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Dan Sharp

Dan Sharp

Studies in Grey

New Paintings and Photographs

RIA Artist’s Project Room,

May 19 – June 16

Opening: Sunday, May 19, 2013

2 pm – 5 pm

For your personal invitation, Please RSVP : researchinart.ria@gmail.com

Dan Sharp's Studies in Grey, a Work in Progress.

By Petra Halkes

In this work in progress, Dan Sharp shows a series of small canvases and some works on paper that investigate the colour grey without its attachment to specific objects, in other words, through abstraction. Sharp has persisted in a practice of abstract painting for more than thirty years-a time in which painting, both abstract and representational, has seen as many revivals as it has been scorned.[i]  What interests him about abstraction, he writes in an artist’s statement, “is its openness, where abstract forms allow the possibilities of reference and allusion.”[ii] The subtle forms and tonalities that have thus far appeared on the rectangular surfaces recall peaceful clouds as well as stormy weather, fields and shorelines, and the folds of curtains.

Seeing things where none are represented is a viewer’s natural reaction to abstraction; Sharp’s paintings facilitate such reflections. For his studies in grey, the artist himself turns to concrete objects in his immediate surroundings, at times using his camera to capture grey tonalities in his environment: pedestrians’ grey shadows on grey pavement, a utility box, or a fragment of a building. They are beautifully composed images in their own right, which are shown as a slideshow in this exhibition.

Yet Sharp does not use these photographs as source material for his paintings. His aim is not to subtract concreteness from a grey object, but to contemplate its grayness by distilling the colour from its original attachment, and re-creating it in paint on canvas.  Without a direct reference to things, the paintings become new, concrete objects in the world. They are free-floating signs, giving a physical shape to the abstractions of colour perception as well as to wordless experiences and ambiguous feelings.[iii]  Yet, despite their abstraction, these paintings ask also to be considered in terms of their tangible existence. They need to be seen for the objects they are. Sharp’s Studies in Grey show the need to create new meanings, in new configurations of concrete materiality and abstract knowledge, dreams and desires.  Finding out how the colour grey affects him in this process (and, by extension, the viewer) becomes a focus in this study.

What brought Sharp to “grey” as a topic of investigation at this time, is a planned two-month stay this summer at Wander, an artist-residency in The Hague, and his participation in the exhibition Interference which I will be curating as part of an exchange project between the Enriched Bread Artists of Ottawa (EBA) and Quartair Contemporary Art Initiatives, also in The Hague.

Unlike Sharp, most painters try hard to avoid the colour grey. They know that, when colours pile up too much, they turn into mud, a mud grey that is surely the most boring of colours. Some artists, however, like Sharp, and, most famously perhaps, the late nineteenth-century Hague School of painters, are intrigued by just this process and the endless tones of grey the layering of colours will produce. Inspired by the naturalism of the French Barbizon School, painters such as Joseph Israels, Johan Hendrik Weissenbruch and Anton Mauve painted the Dutch landscape as they saw it, which was most often under heavy grey clouds.

Anton Mauve, The Hay Cart, circa 1878-1888. Oil on Canvas. 37 cm x 31 cm. Gemeentemuseum Den Haag: 0333787

A contemporary art critic marveled at the surprising moodiness evoked by the many shades of grey these painters found in the landscape: “...They have revealed the poetry of grey in a hitherto unprecedented manner. In that grey atmosphere they find the ideal gradations of tone that they are looking for and we must recognize with admiration that they succeed in rendering what people had no idea of before with a fine sensitivity.”[iv]

On the Moors, Laren N. H. [North Holland], 1909
John William Beatty, OSA 
Oil on canvas
69.9 x 82.6 cm (27½" x 32½")
This work was purchased by 
the Government of Ontario 
from the 38th annual OSA Exhibition, 1910
Government of Ontario Art Collection, 622063

While the Hague School’s grey and cultivated Dutch landscapes and interiors provided a sense of romantic identity for Dutch people around the turn of the nineteenth century, they also gained a curious popularity with collectors and painters in the United States and even more so in Canada.[v]  Canadian painters sought to paint the Dutch scenery, interiors and peasant portraits until about 1915 – 1920 when the Group of Seven rebelled against the Dutch influence and began to paint the strong colours of the wild Canadian landscape. 

