About the Earth Paintings
I have been preparing to return to painting in a non-representational or abstract way. I don’t like that term, “abstract”, because I find painting non-representationally is far from abstract. It is physical, concrete, and rather real. I relate more directly to the materials: the texture of the base surface, and the viscosity of the fluid paint, for example, when I have no concern with imagery.

Dating back to the Insurrection Art Co. of the early 1970s, I have been attracted to making Art outdoors. However, I began painting these abstract “site” paintings in a high-rise apartment in Toronto in 1985. Those paintings were influenced by my studies of Palaeolithic Rock and Cave Painting, and by the New York School, painters such as Larry Poons, Jules Olitski, and Hans Hoffman .

When I moved to Abbotsford, British Columbia in 1987, I loved the wide open expanses: the mountains, the deserts and the big skies of the West. Now I had a patio and I was able to work outdoors, using natural pigments and coloured sands. This is how the Earth Painting series began. I bought a Buick and drove through the Western States and Provinces. Occasionally, I’d see bright coloured sand or gravel. I would stop the car, get my small spade out of the trunk, and fill a small pail with yellow, orange or red ochre.

I ground down the pigments, and mixed them with acrylic emulsions. Then I would pour this thick slurry over a large sheet of the heaviest water-colour paper. After leaving it several days to harden in the Sun, the resulting thin “slab” was then bonded to plywood. I worked with these slabs as if they were ‘found’ natural surfaces: a rock face, a special site for artistic intervention. They provided an ideal setting for my post-modern petroglyphs. Of particular esthetic appeal to me was the uneven, jagged edge of the slabs themselves. Unfortunately, this feature, and their heavy weight made them difficult objects to handle or transport.

With the New Earth Paintings, I began two years ago by again painting en plein aire , but on unstretched canvas. Again I mixed natural sand and pigment with acrylic emulsion. I like to find many ways to apply paint: by pouring, splashing, letting paint run, spraying it on, etc. I use brushes and rollers too. Then I left those unstretched canvases outside. They’ve been rained on, snowed on, and have baked in the Sun. This went on for about a year. Every so often I would put some more paint or sand on them, and repeat the process. The first canvases were very “weathered” by the time they were eventually stretched.

All this time, I was trying many different techniques. Gradually each canvas formed into a unique entity with its own distinct qualities or “personality”. In some cases, I simply let them “become” themselves. In other instances, I attempted to shape or cultivate what I felt were their best qualities.

I had used words, geometric shapes and mathematical symbols in my earlier Earth Paintings. I did not want words in the new Earth Paintings, instead I wanted to begin by inserting simple geometric shapes. Compositionally, triangles interact with a rectangular picture plane in very interesting and dynamic ways. They possess the timeless validity of mathematics, yet they are evocative in subtle, even archetypal ways. Triangles are absolutely the simplest geometric shape that can be made using straight lines.

My challenge was to develop a rich surface as a fertile setting in which to make my “geometric intervention”. Years ago I got in an argument with an Art Dealer who stated that “Abstract Painting is pure emotion.” I disagreed. Abstract Painting is a highly complex interaction of emotion, physical materials, spontaneity, planning, aesthetic judgement, technical skill, knowledge of relevant Art History, conceptual depth, creativity, and the powerful, unexplained, mysterious motivation to paint. That is why Abstract Painting is so fascinating, enjoyable and challenging.

These geometric interventions introduce an intellectual or spiritual element into the painting. The uniformity of a conventional, well-painted abstract surface does not interest me enough. We’ve all seen large abstract, colour field paintings. I don’t want to reproduce those. I wanted to introduce other elements that take the non-representational to a new level, especially a level above “pure emotion”. The geometric shape is a player, an actor on the stage, a response to the special circumstances of that surface. It is the presence of an observing ‘mind’ in nature.

Right now I like the bas relief effect very much. The Way |Out West Landscapes and the Earth Paintings have texture and shallow objects affixed to them. I wanted strong physical presence for these works that would seem to stretch the parameters. Relief emphasizes that quality of painting as a physical object. These paintings are more than just stimulating to the retina like a colour photograph. Their quality as objects sets up a constant contradiction to the illusions of space they create. In a sense, they heroically, but futilely, attempt to be something more than “a painting”. I think painting in 2013 is a quixotic act. I am simply striving to create paintings that stretch the limits of the form in new, interesting and authentic ways.

-Michael de Gruchy Haslam