Toronto based artist Alexander Irving holds an MFA from York University and a BFA from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. Irving has exhibited his work since 1986 and has shown at Birch Libralato, Blackwood Gallery and Diaz Contemporary. In 2009 Irving’s work was included in Carte Blanche 2: Painting – a survey of new Canadian painting. In 2012 Irving’s work was included in the ambitious 60 Painters exhibition and catalogue, an overview of contemporary Canadian painting.
Irving has taught at the Ontario College of Art and Design and, at present, holds the post of Lecturer at the University of Toronto, Scarborough Campus.
For CV refer to alexanderirving.com
Alexander Irving’s Flatmen: Of Flatness, the Lie, and Doodling with the Eye
Remarks by The Baildon Writers’ Co-Op (compiled and arranged by Daniel Scott Tysdal)
The Flatmen are not flat; or, more precisely, the Flatmen have shown us that “flat” means so much more than what we assumed it meant before the three of us stepped into Alexander Irving’s studio. The Flatmen are full. It was Jayne who noted this, only moments into our viewing. “These puppies are full,” were her exact words. The Professor and I agreed. Irving’s paintings explore the fullness of the flat—the ways in which flatness can be ripe and round, rough and uneven. This particular rendering of the idea (the Professor’s) was one of the few points upon which the three of us saw eye to eye that afternoon. In fact, we differed so greatly in our assessments of the product of Irving’s exploration of flatness’ fullness—wonder, existential “dismaynia” (Jayne’s word), or political profundity—that, as I took notes, I winced at the thought of the deficient summary that would have been composed had only one of us shown up to work, alone.
For me, the nature of Irving’s exploration of the fullness of the flat was clearly expressed in his remarks to us on the genesis of his paintings. He had started out sketching cardboard—the cardboard packaging from men’s shirts, cardboard boxes disassembled post-move. During the painting process, when he began crafting on the canvas these “folding patterns,” the human figures first appeared. The resulting Flatmen became figures through which Irving could nurture in his viewers the experiences of wonder that flatness, in its many forms, can provoke.
These experiences of wonder—wonder as both speculation and awe—arise from what Irving called “the irony of painting” and, to borrow another one of his turns of phrase, “looking as doodling.” In the genesis of Irving’s project, the irony of painting was suggested by a line from the literary works that inspired the title of the show, Anne Carson’s “Flatman” poems. In “Flatman (1st Draft),” one of Carson’s own Flatmen states, “My ironies move flatly.” This line of poetry, inverted, stirred Irving to attend to the irony of the flat. Paintings, as he put it, portray “flat things on a flat surface and yet they suggest a depth, shadow, another dimension.”
“This is a lie,” he added, “but a wonderful lie.”
The experience of wonder and the acts of wondering that this “wonderful lie” inspires are amplified by the way in which these paintings encourage us to join the painter in “doodling with the eye.” Just as Irving first undertook a sort of ocular doodling in his encounter with the surfaces of the cardboard, so do we undertake a similar process of doodling with what we see on these painterly surfaces, what we glimpse in each Flatman with his ever-altering posture, his ambiguous gesture, and the shifting shades of his humanity.
Though Jayne approved of the general thrust of my observations, she felt I fell short of heeding the full intensity of Irving’s work. To describe the Flatmen as “full of wonder,” or as “filling us with wonder,” was to attempt—and fail—to tame them: “It’s like you just spotted a grizzly bear in the wild and cried, ‘Teddy!’” She grabbed me by the arms and manoeuvred me in front of “Flatman 1,” asking in rapid succession the questions the painting provoked. Is this arm pinning something unseen, wiping its ground, extending its hand in peace or frustrated rage? Why is it an arm at all? Is the Flatman leaning back in laughter or building momentum to strike? How do you return his pose? What size are you in relation to his size? What is scale here? What shining casts his shadows? Where is the nowhere that is the everywhere of his blank environs? And do you belong there?
