A deep sense of loss and grief emanate from Howard Lonn’s paintings in his solo exhibit Requiem for John Brown 1953-2020, at Birch Contemporary. Comprised of nine paintings, the exhibit memorializes and reflects on the death of Lonn’s lifetime friend John Brown, who passed unexpectedly on March 21st, 2020. Lonn and Brown’s friendship spanned 43 years, beginning in 1977, when they both attended the Ontario College of Art & Design (OCAD). Over the years, the artists travelled together and shared a studio space, developing a close friendship. Through skillful compositions of space and colour, Lonn’s paintings convey the type of heartache that comes with losing a longtime friend, as well as the isolation and solitude that have characterized the last two years of pandemic lockdowns.
Installation views of Howard Lonn, Requiem for John Brown 1953-2020 at Birch Contemporary. Photo: Jennifer Boothby
While Lonn’s paintings often feature enigmatic representations, allowing viewers to derive their own meanings from the works; there are several consistent themes running through this exhibit. Lonn’s distinctive use of colour catches the eye and draws in viewers. Many of the paintings feature unnatural colours such as teal and fluorescent pink—perhaps evoking the emotionally jarring news of Brown’s unexpected death, or the ‘unnatural’ state of the world over the last two years.
Another consistent theme through the exhibit is Lonn’s strategic placement of elements to construct spaces. Using a few geometric planes of colour in each painting, Lonn creates spaces that evoke either a sense of confinement or a sense of freedom. Most of the paintings feature a complex interplay between a foreground figure and the background planes of colour, to convey meaning.
Lonn’s use of colour and space are particularly evident in Requiem for John Brown I—one of three large canvasses displayed on the north side of the gallery, that communicate the artist’s reaction to Brown’s death. The painting features a vibrant pink figure in a room defined by solid planes of grey, green, and dark purple. The figure appears to be hunched over, kneeling on the ground as though in mourning. A horizontal brushstroke on the figure’s left suggests an outstretched leg, while on the right, a few vertical brushstrokes subtly indicate a bent knee and foot. Straight strips of blank canvas define the edges of the space, and suggest that the figure is confined.
The painting also displays how Lonn uses the material qualities of paint to convey emotion through his works. The background planes are smooth, solid blocked-in colours, contrasted by the rough brushstrokes and splatters of the foreground figure. This use of paint conveys the figure’s raw emotion, literally dripping onto the floor, against the static backdrop.
While contemplating the painting, I was struck by how the large scale allowed me to transpose myself into the space and feel a sense of confinement and grief. The black box to the right of the figure made me think of a vacant window to the outside world, heightening the sense of solitude.
Howard Lonn, Requiem for John Brown I, 2020-2021, oil on canvas, 84” x 66”. Courtesy of Birch Contemporary
In contrast, Lonn’s painting Requiem for John Brown II, employs a thick white border to create a distinct separation between the viewers and subject matter. Rather than transposing ourselves into the painting, the border creates the sense that we can only experience the subject matter through a window or frame. In some ways, the painting imparts less of a sense of confinement than the other works in the exhibit. There are no distinct edges or planes that suggest a restrictive space. Yet, there is also an inherent frustration in feeling trapped by the frame, as though we can only access a small part of the world Lonn has created.
Like many of Lonn’s paintings, Requiem for John Brown II features a gradient background painted in broad horizontal brushstrokes, which move the viewer’s eye across the canvas. The background smoothly progresses from a pale yellow at the bottom, through pinks and reds, to a deep burgundy at the top. While the colours evoke a sunset, a series of bright blotches appear to hurtle past the viewer, like stars or comets. Based on the title of the painting, it seems that the bright patches might represent Brown himself, as a source of light against a backdrop of chaos—a theme that Lonn seems to revisit in other paintings throughout the exhibit.
As I stepped closer to the painting, I was again struck by Lonn’s use of materials. The white border appears to have been painted rather haphazardly, with pencil marks and black flecks visible through the paint. Likewise, the red rectangle is not cleanly constrained within the white border. Rather, drips and smudges of red paint stain the bottom and sides of the painting. This use of materials gives the painting a sense of immediacy, as though it is a direct translation of Lonn’s reaction to Brown’s death, unmitigated by excessive precision.
Howard Lonn, Requiem for John Brown II, 2020-2021, oil on canvas 72″ × 84″. Courtesy of Birch Contemporary
Two of the most powerful paintings in the exhibit capture Lonn’s interpretation of the minutes before Brown’s death. Entitled Jack’s Last Minute on Earth I and Jack’s Last Minute on Earth II, the paintings are small but striking, positioned side-by-side in the centre of the gallery’s south wall. Both features brightly coloured vertical peaks cutting upwards through blue-black backgrounds painted in broad horizontal strokes. From the bottom of each painting, a black mass seems to rise up, encroaching on the bright peaks.
At first glance, the bright peaks in these paintings reminded me of city skyscrapers lighting up the night sky. The peaks appear to be glowing like flames, surrounded by a light teal colour that bleeds out into the dark backgrounds. However, reflecting on the pieces, I began to envision the bright peaks as Brown’s life, shining against the dark backdrop of the pandemic and state of the world. The black sections at the bottom of the paintings could symbolize death encroaching on Brown—threatening to overcome the light. While the glowing peaks in the paintings are beautiful, there is also a sadness in that as they seem temporary—as though they will eventually fade into the background, or will be overcome by the darkness. Further, the black expanses lend a sinister feeling to the paintings, as though viewers are witnessing the beginning of a tragic event that has not quite materialized.
L-R: Howard Lonn, Jack’s Last Minute on Earth I (left) & II, (right), both 2021, oil on canvas, 36″ × 32″. Courtesy of Birch Contemporary
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Lonn’s exhibit is how the paintings sketch a portrait of Brown’s life and death. While three large paintings convey Lonn’s reaction to Brown’s death, a series of smaller paintings chronicle different parts of Brown’s identity and the moments before his death. Right at the end of the exhibit, visitors encounter a painting called Flame Job (capilla ardiente), which translates to “funeral chapel.”
Howard Lonn, Flame Job (capilla ardiente), 2020-2021, oil on canvas, 48″ × 36″. Courtesy of Birch Contemporary
The exhibit brings visitors on a journey through the grief of losing a friend, and the power of art in coming to terms with major loss.
Exhibition information: Howard Lonn, Requiem for John Brown 1953-2020, December 9, 2021 – February 5, 2022, Birch Contemporary, 129 Tecumseth Street Toronto. Gallery hours: Wed–Fri 10am–6pm, Sat 11am–5pm.