The Blue Table

THE BLUE TABLE   40″ x 30″   2012

The physical space and the objects that figure in this painting go back almost 40 years. It is the interior of a room on the ground floor of an old apartment where I lived in 1974. A low, round blue table is set close to a row of windows, though only one frame of the windows can be seen. The other windows extend to the right, where a canvas blind is drawn down and can be partly seen. On the table is a red porcelain brush washer – or at least it is red on the visible side. On the other side it is celadon green and has the rounded shape of an apple with a wide mouth on the top. I bought it in Singapore in 1967 or 1968. To the left of the brush washer is a cylindrical pink object, a container made of silver wire that was used to hold fruit. Standing some distance behind the brushwasher is an empty picture frame, which may have contained a blank piece of paper – or possibly it was a small mirror, although if it was a mirror it was never given any reflection.

There is some uncertainty in my mind about the exact arrangement of the table. When I lived in the apartment I made numerous drawings looking out these windows and a number of the blue table. In the years afterwards I would use the old drawings as a source for a new painting, but rearranged the objects and added things. A recent version was done in 1997. This painting was begun in September 2011.

On the surface of the blue table, running underneath the brush washer, there is a large sheet of drawing paper with a branch of a flower or tree, probably done with brush and ink. The image of the branch might alternatively be a shadow, a band of light coming across the table and a shadow cast by a cutting on the window sill. There was in fact a glass jar on the window sill which is shown in this painting, with a long stalk and buds or pods of seeds running upwards towards the ceiling. But from the alignment of the window and the table, it is impossible that this shadow on the table could be coming from that branch in the window. In any case the window looked out to the north-east and it could not have cast a shadow like this. Perhaps originally there was a shadow of some kind on the table, but I think most likely it was invented when the original drawing was done.

Directly behind all this is a radiator of the old kind for hot water heating. The apartment was built in 1917. Sitting on a shelf above the radiator, to the left, is a ceramic bowl with green glaze. It was purchased from a young Japanese potter who, in the early 1970s, had his studio on Powell Street, in Vancouver. After a time he returned to live in Japan.

There can be something playful about a painting. Not a deliberate, calculated playfulness that seeks to create illusions or trick other people, but a playfulness that is a method of questioning – like a child who looks into her reflection in the water, and pokes it with a stick. I am not attempting here to say what, if anything, these paint-marks might mean to a viewer. I am offering only my observation on the experience of a painter, that is, of a person who does these things over a long period of time with a brush in his hand, looking out at the world (into a room or at a table covered with objects). Across the top of the blue table is the shadow of a branch, or it could be a drawing of a branch. The patch on the table could be reflected light from a window, or it could be a large sheet of paper. It might be nothing more than an invented shadow, a fabrication, prompted by the convenient fact that there was already a real branch in a jar on the window sill. And it is obvious, too, that it is none of those things, it is just brushstrokes of paint on the surface of canvas. That low-key ambiguity – maybe it can be this, maybe it can be that, maybe it is nothing at all – is then slightly amplified, made more insistent, by the presence of the empty picture frame – or mirror – which is the blank rectangle behind the brush washer. Like any empty space in a painting, it cools down the activity, it intrudes as a place of calm or silence. In a low-key way it might also raise doubts: why does this scene not enter into that blank space? why are these objects not capable of being reflected on that surface? is something more going to be drawn there, will there be another scene within this one? And then in the centre stands the brush washer and a brush, which might be saying: this whole world of objects flows from the brush. For a painter the prolonged activity of looking reinforces the intuition that none of these things is fixed, that they are like “a star at dawn, a bubble in the stream”.1


This painting was used as the cover art for a book, an anthology of poetry titled The Best of Every Day Poets Two (Every Day Publishing, 2012).

1 “a star at dawn, a bubble in the stream”: from The Diamond Sutra.