, Canadian Mountie figurines, a Swiss army knife and paintbrushes.


John Hall, Nuclear Fever (1994), acrylic on canvas, 213.4 x 168 cm. Collection of Loch Gallery, Winnipeg

“I ask people to give me things that are important to them, and then I arrange them into some sort of coherent form,” says Hall. “I enjoy playing with the idea of taking the most mundane item and turning it into something of pictorial interest and delight.”

Wylie says that one of the most interesting aspects of the exhibition is the evolution of Hall’s work in relation to the development of technology. “At first, Hall wouldn’t use photography at all. He thought he was bound to draw from life,” says Wylie. “Then, he started to project slides and paint from those. When Photoshop was invented, he began to exploit the opportunities it presented.”


John Hall, Drum (1972), acrylic on canvas, 218.4 x 406.4 cm. Collection of the Alberta Foundation for the Arts

Although his work has incorporated technology, it remains highly realistic. “Each series of paintings has its own mood and character,” says Wylie. “But they all have so much colour, light, density, and detail.”

Wylie hopes that the exhibition will inspire renewed appreciation of the tradition of Realist art. “I think it’s been tough for Hall to get curatorial and critical attention because of the prejudice against Realism. I’m not pointing any fingers — I’ve had that same prejudice.

“But I’ve learned through him to stop being so judgmental,” she adds, stressing the importance of finding the meaning behind the art. “Hall wants you to do the work and have your own experience, but it’s important to take the time to look.”

John Hall: Travelling Light. A forty-five-year survey of paintings is on view at the Kelowna Art Gallery until July 10, 2016. It will travel to the Nickle Galleries from January 26 to April 29, 2017.

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