THE PAINTINGS OF JOHN MARS
by Stuart Broomer
The paintings of John Mars are assembled through time–layer upon layer, element upon element, point upon point—all the time moving in time toward timelessness.
John Mars has been painting most of his life, setting out as a teenager in the early ‘70s to paint in a freely expressive manner. Call it abstract, call it expressionism, call it abstract expressionism. Everybody did and does. His early mature work, from 1976-79, gives the impression of watercolour, though it was largely done in Liquitex and collage. Besides using full-strength paint, John would sometimes water down the Liquitex to the point where it looked like watercolour; further, he’d pre-soak the collage materials—newsprint mainly–in Liquitex to give them the same washed-out look. The paintings often suggested landscape, though landscape of the most abstracted kind, whether caught by an insect eye (likely a water insect) or satellite photos from space. This work could be executed quickly—it’s light and colorful and true to its media—and it was widely shown in the 1970s and 1980s.
John Mars might have gone on doing this—painting accessible works that could find a ready home in galleries and making the usual social relations that paintings make. Instead his work took a different turn, a deeply hermetic one, with each painting taking years to build up, to compound its dense, sometimes impenetrable idea of its own surface.
In a sense, John Mars and his painting together make a fundamental decision about the relation of the painting and the social. John Mars, who is also a musician, begins to write songs and sing in folk-rock contexts. It is the most immediate and social form of making art. It contains actual verbal messages—that is, it is able to say things comfortably and evidently mean those things—and it’s got a beat.
This social art allows the painting to pursue its own hermetic journey, into the temple of its own perceptions, its own meanings, its own spirit. In a sense temporarily freed of social responsibilities, the paintings of John Mars undertake a retreat (in the spiritual sense), an initiation, a hermitage (somehow suggestive of a mysterious gathering of paintings in Czarist Russia that have joined together to illuminate themselves with their own mysterious inner light). Vestigial elements of landscape would gradually disappear from the work, John now remarking: “Currently I think of my paintings as being purely ‘non-objective.’ That’s quite an old-fashioned term that is not really used nowadays, but I think that it sums up what I’m doing pretty accurately. I don’t think that I am abstracting anything.”
John will call and talk about the paint that is drying in his studio while new layers of paint begin to accumulate on other paintings—all this painting and drying going on to the music of Thelonious Monk and Albert Ayler and John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Some of the paintings will accumulate paint for decades, all of them will acquire layers of memory, meaning and spirit, paint drying, curing, maturing and distilling itself.
It is this immersion in the processes of time that begins to play with the idea of scale. John travels to Buffalo to view the collection at the Albright-Knox, most notably the enormous canvases of Clyfford Still, yet he takes great pleasure in examining Still’s letters in the gallery archives, sensing Still’s spirit in the smaller sheets of writing paper as well. He collects art books and 45 rpm records with picture sleeves, small and portable and even jewel-like compressions of the liveliest data.
This displacement of scale is evident when viewing the paintings on John’s web-site. Units of measurement mean nothing; as well as works that are 6’ by 4’, Mars creates dense and deep (thick, yes, but literally profound) paintings that are the size of a CD cover. Individual works can suggest both the scale of geological formation and the micro-precision of great miniaturists. Abstract works are embedded with jewel-like stalagmites of paint, as if someone named Gustav (Moreau or Klimt) had become a (more) abstract expressionist. Are the measurements in inches or meters, and is there any necessary meaning to scale?
THE SECRET LIFE OF PAINT
In the paintings of John Mars, colours seem to explode into one another—there is a sense in which colour here conspires to find new methods to construct meaning, as if the painting might discover not merely something previously unrepresented (though that’s here in abundance), but a new method of reproduction. As abstract as these paintings are, occasionally the smaller ones will suggest the detail and precision of an erotic miniature especially beloved by a Moghul Emperor.
It is essential that the paintings of John Mars are without name, for there is nothing about them about language. They are profoundly non-discursive, and the viewer will talk to a painting long before the painting makes the same (insane) social gesture. Perhaps they are to be named by their owners, like fearful adoptive parents perpetually terrified by the genetic mysteries within their midst.
