John Climenhage: the substance of an artist

John Climenhage in front of one of his abstracts from his TRANsubstance exhibit.

John Climenhage with one of the abstracts from his TRANsubstance exhibit.

“TRANsubstance” is the name of the new exhibition of paintings by John Climenhage, which opened on Sunday at the Visual Arts Centre (VAC) of Clarington. A former Orono resident who ran the Chapman East Gallery on Orono’s Main St., Climenhage now resides in Peterborough. The artist presents a series of abstract works for this, his first show at the VAC, which runs through to April 20th.

Also known for his interesting landscapes and streetscapes, many of which reference the style of Group of Seven painter Tom Thompson, Climenhage is too philosophically expansive to be confined to one genre. And so, this collection is a move away from landscape to, if you will, geo-political landscape. Painted in oil on a variety of surfaces, these abstracts all meditate on perception, whether it is the perception of reality (material substance) or the perception of meaning (spiritual substance).

One series of paintings in this exhibition attempts to capture and comment on the reality of the current geo-political situation in the Middle East. And it succeeds. Incorporating flat black surfaces up against vivid waves of colour, the paintings have a disorienting feel to them. They are suggestive of the disorientation we might feel trying to make sense of world events, while providing an emotional immediacy that is often lacking in the graphic but repetitive scenes of violence shown by the media. With Figures at a Suicide Bombing, Wedding in Jordan, Battle Scene, and Afghanistan Nocturne, Climenhage asks us to examine the nature of reality and how we look at the world.

“There is no sense of gravity, or access to perspective (the vanishing point),” explains VAC curator Maralynn Cherry in the press release for the exhibition. “Rather, the eye and body are caught in a visceral wave of activity. Motion is linked to a world of immediate events imploding in a simultaneous multi-dimensional fabric.”

Cherry goes on to discuss Climenhage’s approach. “He shifts scale, flips between horizontal and vertical and …fractures his surfaces. Combined, these gestures are shaping an architecture of force,” she says.

Indeed, the violence suggested in some of the paintings’ titles is further expressed in the juxtaposition of space, colour and motion within the pieces. At the VAC to prepare for the opening, Climenhage allows that the paintings are meant to challenge us, but notes, “They’re not supposed to preach.”

“While the paintings are not completely dark and desperate, the theme is violence, basically. It is man’s inhumanity to man, that is the theme,” he says. “Hopefully people come away thinking about that.”

Born in Brockville, Ontario in 1968, Climenhage has been painting, teaching and exhibiting throughout Canada and the U.S. since 1989. His long-standing interest in existential philosophies and quantum physics, evident in “TRANsubstance,” was first developed when he moved to Victoria in 1994. There he joined what became known as the Chapman Group, along with acclaimed oil painter and teacher, James Gordaneer, philosopher Raymond Lorenz, and Gordaneer’s son Jeremy. Climenhage spent five years as a member of the group, dedicated to intensive studying and painting.

Climenhage says that after he and Cherry looked at some of his earlier pre-Chapman pieces together, he realized that he had similar themes and concerns running through his work for many years. Spatial construction, which he takes on playfully in Suggestion #58 (2008), is one such concern. Approximately 48” by 56”in size, Suggestion #58 consists of 42 interchangeable panels, each 8” by 8”. The panels, which can be set up differently each time, consist of flat black surfaces, white surfaces, and areas of coloured structure. “This flat surface is sometimes a negative space, and sometimes a positive space. So it flips between being a background and being a foreground, being a subject, and being a support for the subject,” explains Climenhage.

“I have always been interested in these disjointed pieces that are trying to still fit in,” he says. “ I guess that was part of the appeal of the Chapman Group. One of the things we were trying to do was reconcile the dichotomy between foreground and background worlds, which was this Euclidean geometry that had been given to us by the Renaissance. We are saying, ‘Oh, that’s impossible’ because at a quantum level we know there is no space between us. And apparently, there is no space between the outside of the expanding universe and us. So where does this space come from? I don’t have any particular answers, I’m just asking the questions.”

Climenhage also poses questions involving social awareness, the nature of reality, and how we find meaning in our world. Originally inspired by “The Disappeared,” the victims of political cleansing in a number of South American countries in the 1980s, Climenhage cites theology, and especially liberation theology, as having informed his pursuit of social realism in his art.

“I was concerned with the fact that you could have all these atrocities going on, and no one is, in a traditional theological way, bearing witness to them in a permanent way. The media just presents it in an attempt to shock you, but it really has no lasting impression. There was no way to make a memorial or a monument about it. So, I started thinking, particularly with The Disappeared, that it would be interesting to make a series of portraits of people who had disappeared just to show that these are the people that they tried to erase, and they were not erased. Not that the paintings would bring them back, but they would become something that other people could use as an entry point to think about these things.”

This concern with social art and current events is evident throughout the “TRANsubstance” exhibition. For example, Wedding in Jordan is an abstract depiction of an actual event in Jordan in 2005 in which three suicide bombers detonated themselves in the middle of a wedding celebration. And again, Climenhage references art history.

“With these three repeated panels inside the panels, it’s sort of poking at the idea of abstract expressionism in painting, which was these bold gestures. Abstract expressionism was in some ways the most individualized artwork of human history. Now we know, it just cannot be about your navel; you have to open it up and include the world. So there is a resonance between these bold gestures, and suicide bombers and a fake bold gesture,” says Climenhage.

On the second floor of the VAC installation is displayed a series that Climenhage calls “The Yellow House Elegies,” which he says is “loosely based on Van Gogh’s Sunflowers.” The Yellow House was the name of Van Gogh’s rented home in Arles, in the French countryside, where he painted Sunflowers. Also upstairs, Climenhage presents one work done on a large piece of Mylar. “You can see through it, and it picks up what’s in the background,” he says. Hanging in the centre of the space, the piece can be viewed from a variety of angles. It can be looked at and looked through. And once more, as the substance changes, Climenhage challenges our perception.

The Visual Arts Centre is located at 143 Simpson Ave., in Bowmanville (east on Baseline from Liberty St., then north onto Simpson Ave.). For more information, call 905-623-5831.

John Climenhage is available for commission and can be reached at His work can also be seen on the web at His landscape work is currently on display at Black Honey café in Peterborough until mid-April. The series, which depicts an invented lake, can also be viewed at

The artist will be teaching an evening course in outdoor oil painting through the Art Gallery of Peterborough on Tuesday nights starting May 6th. He will also lead a one-week outdoor abstract expressionism oil painting workshop through the continuing education program at Loyalist College at the end of July. Spaces in both courses are still available, but filling fast.


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