Monday, 7 November 2016




Sunlit Delivery Room with Fuschia, oil on canvas
(Photo: Tabitha Chan)
Jeff Nye's “Recovery Rooms" is a solo exhibition featuring a series of his oil paintings at the Varley Art Gallery of Markham. Nye is a Canadian artist, writer and curator based in Newmarket, ON. He received his BFA from Concordia University and his MFA from the University of Regina. This exhibition is a testament to how gallery didactics can effectively give the objects an added layer of meaning and strengthen the story being told in the exhibit.

As I walked into “Recovery Rooms," my first thought was that this exhibition must be about spaces and how colour can be used to characterize or collapse a space. At this point, I hadn't read the introductory panel or any object labels. When it comes to contemporary art exhibitions, my personal preference is to first spend time looking at the artwork without having knowledge of the artist or the context he/she is creating in.

I find this method of looking more enjoyable because it gives me a chance to have an unbiased first interpretation and attempt at “understanding" the artwork on my own. After a brief look at all the artwork, I will then read the gallery didactics to become properly informed. It's quite an intriguing experience to be able to compare my first impression to how my understanding changes after a formal explanation.

Dusk in the Delivery Room with Baby's Tears, oil on canvas 
(Photo: Tabitha Chan)
At first glance, Nye's paintings seem only to be technical studies and observations of space. After reading the extremely descriptive object labels, I realized there was a lot more to the work. Phrases like “Delivery Room" and “Baby's Tears"jumped out at me. Each painting depicts a specific room at a specific time of day, confirming part of my original interpretation. All of the rooms are lived spaces, both domestic and institutional (homes, workspaces and hospitals).

Looking at the work a second time after reading the object labels, I took a step back and tried to visualize the comprehensive space Nye was depicting. I noticed how the contrast between light and dark colours created shadows and depth - shapes that looked like windows and doors. I took a step forward and began to notice smaller details, like what objects were painted in each room - trees and potted plants. What was the meaning behind the juxtaposition between linear planes of space and the figural scribble marks?

Dusk in the Delivery Room with Baby's Tears, oil on canvas, detail 
(Photo: Tabitha Chan)
I thought about the relationship between how the work was painted and how it was described in its object label. Nye's application of oil paint is thick and heavy. Each brushstroke can be seen, and almost felt viscerally because of its physicality. As a viewer, you don't know what his first and last brushstroke was. Nye has chosen specific colours to evoke a particular mood in each painting in relation to the time of day described in the label. What does dusk feel like?

All of these components point to the life of an environment and how physical spaces are markers of memory. I read the introductory panel and learned that Nye had lost his daughter: “Through these works, the artist invites us to witness his private struggle, one that has affect both his professional and private life. Like scars accumulated upon the surface of the canvas, Nye uses the colour and texture of the oil paint to bring up memories of a specific time and space."  

Overcast Morning in the Living Room with Sapphire Showers, oil on canvas 
(Photo: Tabitha Chan)
Learning about this one biographical detail again added an entirely new layer of meaning to the work. I suddenly saw each painting, each room, as memories of a bigger story. The physical spaces depicted were linked to psychological spaces of transition. Nye's paintings are not simple - the choices in colour, the application of paint and the interweaving composition are all components that strengthen the overarching story. How can painting describe emotions of heartbreaking loss and unimaginable grief? From personal experience, as an artist, the act of making art is a way to make sense of the world and sometimes to preserve a past that inevitably slips out of reach.
Bright Daylight in the Studio with Prayer Plant, oil on canvas 
(Photo: Tabitha Chan)

The mnemonic spaces in these paintings are places that I have called home, places where I have worked, and spaces within hospitals. The houseplants that wind their way through the compositions are mementos, purchased on each anniversary of the loss of our baby daughter, Angelica. These paintings are a way of making sense of change – those life and death moments that throw us off balance, or send us spinning out of control altogether." (Source - Artist's Website)

Sunset in the Potting Shed with Baby's Tears, oil on canvas 
(Photo: Tabitha Chan)


Abstract art can seem intimidating because the artist's intent is more elusive. I hope through my experience in this exhibit, you've realized that there is definitely more to abstract painting than meets the eye. I think it's important to remember that it's okay not to understand or to know exactly what the artist is trying to say. Even if you read all of the gallery didactics, or go to an artist talk, you will never have a complete understanding of what the artist is trying to convey. And that's okay. You're not the artist.

How do you approach contemporary abstract art exhibitions? Are you like me, and enjoy forming your own first impressions? Or do you read the introductory panel and object labels before looking at any of the artwork?

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