Wylie: Travelling Light: 45-year survey of John Hall’s paintings

Through the decades, Hall has stuck to hyper-realist painting…

John Hall

John Hall

The current solo exhibition of paintings by Kelowna-based artist John Hall will be an eyeful for visitors, to say the very least. Over 70 works, beginning in 1966 and ending in 2016, are displayed in a tightly planned installation, which sweeps chronologically through the gallery space. Most works are brilliantly coloured, and have been flooded with strong lighting, so it is an intense, visually stimulating experience to see the show.

Although Hall has stuck to hyper-realist painting, using acrylic paint, and to still-life subjects for his whole working life, the changes in his painting over the years are extreme and fascinating. He started off big, really big, as that was the way to paint with ambition in the late 1960s and early 1970s—artists felt driven to claim major amounts of wall space to be taken seriously. But later, and over the decades, Hall has switched his scale, moving from large works to tiny ones and back again, depending on his circumstances and his subjects.

He has also changed his relationship to and use of photography over the decades as well. In his earliest works, with their matte surfaces and muted colours, he avoided any use of photography at all, working only from life, and using objects that would not decay, as it took a great deal of time to paint a single work. Then he began to make small maquettes of combinations of objects and materials to paint from, eventually shooting photographs of these and painting from projected 35-mm slides of them. When digital photography and software such as PhotoShop were introduced, he jumped on board, and in his recent works viewers will see brilliant surface reflections, and even lens flares painted right into the works. His relationship with these processes quickly became playful and dexterous, and completely integrated within his studio practice.

Working in Calgary for most of his adult life, Hall began to enjoy career success as a young artist, and was able to live and work in the USA for a few prolonged stints (one while teaching), and then gained steady employment teaching at the University of Calgary. From 1988 to 1999, Hall spent half of every year living and painting in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, and there are several Mexican-themed paintings included in the exhibition. In 1999 he left Calgary and Mexico to relocate to Kelowna, where he still works every day in his home-based studio.

Hall has tended to paint in series, often grouped by the sorts of objects he selected to depict. So there is a Toys series and a Tourist Series, both from the 1980s, and a Still-Life Portrait series, that is still ongoing. For the former compositions he borrowed objects from sitters they felt reflected or embodied their personalities, and Hall set up his still lifes in his studio. The person’s actual face never appears. More recently, Hall has depicted household objects, various foods, and groups or single small stones. The precise meaning of much of Hall’s work remains elusive, and could embody a range of notions, from the memento mori, that is a reminder of our own eventual deaths, to a meditation on the nature of seeing, and our connection to the life force.

John Hall: Travelling Light: A forty-five-year survey of paintings runs at the Kelowna Art Gallery until July 10.