Kingsway in Autumn

Kingsway in Autumn, 1993, 30 x 40 inches

Artist finds ideas in empty streets and lots

Christopher Brayshaw
Visual Arts, The Georgia Straight, April 18-25, 2002

David Sloan has been making paintings and drawings of Vancouver since the late 1970’s, one of each per year. His subjects are the banal and overlooked corners of the city: East Side overpasses and dead-end streets; the high chain-link fences surrounding warehouses and vacant lots; bus shelters; car lots; and the long empty blocks of corridors like Terminal Avenue and Kingsway, streets more often driven than walked.

Sloan’s depictions of these deserted, overlooked places imbue them with a kind of rough poetry. I mean no disrespect to him when I say that his artworks are like the kind of things an alien might make if left to wander Vancouver’s vacant streets. Their democracy is powerful in its agreement with William Carlos Williams’ dictum “No ideas but in things”. Sloan’s pictures move me because they find just as much meaning in a McDonald’s billboard as they do in the way light falls along a security fence or glances off the side of an empty transit shelter. Their romanticism reminds me of the work of visionary English nature poets like William Wordsworth, John Keats and John Clare.

That romanticism is tempered by his working method. He wanders the city, recording details on small notebook sheets: some cinder blocks here, a road sign and an abandoned shopping cart there. Later, in the studio, he montages selected studies into a large drawing, which in turn becomes the basis for an oil painting. Sloan’s landscapes are thus strictly imaginary compositions, though the details they depict are taken from the world. Sloan stresses his pictures’ “constructedness” through his use of non-naturalistic colour — acidic blues, reds and oranges predominate — and hallucinatory shifts in perspective. Objects leap forward and back in space; road signs and storefront symbols seem to float, unanchored, in mid-air.

Sloan’s practice is hard to pin down because of its eccentric fusion of art-historical sources. Sloan claims he was inspired by an Ontario artist named Clark McDougall. To my eye, McDougall is a minor artist who borrows heavily from Edward Hopper and Charles Burchfield. Sloan is more ambitious  — more cosmopolitan  — than McDougall. I think his deeply idiosyncratic pictures are more productively compared to those of some of the weirder offshoots of British pop art, like Patrick Caulfield and Julian Opie. Sloan’s work shares their wit and refusal of painterly facility, as well as their fascination of printed symbols and their interest in the way that handmade images can incorporate graphic elements in which every semblance of handmadeness is ruthlessly suppressed.

Not all of Sloan’s pictures are equally successful. I prefer many of his drawings to the paintings made from them. The drawings are more spacious than the paintings; they “breathe” and their hallucinatory, montage-like quality is more pronounced. But images like the painting Kingsway in Autumn, which depicts a storefront awning and a slice of windy blue sky, and the drawing December 27th, which emulates the composition of a 19th-century Japanese woodblock print, are some of the wittiest, most accomplished artworks I know. Make time for them.