Writing after Conceptualism: Language in Canadian Painting

At the end of the 1960s, a crisis emerged in Canadian art. Painting had undergone many reinventions in the past, but this was the first time that the idea of painting itself was called into question. The 1970s in Canada witnessed the introduction of a series of anti-materialist and anti-institutional art practices that are united under the umbrella of “conceptualism.” This era gave rise to performance art, pop art, installation art, video art and feminist art, as artists rejected painting and sought to create new modes of expression.

N.E. Thing Co., ACT No. 77: Hay Field Arrangement, Saskatchewan, Canada (1968), 1969. Felt pen and collage on black-and-white photograph

N.E. Thing Co., ACT No. 77: Hay Field Arrangement, Saskatchewan, Canada (1968), 1969. Felt pen and collage on black-and-white photograph, 70.5 x 100.3 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

A key innovation of conceptualism was the introduction of written language into art.  During the 1960s, language appeared in works of art across Canada, including in the stenciled paintings of Greg Curnoe in London, the mock-corporate works of N.E. Thing Co. in Vancouver, the teleconferencing videos by Vera Frenkel in Toronto and the performances by Gerald Ferguson in Halifax. Former National Gallery of Canada curators Jessica Bradley and Diana Nemiroff use the adjective "hybrid" to describe sculpture, photography, performance and painting that feature a textual element. In the catalogue of the 1985 exhibition Songs of Experience, they write that “the presentation of both text and object in tableau format result in works that are to be read (or listened to) as much as they are to be seen.” Language art reached its zenith in 1975 in the exhibition Language & Structure in North America at the Kensington Arts Association in Toronto. No longer merely "hybrid" art, the works in this exhibition elevated language above image. Language had emerged as its own art form.

Following on the heels of this short-lived but significant disruption, painting re-emerged in the 1980s. Abstraction had all but disappeared, replaced by figuration. The coolness of conceptualism gave way to bright colours and expressive brushstrokes. Not everything from conceptualism fell by the wayside, however, as artists continued to recognize the expressive potential of language in art. As the decade progressed, language in painting became more and more prevalent. Art critic Philip Monk called this new blending the “third moment of language in art,” arguing that it was not a “reactionary restoration” against conceptualism, but rather a continuation of this development. Several works in the Gallery’s Contemporary, Indigenous and Canadian collections illustrate this trend.

Ken Lum, Untitled (Language Painting), 1987. Enamel on wood

Ken Lum, Untitled (Language Painting), 1987. Enamel on wood, 203 x 152.5 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Ken Lum Photo: NGC

Untitled (Language Painting) by Vancouver artist Ken Lum is one such example. In the 1970s, Lum’s work had featured black-and-white videos of the artist in durational performances, demonstrating affiliation to Vancouver’s unique conceptual heritage. By the early 1980s, he began to explore language in what he calls Language Paintings and Poem Paintings.

The Language Paintings are colourful and feature nonsensical text, designed and executed in advertising fonts by the artist. Untitled (Language Painting) is red with black letters and spells out “FDLOPGFGKMZG” in increasing font size, descending diagonally across the painting and criss-crossing with other blocks and swirls of letters. The illegibility on Lum’s Language Paintings mimics the experience of people, tourists or immigrants for example, who encounter an advertisement they cannot read or understand. Viewers of Lum's paintings look for clues in the fonts, colours and graphics to try and make sense of the message, but the language is foreign to everybody and translatable to nobody. Miscommunication is universal.

Carl Beam, The North American Iceberg, 1985. Acrylic, photo-serigraph, and graphite on plexiglas

Carl Beam, The North American Iceberg, 1985. Acrylic, photo-serigraph, and graphite on plexiglas, 213.6 x 374.1 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Estate of Carl Beam, Copyright Visual Arts-CARCC, 2020 Photo: NGC

Ojibwa artist Carl Beam’s The North American Iceberg shows how the combination of language and image can communicate across cultures. A juxtaposition of silk-screened photography and text, the painting combines self-portraits, an encyclopedia entry for the Apache leader Geronimo, stop-motion animal photographs by British photographer Eadweard Muybridge, newspaper photographs of the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and 19th-century anthropological photographs of Wichita women.

These images are presented with texts that read “THE ARTIST FLYING STILL,” “IGNORED, THE FORCE MOVED UNSUNG BECAUSE IT IS SO REAL, INTO THE REAL IT KNOWS FLASH TO LIGHT” and “REVOLVING SEQUENTIAL.” The title of the painting refers to a 1985 exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario, The European Iceberg, which featured contemporary European art. Instead of European paintings, however, Beam’s monumental painting looks to American pop artists such as Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns with their combination of text and photos. The images in the painting are drawn from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous sources, and the texts create meaning through their placement beside the images. “THE ARTIST FLYING STILL,” for example, written below Beam’s self-portrait and above Muybridge’s flying eagle, combines the artist and the eagle into a powerful symbol of Ojbwa/Anishinaabe creation.

Charles Gagnon, Continuum, 1989. Oil on canvas

Charles Gagnon, Continuum, 1989. Oil on canvas, 203.4 x 305 cm National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Estate of Charles Gagnon Photo: NGC

Some paintings, such as Continuum by Quebecois artist Charles Gagnon, look back to a much longer tradition of language in 20th-century art. Gagnon began painting in the 1950s, and his earliest paintings blend indecipherable scraps of text and lettering with gestural abstraction to evoke the aesthetic of a Dada collage. For example, Tablets, one of his paintings from 1959, has a large X in the centre of the canvas that rests on top of the abstract composition like graffiti on a cinderblock wall; text is used like a gesture in an abstract composition. Following the advent of conceptualism in the 1970s, language became more frequent and central in Gagnon’s paintings. He began to include longer idioms, quotes, or definitions stamped in a serif font, both in English and French, over abstract surfaces reminiscent of the approach of American conceptual artists, such as Joseph Kosuth. Responding to conceptualism, Gagnon’s paintings became hybrid paintings; their meaning is derived as much from being read as being seen.

Continuum is a culmination of this trajectory of Gagnon’s work. The titular word “Continuum” is stamped in the middle of this large abstract painting. Long conceptual text passages are reduced to a single word. A continuum is a coherent whole made up of a progression of insignificant variations and, anchored by the text, the abstract composition signifies the concept of a continuum. Text and abstraction are co-equal components of the painting and combine to create the notion of an infinite continuum in the mind of the viewer.

Drawn from the myriad conceptual movements of the 1960s and 1970s, language entered the lexicon of painting in the 1980s and was embraced by a wide variety of artists for different reasons. The three examples outlined here represent only a small part of this trend. Artists across Canada – as varied as Enn Erisalu in Vancouver, Jane Ash Poitras in Alberta, Joanne Tod and Robert Houle in Toronto, Jamelie Hassan and Bob Bozak in London and John Clark in Halifax – all incorporated language into expressive paintings. Through painterly experimentation with language, the legacy of the conceptual turn in art persisted long beyond the twilight of the movement.


For details of works by these artists in the National Gallery of Canada, see the collection onlineShare this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.

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