In a sense it is the most musical of painting—its senses heightened by decades of listening to Charles Mingus and Eric Dolphy. Time is codified, an essence of spirit that is only tentatively still, its gestures caught in a kind of spontaneous perfection. There are passages of the most luminous graphic notation, as if these paintings, unforgiving of words, would happily be performed as music.
So how can we see stalactites and stalagmites without entering caves, or catch their icy equivalents in remote waters? When dreams of flight wed the drip of chemical-rich water, the two may refine themselves into dreams of stalactites viewed looking up into the night sky or stalagmites seen from the air.
Certain truths of our experience are temporarily suspended in these paintings. We will simultaneously experience paintings which are at once insistent on the surface while carrying on the three-dimensional life of sculpture and the eerie life of the palimpsest, here not a text but an abstract gesture that has been laid over an earlier field of colour. In the stillness of the paint we become aware of a signature trajectory, a force that will move with some regularity our eye from the upper left region of the painting to the lower right. We move subjectively, but we also move directly, as if there are certain physical laws unique to this collection of works. Depth and height appear at times to exchange notions of foreground and background. Is that dark form presence or absence, something or nothing?
At the same time, gravity appears to have been displaced as a principle, instead left to appear randomly, pulling a field of colour northward, while it is unable or unwilling to divert a spear of colour, a sudden highlight that pokes outward at the viewer. Ezra Pound observed the “rose in steel dust” that appeared as metal filings assembled in a pattern around a magnet, but here the metal filings have been diligently applied to chinks and crevasses already awaiting them in the paint. At times there is a sudden muting of colour as wax has appeared on the painting, a fugitive element likely returned from the “lost wax process.”
These paintings seem to issue from the laboratory and processes of alchemy, and our eye will be drawn to products of disparate and heterogeneous arts. In one painting there is a grape-like cluster, suggesting the richest of plants (it has inspired religious texts) and one that conspires with the intoxicating powers of time. In another painting, there is a parliament of blues, violet and cerulean and indigo and cobalt, each more mysterious than its name and each unique, though compounded of similar elements.
In each of the paintings figures or shapes will appear, sometimes it’s just “the thing flying around” (in John’s words), something that may eventually elude our imagination of the stillness of paint to alight where it longs to be. Sometimes it’s a benign phalanx of shapes drifting towards us; at other times, these are figures on parade that will march to the right edge of the painting forever.
Each of these paintings will make its own journey to meaning, and so will we.
Stuart Broomer currently writes on cultural matter for Toronto Life, pointofdeparture.org, Signal to Noise, Musicworks, and All about Jazz: New York. In the past his writing has appeared in C, The Globe and Mail, and numerous other publications. He recently edited Secret Carnival Workers: the Selected Writings of Paul Haines.
“When I was a young child, I had a transistor radio and would get up on the picnic table in my parent’s yard and mime to Elvis’ “Hound Dog,” Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” and Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues.” Those were my favourite songs and I caught on to a certain sense of humour that is in that type of Rock ‘n’ Roll. I’d pretend that my school ruler was a guitar as my friends sat on the ground and laughed at my performances. In retrospect, I realize that those songs had a big impact on me.
“I lost interest a while after that and as it turned out, there wasn’t much happening in Rock ‘n’ Roll in the very early sixties. It had all watered down. The next thing that came to my attention were the groups of the first British Invasion. I became a big fan of the Rolling Stones, Beatles, Dave Clark Five , The Animals and Gerry & The Pacemakers, and the New Jersey-born singer Lesley Gore. I had some tiny drumsticks that came with a toy, tin drum and began beating on a schoolbook to records my family bought me for cutting their lawn. My Dad bought me some proper sticks and by Grade 7 a snare drum with a splash cymbal attachment. Dad hooked a headphone jack into a portable record player and I began trying to figure out what was going on inside of my favourite records. I started drum lessons at Sykes Music in Brantford, Ontario under a teacher named Carl Lemke. Carl was the leader of a soul band called the Delegate Review, that had two black female singers, the Jones sisters. Carl got me into Martha & The Vandellas and The Young Rascals. The Rascals’ drummer Dino Danelli, just knocked me over and I spent most of my time practising to Dino’s records and the Stones, “Between the Buttons.”
