By Christine Clark, October 2011
The costs and rewards of the artist’s life.
John Luna is telling a story. He is perched on a high stool, his face looking down at me as he speaks; there’s a continuous and agile flow of conversation, ideas and references, quite astonishing to experience. His dark eyes are tender with understanding; his voice is gentle; he uses his hands. He’s talking about inebriation; that seductive other reality that exists in perfect splendour alongside the sober day, eclipsing, for long moments, the struggle that is life. Not the drunkenness of alcohol, but of adulation.
The story has to do with giving a talk to a group of fellow artists at a gallery one spring night, earlier this year; it has to do with being successful within the microcosm of Victoria’s artistic community. Everyone was laughing, he says, and having a wonderful time. It was intoxicating and complete. When he returned home, his wife was waiting. She wanted to talk about money, about not having enough money. And this is the difficult part—this paradox: to be triumphant and at the same time, vulnerable. Financially. It’s unfathomable, but it’s real, and in the end he says, with emphasis, “there is only so long you can continue to demand support from the people around you.” His tone is grim, but not resentful.
John Luna is accomplished. His practice as an artist, a writer and a teacher is rigorous and profoundly generous. No absinthe-sipping bohemian, he. Luna began teaching long before he completed his MFA at the University of Calgary in 2002, working as a teaching assistant at the Victoria College of Art back in the mid-’90s while still a student. Since that time he has amassed enormous experience as an educator, most famously at the Vancouver Island School of Art, where he was instrumental in helping develop the well-known Slide Room Gallery. As a writer, his gorgeous and erudite essays on art have been widely published, and as a visual artist he has produced solo exhibitions and participated in group shows throughout Victoria, Western Canada and the US.
But all of this is not enough. There are obligations to be considered. Debts to be addressed, financial and otherwise. He has recently taken a position as an art and art history instructor at Brentwood College School, a monumental change of lifestyle on the cusp of his 40th birthday, one which he believes will be very beneficial to his family.
He expects that his work will change as well. The body of art John has been engaged with since grad school is as rich and complex as the artist himself. They are paintings and they are sculptures; physical and three dimensional, designed to hang away from the wall and to have more than a single face.
The earliest piece began as a solution to the problem of sagging canvas. Rather than re-stretching the painting, he freed it entirely and began to apply papier mâché to its back. He explains, “that mâché was a controlled thing, but a little compulsive too and very pleasurable. This was the picture that ended up being called ‘Canyon.’ It was on burlap that had gotten very stiff with rabbit skin glue, and really became this shell-like form. I worked on one side then the other, oil on the painting side and acrylic and glue on the mâché side, enjoying the sense of avoiding the one side while working on the other.”
Since then, these works have come to incorporate frames and stitching and old copies of Camus’ and others’ books. If not sold or destined for another show, they are often dismantled and re-used in new works. Nothing is new, everything old and found. Fragments of canvas and string and paper are tied in and glued on; there is binding and wrapping. They are very human-feeling, peeling and ragged, somewhat frail and aged; desiccated survivors of some great dominating force: life, the artist, time. There is compassion. Nothing is vulgar; the colours and the materials recognizable and so, somehow steadying; remnants of a bygone era when paintings were blue and black and white and showed the sky and the sea; sometimes idyllic, sometimes nostalgic. But as unusual, perhaps, as it sounds, and really as rough as these works are, they are delicate and so kind. You can stand beside them and look into their centres and never feel scared. They are transcendent and magic, an incantation of acceptance. It’s important “to get through to where the work is light, getting away from the heaviness—to give people a sense of relief,” he says, and he does.
John’s studio is in the basement of his family’s home. The space is small; a corner carved out of a vast storehouse of toys and household equipment: unused light fixtures and other forgettable domestic items. A black shelving unit filled with books and a large torn canvas provide the studio with boundaries. Small tables are covered in thick drips and spills, there’s a wooden armchair and a rust coloured rug embedded with scraps of torn paper and other detritus. The actual walls are padded in a thick layer of temporarily unused materials.
As we talk, a small antique window conducts the brilliant September sunshine into his studio. We are momentarily interrupted by two curious 10-year-olds, one of whom is John’s daughter, the youngest of his three children. From upstairs can be heard the constant to and fro of feet moving from room to room. Spiders’ egg sacs hang in multitudes from the wooden beams overhead, and the moment has a clarity in it that makes it hard to leave, even when it is time to leave.