October 15 – 27, 2013

Frances Ferdinands: Reflections on Identity in Abstract Mode 

The show by Frances Ferdinands, Convergence, is an idiosyncratic look at identity which invokes memories of the artist’s homeland in Sri Lanka as much as her sympathy and love for her life in Canada. The exhibition begins and ends with a brand-new way of painting for Ferdinands, a distinctly untraditional way of abstracting in nervy works that grapple with images drawn from her South Asian past and Canada, though never simultaneously in the same work.

The paintings are concise yet deep, themed in two sections that play fast and loose with memory and vision, creating novel ways of dealing with colour and composition but never falling back on one way of working or another. Both series zero on Abstract Expressionism but seem on the verge of something else, be it narrative or “Pattern and Decoration.”

Most riveting is Ferdinands’s Totem #1, a vividly hued gestural abstraction with rich oranges, purples and blues from 2011. The first in her Canadian series, it reminds you that Ferdinands was an accomplished colourist in the representational paintings she painted earlier in her career. Another surprise comes with Burst, another Totem painting, all about energy and colour.

The same energy and exuberant colour appear in her Paisley and Sari series though here what’s lurking beneath the surface of her imagery is her knowledge and her memory of South Asia. To acknowledge that world, she likes to refer to the history of paisley cloth, using shapes drawn from fabrics and combining them in different colour schemes. Paisley, it seems to Ferdinands, has a story, not unlike that of her life. Originally from Persia, the patterns traveled to India before arriving in Scotland. The story is one of migration of forms which to her refers to the migration of peoples and to herself. In this series, we find glimpses of the artist’s life prior to Canada through a concatenation of symbols in a hidden narrative. “P & O” occurs in the Voyager #1 work — it was one of the ships she took with her parents to come to Canada. Patterns occur, dots, squiggles, stripes, cross-hatches, loose brush strokes, bits of imprints of material, imprints of spools of thread (she and her mother loved to sew). “Everything is bits and pieces,” says Ferdinands, “when you travel from East
to West, and in your heart and memory you go back again.” In the Paisley/Sari series, the images are present but subtly so, they often seem merely implied. In the Totem works, the images are sometimes more explicit, so forms soar upwards like trees – or Totems.

Some of the Paisley/ Sari works are smaller and deliberately so, but all are exuberant and explosive so that in Bits for example, the forms seem to be emerging before our eyes in a bath of energy. The effect recalls the works of the French master Odilon Redon, emergent in places with hits of colour, in a richly handled broth of areas, some of which are paint-encrusted and others where the paint is scraped for a scraffito impression.

Ferdinands studied Visual Art at York University in Toronto, graduating in 1974, and trained with teachers such as Graham Coughtry and Gordon Rayner. Abstraction was the order of the day, the more richly and expressively painted the better. We are to be reminded that Ferdinands’s only abstract work was done at that time, although she has always loved what the brush can do. However, these works, her first abstractions from
then till now, are dense and textured and involve areas in which she uses granular gels and pastes. They are pictures which only tell a little about where they’re coming from but tell a lot about where the artist is going. These are denizens of a special nation, Canada, in which all mixtures are possible and accepted.

Perhaps some of them should be called “Odes” since Ferdinands is besides being a painter, a talented pianist with her A.R.C.T. degree from the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto (1972). Music is a large part of her life and Ferdinands in her paintings offers the viewer a lyrical quality in many of the works so that she seems to be pursuing sounds – or so it seems – in paint.

It’s tempting to think that in Convergence the artist went beyond memories and issues, and left her conceptually-based work behind to face new challenges apparently at random, but that raises, in another way, the idea of her being an outsider to abstraction in her own special way. These paintings are narratives even if abstract; some of them have a political side and confirm what we know or suspect about Ferdinands: that she is an original in everything she does. By approaching the mode of abstraction ambitiously Frances Ferdinands orchestrates a known language into a dizzying experience that comes close to being both gorgeous and a way of fitting together incongruous fragments of life. Her way of working is not unlike the South Asian-Canadian experience, which, much like the rest of the world, is not overwhelmed by input, but able to process what has occurred to it. We see in her work the results transformed into contemplatable form.

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