“Pretty soon my Scalectric race car set was sold in exchange for a full set of drums. At Sykes Music , I met a kid from Burford named, Stan Baka. A great person and as a guitarist he was quick to figure out any song. We formed a band with a bassist from St. George, Kevin Cosman, whom I went to North Park Collegiate (Brantford) with. That group became John Mars and the Martians. Stan died tragically at age 24 – hit on his motorcycle by a drunk driver. The Martians played Stones, Kinks and Spencer Davis Group type Rock ‘n’ Roll and we also played some blues by John Lee Hooker and even a Thelonious Monk tune. Next we got into Lightning Hopkins and Captain Beefheart and then my cousin Chris Robinson came into the picture.”
“Chris and I started to collect 50’s and 60’s small group jazz records. My Dad had taken me to see the Thelonious Monk Quartet in Toronto for my 16th birthday. Chris started to fart around with his Dad’s saxophone at this time and we would hitch up to Chris’ place in Toronto and go to Sam the Record Man. We spent all our money on records and concerts. The Martians were a real fun outfit because we drew on influences from all over hell’s half acre. Even Albert Ayler! At the same time we were listening to jazz, I was really turned on by soul and rock; especially Sam & Dave’ Rhinoceros and Free. Paul Rodgers’ singing had a big impact on me. No one else in the Martians would sing, so I had to sing and play drums. We started writing all these funny little Rock ‘n’ Roll songs.”
When the Martians disbanded, Mars moved to Toronto where in ’73 he met jazz pianist Stuart Broomer at the Jazz & Blues Centre. They discovered a mutual interest in Ayler, Monk, Ornette Coleman among others. They began performing in groups with some of the best of Toronto’s “new thing” jazz players, including Michael Snow and the late Graham Coughtry. By 1979, Broomer & Mars formed their own piano/drums duo which lasted right up to 1987. At their peak they toured theatres, universities and the art circuit relentlessly throughout Ontario, New York, Michigan and Quebec. Their LP “Annihilated Surprise”, was especially successful on public and college radio.
“Stu Broomer and I would be driving to a concert gig in the early seventies and we’d be listening to Ornette or somebody. As soon as a song got going Stu would be able to tell you who each member of the group was. Mingus, Dolphy, Ornette, Monk – whoever’s group was playing, Stu would always be able to identify all the sidemen. I’d recognize some right away, but from playing with someone as good as Stuart is, I started to learn all the subtleties of timbre, intonation and so on.
Concurrently, Mars continued his Rock’n’Roll activities, deciding to step out from behind the drums and concentrate on singing and song writing. In ’79 he formed Brian’s Children with guitarist /songwriter Dave Templeton (Temps) and drummer Teddy Fury. They released one single (Cut Her Hair b/w Oh Yeah) which was produced by Daniel Lanois. Daniel has since gone on to produce Bob Dylan, U2, Emmy Lou Harris, Peter Gabriel as well as his own fine solo discs.
“A lot of great front men are ex-drummers,” says Mars. “James Brown, Iggy Pop, Frankie Venom, (Teenage Head) and Stevie Wonder are all guys who have inspired me in that respect. At some point, I just figured it was time to get out from behind all those things.”
Teddy Fury hammered the drums for Brian’s Children and then moved on to found the neo-rockabilly outfit, the Bop Cats (and more recently the Royal Crowns.) In ’82 Teddy introduced Mars to Bop Cats guitar wizard, Jack de Keyzer at a Hamilton, Ontario concert.
“Ever since then we’ve always gotten along famously,” says Mars. “Each of us is an ‘only child’ and, we share the same sense of humour. We both spent a lot of time in the basement as kids, practising and listening to records and reading. Anyway Ted introduced us and the Bop Cats do their gig and I’m just flipping at hearing Jack play for the first time. Through the Bop Cats, I started to remember my roots in Rock’n’ Roll. The Bop Cats preceded even the Stray Cats in reviving ’50’s rockabilly. Because of Teddie, Jack and Gordie Lewis (Teenage Head, guitarist) I started putting Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran and Jerry Lee Lewis on my shopping list again. Even when I was playing jazz I was listening to Rock’n’Roll. Like when you make dinner, you don’t eat one thing. You put the meat, potatoes and vegetables all together. All things different can fit together.
