We live in a dark time. Not perhaps as dark as that of the 14th century plagues that beset Europe from Florence to London but enough of a dark time to make it more difficult to apprehend painting and the output of art with the same uplifting joy to which we are normally accustomed. It is ,in fact, an almost death defying act for an artist to show work these days, death defying in the sense of ignoring the inevitability of our mortality , looking at death and treating it with familiarity and contempt.
In considering the works included in this impromptu exhibition by Gerard Collins I couldn’t help thinking about Giovanni Bocaccio’s Decameron, stories written in a villa outside Florence shortly after the plague had shaken Florence from its confidence as a center of culture and commerce. I didn’t even need to make references to Goya’s dark images of Napoleonic war or the vast library of images of death as a normal part of daily life in the myriad of images from the dark ages by printmakers all over Europe. But the Decameron appears closer to home here because it includes the idea of Pandemic as a backdrop and tells stories that are about love, about life, and about innocence. Art defies death. It is the only thing that can.
The skeletons you see here have a double meaning for Collins, and don’t be fooled, with Collins you are dealing with an experienced artist that is as sophisticated in his meanings as any 14th century artist. These ‘portraits of the dead’ if you will, have their source in a series of paintings of “Women in hats” exhibited in Halifax in 1979. Collins took the series and presents it anew here except the women are now skeletons, better dressed skeletons, better painted skeletons, with eccentric dresses and hats worthy of a kind of painterly couture that take your mind and your view away from the idea of death. The pictures function as Vanitas, a painterly form, that has been a part of the Collins encyclopedic paint box from the beginning. A Vanitas painting is a still life picture in which a skull often appears as well as other symbolic objects that underline the transience of life and the inevitability of our mortality. But Collins ever deceiving lusciousness of painting and desire to be in discord with the seriousness of death and therefore with the seriousness of art itself allows you to fulfill the promise of art, to apprehend the joy of life, the joy promised by art.
So as in the Decameron, Collins doesn’t linger on the idea of death and takes you through the skeletons and the vanitas back to painting and through painting to the depth of his understanding of painting to the still-lifes and landscapes we are accustomed to seeing from him as though saying , yes we are in dark times, but life goes on. Art goes on. So apprehend, if you will, Joy of life, a recent work by Collins, completed in time for this show, that embodies painting at its most expressive, at its most meaningful , a seeming wall of graffiti, by Matisse, by Basquiat and too many other artists that Collins knows about who have now passed to immortality. It’s still life, on top of a landscape, on top of a Vanitas. As Collins himself has put it, ; “Every time I start to paint I have 5000 artists in my head.” It’s more like he has 5000 ideas and thoughts, some conscious, some unconscious, but they all come together on a canvas helping him to put some order in his own chaos, in our chaos, writing his own Decameron.