Michael Hermesh’s most famous fine art is sculpture, but works also with paint producing the same wonderfully morbid feeling seen in any other artwork of his.
Like great architecture, there are ideas that have existed nearly as long as humans have spoken in full sentences. One of the main ones being the idea that the world is going to Hell in a hand-basket. A sentiment most strongly expressed by the fine art world and artists working with paint and many other mediums. The prime example, of course, being the absurdist energy and nihilistic fury of the Dada Movement, a fine art movement in inter-war Europe. While not the socio-economic tinderbox that was the Weimar Republic, Canada in the mid-1970s was far from a Rockwellian dream, much of the British traditions of classism and rigid, top-down government continuing in several former colonies well past the age of Empires. It was in this environment in which artist Michael Hermesh cut his teeth and sharpened his pencils in the art gallery. Though having attended some of the best art schools the West Coast had to offer, including the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design, Hermesh has a fire in his belly and razor in his eyes like that of notorious British painter Francis Bacon, with a drawing style closely resembling that early 20th century German illustrator George Grosz, though with a bit more sarcasm and optimism in his artwork.
A creator of much artwork and many mediums, Hermesh is best known for his distinctive, and unsettling, paint and paintings. Notable for many reasons, one of the most obvious is their size in any art gallery. In a reaction to the ostentation of the work of the time, Hermesh’s work tends toward the smaller end, only getting up to 12″ x 10″ at the top end, some getting as small as 7.25″ x 5.25″ at their smallest. Despite his streak of contrariness, Hermesh’s artwork is possessed of particular themes that become clear before very long, much made apparently by his somewhat literalist use of iconography. Two of the strongest examples of this milieu are The Son and The Cure for Darkness. The first takes a page from the Pink Floyd book of symbolism, providing an 11.25″ x 9.25″ window into madness, depicting a British-style school boy wearing a black school blazer with a white dress shirt and a thin red tie. Black and red, it should be noted are traditional colors of both Republicanism and Anarchism, both ideologies that have fought against the oppression of total systems, be it Monarchy or top-down government in general. White is, of course, the color of purity. The boy is on a long country path with green fields on either side. In the fields are large black birds. While not clear these are either crows [death] or ravens [tricksters in Native American and Canadian legends]. The knockout punch, however, is a touch of surrealism worthy of Salvador Dali. On the boy’s head, worn like a hat, held in place with a length of the type used to tie nooses, is a scale model of an old-world church, surrounded by white, Holy light. Were Hermesh from England where uniforms are required of all students including in public school, the meaning would be more difficult to pin down. Because he is Canadian however and such uniforms are restricted to private schools, particularly by the unusually powerful Catholic school boards of Manitoba and Quebec, the painting comes across as a criticism of religious education and how it seeks to repress the pure, freedom-seeking chaos of youth.
The Cure for Darkness, while even more somber in its execution than The Son, carries a much more hopeful message, strange as it may seem at first. Another artwork of Hermesh’s larger fine art in paint, coming in at 11″ x 15″, Darkness depicts the scene of a little drummer boy, dressed in what appears to be a Hitler Youth uniform – required outfits being another theme – driving away a large, dark, ominous figure in a long coat and hat, accompanied by a large black dog. Both the figure and the dog are only seen from behind. A similar figure is seen in a different painting, crossing an elaborate Finish Line like those seen at marathons. Adding an extra bit of creepy is the fat that the figure is the only living thing in the scene and there is nothing much beyond the Finish Line except more road. While not as on the nose as The Son, The Finish Line, despite the literal title, comes off like an exercise in absurdity, saying that life, as lived by most people, is a pointless race against yourself with no real end, let alone reward. It is not the cosmic absurdity of Jean-Paul Sartre, base don the meaningless of life in a Godless universe but a sort of social absurdest, undermining the supposed ‘rules’ of life in ‘polite’ society by subverting them, through willful and point surrealism, at times reaching the point of pointed mockery. This is most clearly demonstrated by the artwork done in paint The Coincidence and its sister fine art in paint The Contrived Situation. Not only linked by the concept they are mirror images of each other. In the former, a male figure in a dark suit and red tie (perhaps the figure in The Son grown up after having the chaos beaten out of him?), holding a briefcase stands in what appears to be the lobby area of an office building. There is an uncomfortable-looking chain on one side of him and a squat, white, flap-doored trashcan on the other. The only thing that is in any way out of the ordinary is that, while viewed from the front, the face of the figure cannot be seen. This is because the figure’s face, and indeed whole head from the neck up, is obscured by a large, dark lined storm cloud. ‘The Contrived Situation’, at a much smaller 7.25″ x 5.25″ depicts a similar scene, except the chair is now much smaller, almost child sized and is on the right side instead of the left and the trashcan, in another call back to ‘The Son, has been replaced by a scale model of a church. The suited figure itself has been replaced by a nude, female figure, devoid of any body hair, her head similarly obscured by a storm cloud. And this is his more mainstream stuff
For pure, unadulterated bizarro, one must travel to the far side and see the artwork in paint known as The Fish Hunter. Centered around an ancient fisher-woman in a long white gown, holding a trident, dead fish tied to her back by ropes wrapped about her person, is everything else in the picture that is a pure example of what-the-hell? To the left of the titular fish hunter is a bay of blue water, holding an island just big enough to put a house. Floating above this is a fish-shaped hot-air balloon, the silhouette of a pterodactyl just ahead of it in the sky. Immediately to the left, before the drop off into the water is a bit of grassy land upon which stands a single, bare black tree, behind which stands the figure from Darkness and Finish Line watching the Fisher Hunter as she goes on her way. Immediately behind her is a crab, crawling towards a storm drain. Behind this is on the green patch is a chopping stump with an ax stuck it. In the distance behind her, rising out of a rocky embankment are to battlements like those seen on a castle, a third smaller embankment holding a small windmill. Between the embankments and the chopping stump are three, frosty-style three section snowmen. Apparently able to survive the sun. Take that ‘rational order’
Michael Hermesh shows his fine art and other kinds of artwork in the Lloyd Art Gallery, Tutt Street Art Gallery, White Rock Art Gallery, and Petley Jones Art Gallery just to name a few.
Written by T.K. McNeil
Attending art galleries before his age was in the double digits, T.K. McNeil has had a long-standing interest in art. An interest he made official obtaining a degree in Art History form the University of Victoria. Starting out at The Martlet Independent Newspaper, he has had pieces placed in publications as diverse as TechDigg, The Richest, The Spoof UK (as Trey Droll) and PopMatters.
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