She asked more questions on the painting’s behalf, too many for me to remember, but I recall with great clarity the effect of this interrogation. I felt the intensity Jayne had warned me that my wonder had missed. A mix of dread and mania: the dread bred by a growing sense of uncertainty, and the manic search for ground this dread spurred—or spurned. Each layer of flatness Irving nurtured in this work—from the flat, sombre palate of blues and greys to the flat, minimally folded cardboard surfaces that made up the man; from the flat, featureless background to, even, the “flattening” of abstraction into humanoid form—deepened the painting with the unevenness of indeterminate signs and the ripe force of raw colour, shape, and figure. This is flatness as ruffian, the tough who flattens the defences that secure the self, both in its perceiving, and in its being perceived.
The Professor, naturally, viewed the Flatmen otherwise. “To truly absorb what these paintings do with flatness,” he said, “we need to think about how these paintings think about men.” He reminded us of Irving’s earlier remarks about “the ridiculousness and the vanity” of many of the Flatmen, the way they often looked “kind of pathetic.” What struck the Professor was how Irving’s Flatmen, despite being “flat,” duly embodied the “unevenness” at the core of masculinised power: the a priori split between the position of authority and the actual vitality of the one who holds it, the split between the symbolic posture and its flesh-and-blood poseur. Irving’s figures are architectural, looming, powerfully iconic. Yet they remain comical, papery, and dramatically flaccid.
Riffing on the Professor’s insight, Jayne added, “These are pretty timely paintings, then, coming at us mid-Wall Street meltdown, mid-financial crisis, mid-Euro-Zone explosion.” Just think about the double unevenness, she said, that the crash of 2008 exposed. First, there was the revelation that all these financial wizards were really proto-Oz-es—as the gross imbalance between the actions of these real, failed “experts,” and the promises made by their great and powerful positions, so clearly expressed. Then came the foregrounding of the entrenched material unevenness that cleaves two tiers of people, enforcing a disunion that, despite the revelation of the first imbalance, continues to prosper between those child-sized handfuls of haves and the rest of us, who don’t.
While we considered how Irving’s Flatmen might epitomise this double unevenness, Jayne returned to “Flatman 1.” “This guy,” she said, “looks like a cross between a commanding man of industry ‘putting his foot down’ and a slapstick fool about to slip on a banana peel.” At that mention of slapstick, Irving brought our attention to one of the few pieces that depicted two Flatmen, “Flaco y Gordo.” The title, he explained, was taken from the Spanish names for Laurel and Hardy. And with this turn to the Flatmen as financial titans cum slapstick stars, Irving’s Flatmen, as they had done when we first entered his studio, revealed another furrow in the flatness, a wrinkle that ripened what we are too often cajoled by our culture into experiencing as the merely flat, wholly muted, surface of ourselves.
We doodled. I asked my companions what they thought Flaco y Gordo would say about the paintings if their canvas suddenly transformed into a live-streaming Skype feed, adding the new voices we required to truly expand our trio’s limited view. Jayne said Gordo would recommend that Western nations abandon all hope of saving the economy; instead, according to Gordo, they needed to dedicate every last resource to mimicking the Easter Islanders and building giant statues of Irving’s Flatmen along their almost endless seashores. The Professor speculated that Flaco would return us to the banana peel. He’d reveal that stockbrokers and financial advisors were simply the 21st-century’s answer to the silent film’s slapstick star—“slapstick beyond the pleasure principle,” as the Professor put it. The meltdown in 2008 was just a classic slip on one of those yellow, rubbery peels, only now, to quote the old nursery rhyme, “we all fall down.”
The Baildon Writers’ Co-Op is a writing collective that formed in 2003. Random Jayne is a performance artist and freelance writer. Dr. M. C. Holdenried is Professor Emeritus of the Department of Culture Studies at the University of Saskatchewan-Moose Jaw. Daniel Scott Tysdal is a poet who teaches English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Toronto Scarborough.