Painter explores the nature of understanding through an exploration of the nature of space
Six years ago, Kim Ennis went on a pilgrimage.
The Saskatoon-based artist is a practitioner of the Baha’i faith. He, along with his family, went to Haifa, Israel, to visit the Shrine of the Báb, the second-holiest place for Baha’is.
The Shrine is located on Mount Carmel, and while it’s golden-domed roof and white marble structure opening out onto a sprawling garden are well documented, photos of the inside are prohibited.
Ennis didn’t know what he would find.
When he walked past the marble pillars, shook his shoes off, entered through the great, wooden doors, he came to a room filled with Persian carpets. He realized, aside from the carpets, the room was essentially featureless but for a long, narrow, veiled opening through the wall revealing the inner sanctum of the shrine.
All he could see were various objects, some of which proved challenging to discern.
“What do they mean?” Ennis wondered.
“It’s utterly unknown. This became one of my favourite places, and I returned as many times as I could, spending hours sitting on those Persian carpets in those empty rooms”
Ennis knew the experience was important. He just couldn’t describe why.
He brought the experience back from the pilgrimage with a renewed determination to find out through art.
“I’m not trying to paint a picture of the shrine or the veil or anything quite like that,” he told the small crowd gathered at the Mann Art Gallery Friday night.
“But perhaps I gained an understanding about space itself. The structure of space has significance and can carry meaning. The organization of that space in that building was itself meaningful.”
Ennis came to believe that the exploration of physical and pictorial space could be a way of approaching the subject of what lies beyond the known world.
So he started painting, each work composed of seven colours applied with a five-inch paint scraper on a piece of birch plywood. He began with two-inch squares, before moving to six, ten, 15 and finally 20 inches. Ennis settled on the 15-inch board as the one that seemed right to him.
The series of works, which can be considered as a single piece of art instead of a collection of individual creations, now numbers in the hundreds. A few dozen of those works are on display at the gallery at an exhibition that opened Friday night and runs until Jan. 12.
The works are all created using just the scraper, paint and masking tape, with the occasional use of a pallet knife. Ennis doesn’t mix the colours, rather, he paints directly from the tube, applying the thin layers one at a time in the shape and order that feels right to him.
Each piece of the work starts with the same steps. Ennis compares it to a set of opening moves in the game of chess and follows the same set of rules — seven colours, squarish shapes only, no planning. Setting those limitations help Ennis do his best to paint solely from his subconscious.
“Fifteen to 20 of these panels are all in progress at the same time,” he said.
“I’ll move continuously from one to another, and then just keep cycling back through the pile
“Part of the reason for this cycling is to short-circuit my thinking. I want to be able to paint directly from the unconscious without interfering, to the greatest extent that that’s possible. I try to do things that allow me to work without planning, without imposing my ideas as much as I can.”
It’s only after completing several of these panels that Ennis takes a step back to look at what he’s done. Sometimes, he’ll go back and carve out a section, returning it to the textured birch plank from where he started.
In that way, Ennis said, he explores the space.
“The importance of the picture is in there, inside that space,” he said. “It’s kind of a schematic diagram of how things are.”
Through his years of work on this one project, Ennis has begun to come to some realizations, and some theories, about the nature of space, and the nature of art.
One thing he discovered is that in many of the pieces, a larger object exists in the bottom right of the work, while a smaller object exists further away in the top left.
It’s a feature that’s not unique to his practice. As Ennis discovered, paintings from all cultures conducted by all ages often end up with a similar structure — something prominent in the foreground on the bottom right, and something less prominent in the background in the top left. Its’ especially common, he said, among untrained artists, and works by children
“When (children) draw a picture of their house, it’s usually in the bottom right. And the sun is in the top left.
It seems to me that there is something in us, our hardwiring that prefers that organization of pictorial space,” he said.
“What is known and familiar and secure, terra firma, that’s bottom right. What is distant and desired, and perhaps unattainable, is top left. Almost every picture, then, is a journey from what is known towards what is desired. All content of the picture is characterizing and populating that space between here and there.”
That understanding helps shape one of Ennis’ other ideas about art and about pictorial space.
He compares the creation of art to the construction of some sort of monument, some indicator of hierophany, the manifestation of the divine, an idea popularized by religious scholar Mircea Eliade.
“That’s what every work of art is from my point of view. What’s important to me is that’s what a work of art is, that marking when you caught a glimpse of something beyond your own knowledge, your own experience,” he said.
“What I hope for is that I’m putting some kind of flag up or a stake in the ground saying, this is a point, where in some tiny way, something from beyond entered my unconsciousness, something somebody else may gain access to.”
In Ennis’ theory, the space inside the picture contains both conscious elements deliberately placed by the artist, and also unconscious elements the artist can’t perceive. The same is true of the viewer.
“You have an intention toward the art. You can’t help it,” he said.
“You see some things, but there could also be content in the picture you’re not aware of. But it’s still there. Somebody else could be aware of it. Pictorial space could have several different types of content. There may be content in pictures that is common to all of us on a level we may or may not be aware of, or may be hard to conceptualize.
“That content perhaps may be some sort of spiritual guide. Not that I put it there, but it is in the picture. We have many, many ways of trying to find concepts to be able to picture things beyond our understanding.”
The paintings then, with conscious and unconscious content, with the journey to what is known and what is desired, Ennis says, are an attempt to provide an entry to another world. That lends itself to the exhibition’s title, On the Threshold.
“When you are viewing these pictures, you are standing on the threshold of a possible entry, it’s very literal,” he said.
“I’m on the threshold when I’m working on it. I’m inviting you to stand at that threshold when you’re viewing. For me as a painter, I’m trying to place myself at that threshold, so I’m one foot in each world.”