It’s the last day of the Toronto International Art Fair and I’m here to see Dorian FitzGerald’s newest work, which is on display at the Clint Roenisch booth. I set off into the maze of gallery display spaces, flipping through the show guide to find the booth. My pace slows as I am struck by the sight of a massive painting standing against the wall at the far end of a row.
Measuring ten and a half feet high by 13 feet wide, the piece depicts the throne room of the Queluz National Palace in Sintra, Portugal, near Lisbon. Sienna and ochre paint give a sense of wet light flooding through FitzGerald’s rendering of the national landmark. From afar, the piece exudes an epic, even religious beauty. As I walk closer, the illusion unravels. The colours diverge into solid, flat forms that generate a very different architectural identity. The transformation feels like a groggy awakening from an epiphany-filled meditation.
The next time I see the painting, it is at the end of another long corridor of sorts, at the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal, where it is on display as one of the museum’s recent acquisitions. Stéphane Aquin, the curator responsible for its purchase, says that he was first “attracted by the sheer visual impact of the piece. I was impressed,” he notes, “by the painterly tour de force and the artist’s capacity to renew and re-edit the tradition of pictorial illusion toyed with by painters since Impressionism.” He adds that FitzGerald’s labour-intensive process and technique fit the over-the-top cultural extravagance of the royal subject matter.
Back in his east-end Toronto studio, FitzGerald dwells in his own kind of extravagance. The set-up for his immoderate working style verges on the bizarre. His typically grand works (the largest of his finished paintings might weigh upwards of 250 pounds) cannot be executed in the traditional upright manner; the nearly immovable pieces are installed on the floor for completion. FitzGerald has constructed from wood a sliding scaffolding contraption on which to kneel as he hovers above the painting to apply pigment. His source material is generally found photographs. After manipulating the source image digitally, FitzGerald develops and refines a detailed yet minimal colour palette; this is what gives the paintings their characteristic flat, illustrative quality. He then applies a series of calculations and prints out a coded colour inventory that he uses to mix and catalogue his paint shades before storing them in large squeeze bottles. Despite his use of a careful mathematical formula that allows him to figure out exactly how much of each colour he will need, FitzGerald describes his method as “about the most wasteful process that could be used to make these images.”
The calculations are but one of many steps he takes before actually applying paint. First, he projects a line drawing of the image onto acetate, then transfers it onto canvas. He then traces over each line with clear caulking, transforming the canvas into an intricate and elaborate topographic map, like the metal frame of a stained-glass window waiting to be filled in with coloured glass, and not unlike some sort of obsessive-compulsive version of a child’s paint-by-numbers game. Only then does FitzGerald squeeze his pigment into the caulked-out sections of the image. The only “brush” he uses is a household nail, which he uses to coax the paint into each area. One by one, the colours find their place within the painting. The latest addition to his studio is a large mirror that hangs from the ceiling at an angle that allows him to bounce a projection down onto the canvas as a guide.
As he paints, FitzGerald perches atop his self-constructed painting gurney, moving methodically across the painting to fill in one colour at a time. To an onlooker, the process is rhythmic and mesmerizing. FitzGerald modestly says, “I’m little more than a human printer.”
FitzGerald is typically self-deprecating when describing his art. He has spent a decade refining and perfecting his technique, but refuses to take credit for it. Instead, he mentions a former classmate from art school, whom FitzGerald observed working with caulking on fabric: “It occurred to me then that I could use this technique to create large paintings with uniformly flat bodies of colour relatively quickly, compared to the traditional painting technique I was using at the time.”
One of the first works that FitzGerald completed using this technique was a view of a kitchen seen through a Victorian archway. Unlike with his later works, there is nothing opulent about the scene: it is the cluttered kitchen of a young man attending art school. The painting now hangs in his studio, but is obscured by his painting apparatus. Looking at it, FitzGerald remarks, “This is the one work that I know has meaning to at least one person. When I look at it I see that time of my life. I’ll never sell it.”
No longer interested in depicting his self-described “banal” existence, FitzGerald began collecting images of extravagance and opulence in aid of what has become a long-standing critique of overconsumption and a desire to create graphic beauty from source imagery that reeks of ostentation. In his Hacker-Pschorr Beerhall, Oktoberfest, Munich, featured in 2008’s Carte Blanche, Vol. 2, the Magenta Foundation’s roundup of contemporary painting in Canada, the excesses of an Oktoberfest tent are brought to life in bold colour on four panels that together measure 18 by 12 feet. Too large for installation at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, which hosted an exhibition that accompanied the publication, the work was replaced by a painting that depicted the private yacht of the designer Stefano Gabbana (of Dolce & Gabbana).
FitzGerald is aware of the parallels between his chosen subject matter and the excess of his own process and practice. In fact, what might be called the overkill of his own painting process was what led FitzGerald into this conceptual framework. Each piece focuses a lovingly critical gaze upon what might otherwise appear to be mindless consumption. Walking by a huge panel in his studio, part of a work that would be included in a spring exhibition at Clint Roenisch, I can’t help but notice the extraordinary detail of his work. In its unfinished state, the subject is hard to work out; the defining lines are intertwined in mazes.
“It’s Elton John’s collection of sunglasses,” FitzGerald offers in response to my silent confusion. “These are just the ones from the 1970s.” Tabloid images of a dejected Sir Elton come to mind from accounts of the faded pop star’s recent failed attempt at adoptive fatherhood; he has been excluded from the widening clan of celebrity adopters. The rows of sunglasses in the painting, laughable traces of his worn star iconography, are only a conceptual stone’s throw from the Queluz palace, itself a rococo relic of colonial Portugal built from the wealth of Brazilian gold.
In this sense, FitzGerald isn’t documenting glory days; he is chronicling a falling from grace. He shows how the trip down the vulgar path of decadence and hedonism, littered with luxury debris, remains unchanged over the centuries. Architectural glories and objects of indulgence alike melt, in FitzGerald’s hands, into glossy, multicoloured plastic renderings. And yet they remain inarguably and utterly beautiful.
FitzGerald stands six foot two and sports long hair and a beard; his arguably rough look belies his gentle honesty. His response to compliments is a shy shrug and a low blush. The work is heroic, but the artist who makes it is the picture of modesty. He lets out a laugh leafing through a copy of Robb Report, a magazine that showcases luxury goods. Such are the sources of his images and he has an upcoming group show at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art to prepare for. Aptly titled “Empire of Dreams: Phenomenology of the built environment,” it should be familiar turf for FitzGerald, who knows all about empires and dreams.
This series of essays on emerging Canadian artists is sponsored by the Fraser Elliott Foundation in memory of Betty Ann Elliott