Sharp’s interest in the grey of the Hague School comes by way of this peculiar chapter in Canadian art history, but also, through his discovery of a more recent work by a Canadian artist, Juan Geuer. Sharp writes: “One of the references in my research work is a 1985 sculpture created by Juan Geuer that is titled 'Dutch Grey.’ [vi] Geuer was a Dutch-Canadian artist and scientist who in this particular sculpture explores the notion of the colour grey that contains all colours. His sculpture is a plexiglass ovoid dome that sits on a glass plate and through polarizing effects of the light, ordinary grey light shimmers with its component colours.”


 Juan Geuer, Dutch Grey. 1985. Glass plate on wooden structure, polarizing sheet, ovoid Plexiglass dome

Geuer’s interest in the grey light of the Dutch atmosphere sprang from the way it embeds all colours, as it did for the painters of the Hague School.  Gerard Bilders, one of the founding members of the group, wrote that they were:  "looking for a tone we call 'colored grey' that is, all colors however strong, so united as to give the impression of a fragrant warm grey."[vii] In his capture of the colours within the grey light, Geuer, the scientist, shows off nature as an artist in its own right. His artistic aim here, as it appears to be in much of his work, was to create a scientific object that allows the viewer to perceive the beauty of natural phenomena directly, with minimal artistic intervention.

In contrast, for Sharp, artistic intervention in the form of the craft of painting, the making of rectangular objects covered in marks in various shades of grey, becomes the task at hand. While Geuer shows us the hidden colours in the light, revealing a natural beauty, Sharp submerges colours in paint on canvas to produce grey. Similarly, within the generic marks and lines that appear on the surfaces, he submerges the infinite possibilities of symbolization.

Both representational and abstract painting rely on a visual and visceral language to communicate thought and feelings, but without the description of concrete things, this language becomes abstract paintings principal raison d’être. And for this wordless communication they demand from the viewer foremost an intense contemplation, which can be facilitated in a space set apart for such musings, not unlike a sacred space.

Which leaves me with the question of how Sharp’s Studies in Grey will hold up in the exhibition Interference, which they are meant to visit.  Interference promises to be a rather loud and perhaps confusing event. Faced with showing fifteen incongruent artists from the EBA, I decided to embrace rather than control and order the chaos and confusion of the contradictory mixture of meanings, media, and scales that the works bring forward. Anticipating vigorous and lively responses from the artists, I plan to fan the flames and incite interference by draping 100 meter of white, polyester-fibred paper throughout the gallery.

In this context, Studies in Grey, conventionally displayed in a grid on the wall, and executed in an archaic medium for which the white cube was practically invented, interferes with the space and the works in the exhibition only by its non-interference. Such non-interference corroborates the etymological root of the word “abstraction”, which is derived from the Latin abstrahere, to withdraw. The colour grey highlights this withdrawal, leads it to point zero. Can such a “sacred” space be created in the bedlam of the larger exhibition? Will Studies in Grey’s non-verbal language be heard amongst the cacophonic communication that I intend to generate in Interference?

It is my intent that the disarray of Interference will reflect and speak the language of the confusing and inequitable state of the world in general, and, in particular, represent the Canadian reality as a country of immigrants, holding on to a precarious identity that needs constant re-negotiation. I am confident that the divergent works in the exhibition can speak to such issues in a socially engaged language, using contemporary conceptual, environmental and performative strategies.

Painting, and abstract painting in particular, may seem mute in comparison, but it may well be that in the Interference exhibition, Sharp will secure a specific discursive terrain for his art which will show, by analogy, that there is a space in the social, contemporary world for abstract art in general.  I envision that Studies in Grey will demonstrate in the larger exhibition, that painting is never isolated, but, as David Joselit explicated in his essay “Painting Beside Itself,” can hold its own within a larger network. Painting is transitive, which is defined by “its capacity to hold in suspension the passages internal to a canvas, and those external to it.”[viii]

