I sat down with local artist Pax North on a very chilly November evening. Before meeting, I had taken a peek at the collection of paintings displayed on his website titled “Art for the Human Condition”. The abstract portraits, painted on both canvas and cardstock, were intensely immersive, and I came to the interview eager to know more about how they came to be. North’s show (curated by Shallom Johnson) opens on Tuesday, November 10th, at Skylight Gallery. After our conversation, I am convinced it will be a rare artistic experience.
What initially drew you to the practice of painting?
Wonder. Awe. I can remember as a child in preschool, discovering the whole idea of colour in the form of either yellow or green tempura paints using vegetable prints (you know, where you cut up apples or vegetables for kids and dip them in paint and then press them onto paper). It seemed so astonishing that there could be ‘pure’ colour, divorced from an object other than the colour itself, and that one could use this to create.
Over the years I have practiced in many mediums, but painting seems to bring the most joy to people and to help them feel less alone. I try to show the vast cinema which plays across the human face, to collapse and conflate moments in life. We do this all the time, both via media imagery, which map for us an idea of what a person is supposed to be like based on their appearance, and in relationships when we commune with others.
There is also a longevity factor. We live in both a golden age and a nightmare. There are a million acts of kindness, courage, sacrifice, and horror that will be unrecorded; as Roy Batty, in Bladerunner, states, they “will be lost like tears in the rain.” I am aiming to give some record of this period in human history. A painting might be a document of such kind.
And so do you feel that painting is the best medium through which to express the spectrum of human emotion and connectivity?
Actually, I feel that crown goes to music, and to television. Right now, television is at a cultural peak: Breaking Bad, The Wire, The Sopranos, Better Call Saul, Enlightened (a highly underrated show), The Comeback (also highly underrated), and Deadwood. Even Vancouver’s own Battlestar Galactica—they really are great art.
I often use screen grabs from TV and movies as models or inspiration. I also obsessively study people’s faces, both strangers and friends. I’m sure I’ve creeped a few people out, but each human face is such a testament to some kind of profound struggle. Wendy Mass said it best: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”
I get a very mixed media or collage effect from your work. Do those elements factor in organically during the painting process?
I’ve always had this desire to have a formulaic approach to my process, but it is idiosyncratic. [My process] is purely based on what my piece demands.
I find that interesting, considering your work is consistent not only in theme but in presentation. I see your specific painting style in all of the works.
I have wanted to make a coherent body of work for a long time. That’s why I’ve taken so long to start showing the work, because I wanted a coherent style.
Who inspires you?
The whole canon of modernism and postmodernism. It’s an endless catalogue.
You mention in your artist statement that you use several cartography techniques in your work. Can you elaborate on that?
Well, I’ve done an amateur study of cartography and cartographic theory. I think that [cartography] is a very significant, cognitive, rather analytical tool that we employ while viewing the world. That fascinates me, how you have this very specialized knowledge, so much of which is cartographic or diagrammatic in nature. I also tend to think cartographically, imagining people moving through the city; I find it to be a very powerful technique for visualizing the world.
I also see references to photography, specifically time-lapse photography, in your work. Is that an influence at all?
Totally. I do think about that idea a lot, a time-lapse. Who is this person, over time and space? You walk down the street and you see so much drama on people’s faces. There’s this whole film, a micro-drama, based on all of these expressions. And it shifts so rapidly.
How does abstraction manifest in your process?
Well of course, you know, modernism. You’re competing so often against a camera for visual mimesis, and the camera wins every time, right? Jack Shadbolt had a quote about how you need to let the viewer ‘fill in’ parts of a work. At times I try and stretch it. How far can I abstract while still [portraying] a ‘face’, and one that conveys some feeling or meaning?
Do you see your works as a continuing series, or simply a collection of works functioning under one thematic umbrella?
I’m going to say both. There isn’t necessarily a defined series. I’d like to start to do more of that. But right now I would say they are more a collection of idiosyncratic works in a family. [They] riff off of each other, or are influenced by each other.
Would you consider your paintings to be optimistic about the human condition? Pessimistic? Indifferent and observational?
Fundamentally, for me, they’re optimistic. I think that no matter how dark things get, there is this light that shines, that never goes out. You don’t necessarily have to be theistic to have this view. You see it in people, in the million acts of courage that occur everyday. So maybe I’m depicting what could be seen as a dark aesthetic, but within myself, I have an optimism.
What do you find most interesting about your own work?
Well, this exhibition will only present one part of my practice. I mean, I am kind of a cliché, an artist who has been working on their practice for about twenty years in relative seclusion. Painting is a serious thing. You’re dealing with a conversation that has been going on for at least fifty thousand years. So, I wanted to take my time before I started promoting it in any kind of serious fashion. I wanted to be on solid ground. Certainly I want “success,” but for me it has always been more important to find success in making work that I feel might still be relevant two hundred years from now–wherever people are in two hundred years.
We are excited to present this show in collaboration with Hayo Magazine. Origin Stories: A Solo Exhibition by Pax North opens Tuesday, November 10th, at Skylight Gallery. Read more about it here and RSVP here.