After Broomer and Mars split, John hooked up with masterful guitarist David Essig. Realizing that David and John were both living near Paris, Ontario at the time (1988) their mutual friend Scott Merritt introduced the pair. A couple of Ontario tours followed for essig & Mars and the music reminded John that there is always more than one style to draw from.
“David plays folk and blues in the style of Leadbelly and Bukka White,” says Mars. “When he does a jazz trip he’s influenced by Anthony Braxton. I had met Anthony in the seventies and was flaberghasted by him and his drummer, Barry Altschul, who I once beat in a game of Tiddley Winks! Barry used a painting of mine on the cover of his “Brahma” LP. Essig appreciated my drumming and we had similar sensiblities when it came to impovising. He was seriously into Oriental classical and folk music and was travelling to Korea to learn to play the Kayakum. Broomer and I had been doing our folk/jazz fusion stuff like “Several Persian Miniatures” and “China” so I was already into combining ethnic folk and improvising. There was always a certain spirituality in all of this that Chris Robinson, Broomer and myself got from Albert Ayler’s work and I think Essig got from American spirituals.
Rock’n’Roll was at the time issuing a beckoning call to Mars. In 1986 he shortened the Brian’s Children moniker to The Children and formed a new band with guitarist/songwriter Aurelio Lanzalone and bassist Mark Sinkowski. For a time John’s old drum teacher Carl Lemke lent them his beat for rehearsals until they were able to enlist ex-Martian Richard Tremblay an old pal from North Park Collegiate days. The Children played basic, original Rock’nRoll with rockabilly roots and Tremblay making sure the group had a sledgehammer pulse that never belied his Keith Moon influence. The Children went through 15 membership changes in their 5 years together. They were often lauded, while a warm up act for major concert acts, but behind the scenes their interpersonal discontinuity defeated them.
In the mid-90’s Mars met the talented young guitaist Mike Ardelli and the two soon started an ad hoc group called the Natural Born Lovers, playing rockabilly/roots. With their mutual pal Glenn Kimberley (The Tin Eddies) sitting in on drums, they played a series of University concerts when Mike’s promising young life was cut short by a brain tumor at age 24. John’s old buddy de Keyzer encouraged him to soldier on.
“Jack is such a great friend and of course his music has always been a big inspiration to me,” recounts Mars. “He started getting on my case, he didn’t just put a match under my chair – he put a blow torch under it! Jack and I started writing songs and he expressed his ideas in terms of how a record should be produced for me. Between the two of us we came up with a song list and assembled a team of players.”
The result was the “Whasup?” album which reflected the styles of many of the orignators of the Rock ‘n’ Roll form that influenced Mars, including Eddie Cochran, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the Rolling Stones.
In 2000, John met Lucas Stagg a then, 19 year old singer/songwriter from Cambridge, Ontario who was leading an original Rock ‘n’ Roll outfit called ROOM 101. Lucas’ group quickly learned much of John Mars’ “Whasup?” album and, invited him to perform with them on many of their shows. A friendship developed between Lucas and John and, many a-time, late at night after doing a show, the two new pals would listen to John’s considerable record collection. Previously, Lucas had spent many a-night listening to records with his dad, the late Doug Stagg (1952-1999) who was a recording artist in his own right with a Rock group called AMISH in the 1970’s.
Somehow, Lucas and John each become tired of the responsibility of running a Rock ‘n’ Roll band. One night, John played the Byrds “Sweetheart Of The Rodeo” lp for Luke and, a lot of things changed. John and Lucas began to talk about lowering the volume and, simplifying the line-up of musicians involved in doing a show. They began to think more about the actual singing of the songs and, the telling of the stories. Next, Lucas introduced John to another young songwriter from the Kitchener-Waterloo area named CRAIG McNAIR and, the three began to work on three part harmony and, the arrangements that became John Mars’ “Detroit Or Buffalo” album.
Never content to stay in one place with his music, John is currently developing new material and, performing with guitarist extraordinaire, Paul Chapman, who also plays lead guitar for Susan Aglukark, Beverly Mahood, Jamie Warren and, Cassandra Vasik. The new songs are in an acoustic, folky vein and, Chappy and, John are looking forward to co-producing the next John Mars CD. The duo also presently performs acoustic versions of songs from John’s previous records.
John Mars was interviewed by HUGGY BUNDLE