BY Bruce Hainley in Reviews | 09 SEP 98
Featured in
Issue 42

John Tremblay

BY Bruce Hainley in Reviews | 09 SEP 98

Dots and loops, the swooping expanse of an aeroplane holding pattern (in miniature), the mathematical ideogram for infinity - John Tremblay's paintings suggest the patterns made by many of the world's often overlooked, groovy things. Whatever their theoretical or metaphorical underpinnings (utopia, binary language), they percolate with intellectual and visual energy rather than, as could easily happen in the hands of someone less inventive, sliding off into schematic exercises for an idea in painting. With Oulipean splendour, exploring the freedom that comes from a simple but rigorous set of rules, Tremblay investigates the ramifications of the oval as it impinges upon all the other elements that make up painting. Looking at his congregations of ovoid outlines, containing and disrupting fields of outrageous colour - from day-glo and shocking to interior-design soigné - is not unlike the fun, painterly equivalent of encountering George Perec's novel, La Disparition, a thriller written without the letter 'e', which turns out to be an exploration of things disappearing. Tremblay tests painting's degree zero - or perhaps I should say its degree zero zero zero point zero zero.

Stargate to the Dialectic (all works 1998) presents Tremblay's concerns with a blunt, daring humour. Structure becomes painting: the motif of his oval is exploded wide to leave a gaping centre, accentuating edges - the interior and exterior where two parallel fluorescent red bands zip along like Hot Rods tracking. The red bands begin a dialectic about the bright painted white between the red lines, and the white of the wall that fills the painting's centre, which resonates with its own weird energy. The work's elegance arrives by way of the shifts in its shaped widths - narrowest at the top, then unobtrusively, gradually and abruptly widening (moving clockwise) at the bend of each of its four rounded-off corners. The painting takes up and expands the work started in Tremblay's hypnotic and goofy 'Targets' series - where the target morphed into shaped paintings suggesting cartoon-like thought-bubbles, humpy-bumpy amorphous cells and the amplifying circles of audio speakers.

Tremblay's formal investigations are mediated by space and even spaciness. There's air to party in. He never capitulates to the potential sterility of the scientific, only its theoretical, sci-fi loopiness. His geometries shy away from mathematical purity by finding pattern in the domestic - 60s design (Castiglione); various household products (vintage Kleenex boxes); the dainty industrial grilles of air filtering systems; the unvarying circular bands of records and CDs; the funky patterns and surfaces of Nike and Reebok trainers; and the 'O's of awe beginning and ending the alimentary tract. The interference of the ordinary, the homely - no matter how attenuated - fucks up and retards the speediness of Op Art's retinal effects. Even when he designs an engineering tool, a template in plastic called F.A.S.T. C.U.B.E., its modular, 'squircle' holes and trippy translucent green remove it from severity while retaining all scientific precision, transmuting the gadgetry of the engineer or architect into something sexy.

His tour de force, 27 1/2 Inches Into the Future, creates a large undulating 'curtain' of ovals in grey against an almost-metallic silver field. The varying size of the ovals, the way in which they group and disband, the play of the gradated silver, grey, and black hues, punctuates the canvas with two 'pulses', a black aura where the tiniest ovals swarm. Think of it as a macroscopic view of the corpuscles which make up Warhol's Triple Elvis (1962), or the shimmering, reptilian texture of cinema's silver screen.

If something allegorical accrues in this work - and part of its vitality and charm is its manner of approaching narrative, idea, story, but always resisting it - one way of identifying it would be to consider how things connect or disconnect, cross paths or bypass. In Thirty Seconds of Weightlessness, seven grids of dry, ivory ovals, delineated by a dark hint of silver, crammed together like the heads of a crowd in a Weegee photo of Coney Island, or like so many weird sacs, appear stacked against a dazzling periwinkle blue. Each grid's top and bottom ripples, an edge line like the plotting of a sine/cosine wave. Such wavy lacing links the grids, each one ever so slightly askew from its predecessor, until there is a rupture, a gap where they fail to mesh. After the break, the loose, lacy linking of the grids begins again. Extrapolate from this a tale of how people meet or do not, penetrate and separate; static interrupting the computer's communication net - or override the human urge to narrativise the non-narrative, the abstract, and forget everything for lush optical feedback. Tremblay allows all the elements that make up painting to connect and disconnect in similar ways: if in Red Pre-Cast, a petite table in hot pink Perspex with a 'placemat' of ovals, he allows his motif to veer away from 'art' to become an element of design, a surface to peer through, in P.E.R.F.O.R.A.T.I.O.N. S.I.T.E., the ovals appear only by judicious cut-outs, constituted as much by the wood panel making up the sky-blue enamelled surface as by what is not there, the squircular gaps of wood jigsawed away.

The intellectual rigor and zaniness of Tremblay's project is like one of the Simpsons remembering a painting by Agnes Martin or Robert Mangold. The beauty is that his project continues, probing the formal possibilities of repetition, which, as Gertrude Stein proved, never really repeats.

Bruce Hainley lives in Los Angeles, USA. His book, Foul Mouth (2006), is published by 2nd Cannons, Los Angeles.