There’s Something About Monica

by Matthew Hart

In 1519, Leonardo da Vinci made an ink drawing of some Tuscan hills, with a castle on one of the hills and some trees that he had sketched with a series of circles. “They are all very energetic marks,” says the painter, Monica Tap, about the work, “and very densely drawn. As much of the paper was covered as uncovered.”

The drawing made a strong impression on Tap, and in 1996 she made some paintings that sprang from her contemplation of it, and my purpose here is to describe one of those paintings, Tuscan: orange and blue, oil on canvas, which measures almost four-feet square and has been eating a hole in my heart for a year. I want the picture hanging on my wall, and not on someone else’s, and I have prayed fervently that it would stay where it is right now, shoved away in the rack of the storage room at the Wynick/Tuck Gallery in Toronto. At $3,200, I could not afford to ransom it into the light, and I’m not sure I can afford it now.

Tap’s painting drops a grenade into the middle of Leonardo’s trees and splatters them outward onto the picture plane in a burst of orange strokes. When you stand in front of this painting it is as if the explosion has only just that moment taken place, and the barest nanosecond has elapsed, and although the order of the material world is still discernible in the elements of the picture, it will not be for long, and once another nanosecond has blinked by, it will all be gone for good, the Earth, the sky, Tuscany, you. Part of the picture’s success lies in this amazing depiction of rushing time, and in the simultaneous and irresistible assertion that seems at odds with the eye-bugging velocity of the whole.

With its bright-orange hooks, this picture caught in my head, and stayed there, glowing maddeningly, while the seasons paraded their light across the wall on which I thought I’d hang it, if I could. Two months ago, I called art critic Betty Ann Jordan to see if she recalled it as vividly as I did.

“Do you remember that Tap?” I asked.

“Which, the one that’s hanging now, in the side gallery?”

“No, not that one.”

“You mean the orange one.”

“You remember it, then?”

“It’s a fantastic picture.”

“I think I might buy it.”

“You should.”

Jordan hadn’t looked at the painting for a year, and I suppose I was canvassing her memory for validation of my own strong feeling. That day, for the second time in a week, I went down to the gallery and asked Lynne Wynick to pull it out. She leaned it on the wall in a good light and we discussed a smudge in the lower left of the painting, and she promised to ask Tap about it and, if necessary, bring in a conservator to make a repair.

Who cared about the bloody smudge — not me. If I’d had the money, or the courage, I would have taken it home in my arms that moment. Instead I nodded, put my hands in my pockets, said I might as well put a reserve on it, and could I meet Tap? Wynick didn’t see why not, and two weeks later Tap, who teaches painting at the University of Guelph, drove into town and we went to the Swan Restaurant on Queen Street West, ordered omelettes, and sat there in the sunny babble of a Saturday afternoon.

“So that little smeared patch isn’t serious?”

“It isn’t a stain,” she said, “it’s just paint. I think I brushed it against some fresh paint when I was rolling it, and I just wiped the darker paint away. I’ll repaint that section. It’s easy.”

The truth is I already knew this, and didn’t need to hear it from Tap, but I wanted to meet her anyway because she had made something that was this plainly ravishing, and her name was fixed in my mind in a thicket of orange strokes. That’s how I found myself with this woman in her early 30s, with long, dark hair and brown eyes, and an attractive open manner, happy to discuss her work.

“First, I make out a visual recipe with acrylic paints. I don’t put down an image, but very light calligraphic lines. I have a series of three panels painted onto one piece of paper, each panel about four inches square.” In the series of paintings that includes Tuscan: orange and blue, Tap restricted her background palette to various greys, and made the foreground images with whatever pairs of colour she had used to mix the grey. “So that first layer of grey is an equal mixture of blue and orange, and then I added some white to bring it up a bit, because otherwise it looked like mud. When I started with three panels, I covered them all with the background grey. Then I mixed the cadmium red light with a bit of cadmium yellow, and put orange marks onto the second and third panel. Last, I mixed the blue, which is cobalt, and I might have hit it with cerulean. I put the blue marks on the third panel. So it’s a visual step-by-step.”

With the three small panels as a guide, Tap began to paint. “When I first put the orange on, I thought it was okay. Then I put on the blue, and I thought, ‘Oh, there’s definitely something happening here.’ But the blue needed to be hotter. I wanted more of a buzz. I was surprised how strong the orange was. It was ramming up against the blue, and the blue couldn’t contain it. So I mixed another blue, lighter, and that helped the first blue contain the orange.”

That lighter blue has been applied in a firm scrawl, as if the artist had dipped a finger in it and swiped it on before the orange could get away. Otherwise Tap’s brushwork is calligraphic, which imparts a kind of oriental serenity to the picture and helps to anchor it in the idea and tradition of landscape painting. The density of strokes in the lower part also reinforces the apprehension of a landscape, even though an atomic fury, like Turner’s, sweeps through the picture and challenges the image. This is, for me, the essential certainty of Tap’s painting — the viewer stands on the edge of a gale of abstraction, and there at the centre is home.

Yes, I bought it. I get up in the middle of the night and go and look at it. It owns the place.

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