Just as Sharp’s Studies in Grey could provide an equable and equitable starting point in the discursive space of Interference, so can the openness of abstract art model an ethical attitude from which  to construct new and fair connections and systems in the world. Like all the colours it contains in its grey, Studies in Grey harbours, in its abstraction, all possible solutions to all possible dilemmas. The paintings form an open field. They are, as Sharp writes: “intriguingly open to ambiguity and doubt, desire, and uncertainty.” It is precisely such an openness that is required for social engagement and for making critical, ethical decisions. Sharp has created something which is akin to what the philosopher Jacques Derrida referred to as a space of “undecidability.”  Far from being non-political, Derrida argued that truly ethical decisions can only be made if one begins from a point in which all alternatives can still be considered. “Undecidability,” for Derrida, “opens the field of decision or of decidability.  It calls for decision in the order of ethical-political responsibility. It is even its necessary condition.”[ix]

 Taking into account the weight of history (the passed-on meanings of colours and signs), and the concrete realities of existence (the paintings as objects) Sharp’s Studies in Grey show the need to create new meanings in new configurations of concrete materiality and abstract knowledge, dreams and desires. Decisions will need to be made and re-made by considering as many viewpoints and considerations as possible. We may not always know what colours are hidden in the grey, and we may not always take the right decisions. Returning to a place of undecidability, makes our decisions open-ended, yet ethical, and turns our lives into “works in progress.”  



[1] Today, Sharp’s paintings ride a wave of resurgence of abstraction highlighted by art world events such as the Turner Prize for Tomma Abts in 2006, the Agnes Martin and Blinky Palermo retrospectives at DIA Beacon in 2010-2011 and DIAs ongoing reinstallations of Palermo’s work, the Thomas Nozkowski survey shows at several museums, including the National Gallery of Canada in 2009 etc. Anecdotally, I find that over the last couple of years, on The Painter’s Table, A Magazine of the Painting Blogosphere, which provides daily links to painting posts on painting blogs, artist blogs and art websites, there is a preponderance of abstraction. www.painters-table.com


[2]  Dan Sharp, Artist’s Statement 2013. Unpaginated. Unpublished. All quotations by Sharp in this essay are from this statement.


[3] My general musings on abstract painting, articulated in this essay, have been influenced in particular by an unpublished text by the artist Germaine Koh, which I found in my personal files: Germaine Koh, Notes for presentation at panel discussion, “Motives for abstraction: Why Use Abstraction Today?” Ottawa Art Gallery, September 17, 1994. I found these notes more useful than most of the texts I read, of which I have posted a bibliography here. Thanks Germaine! 

[4]  Jan van Santen Kolf, "Een blik in de Hollandsche schilderschool onze dagen," De Banier 1 (1875); cited (in translation) by John Sillevis, "The Heyday of the Hague School (1870-1885)," in Ronald de Leeuw, John Sillevis, and Charles Dumas, eds., The Hague School: Dutch Masters of the 19th Century(exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1983), p. 83..

- See more at: http://www.oberlin.edu/amam/Mauve_Storm.htm#sthash.xOpDs4od.dpuf

[5]Around 1900 there were more collectors of the Hague School in Montreal than possibly anywhere else in the world. The first art-historical book ever written in Canada, was E.B. Greenshield’s book on the Hague School in 1906. See:

 Griselda Pollock, Alan Chong, Art in the Age of Van Gogh: Dutch Paintings From the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. (Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 1998)

 Marta H. Hurdalek, The Hague School. Collecting in Canada at the Turn of the Century. Art Gallery of Ontario May 7 - June 26, 1983. (Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario 1983)

Alena M. Buis, Ut Picture Poesis: Edward Black Greenshields’ Collection of Hague School paintings. Master’s thesis. Montreal: Concordia . Unpublished http://spectrum.library.concordia.ca/976098/1/MR45453.pdf  p. 8

[6]   This sculpture is now in the collection of Museum Boymans van Beuningen, Rotterdam. See: http://www.juangeuer.com/work/dutch-grey.html


[7] Alena M. Buis, ibid p. 17


[8] David Joselit, “Painting Beside Itself”, October, no 130 (Fall 2009) 125 – 34. Reprinted in: Terry R. Myers, ed., Painting. Documents of Contemporary Art. (London/CambridgeMass.: Whitechapel Gallery/MIT Press 2011) p. 220


[9] Jacques Derrida, Limited Inc. (Evanston IL Northwestern University Press 1988) p 116