Story by Sally McKay.
Tough, bold, rigorous, thick, gestural, abstract and avant-garde… these are all words that describe Judy Major-Girardin’s art. Historically applied to art made by men, these aren’t words that Judy herself uses when talking about her work. We need different terms: liquid, lush, ornamentation, fabric, fluid, fertile, floral…
Judy has had an interest in abstraction ever since she was a young child, staring at the floral patterns in her great grandmother’s drapes in Leamington. As a youth she made realistic renderings, but by the time she got to art school in the mid-1970s she was ready for the freedom of self-invention and artistic experimentation. She studied printmaking and drawing during her undergrad at the University of Windsor and did both printmaking and painting during her MFA in Alabama. Printmaking was traditionally a conservative practice, full of strict protocols and conventions. Judy resisted all of that, inventing images right on the plates, printing onto fabrics, mixing different kinds of print techniques on one surface, and working back into prints to make each one lively and original.
“I’ve always wanted to convey a sense of transforming, rather than being in a fixed space,” Judy explains, “I like that challenge of breaking away from known relationships and resolved patterns. Resolved things seem dead. Something else has to happen to it…that’s the fun of art making!”
In most of Judy’s artworks, there is no fixed place for the viewer. While the layered images and patterns have depth and spatial properties, the lush physicality of her media always comes to the forefront and her spaces are fluid and immersive, unhooked from the tethers of gravity or linear perspective.
As a professor in the Studio Art program at McMaster since 1983, Judy has had a major impact on an uncountable number of artists in the region. She has participated in many residencies and exhibitions both nationally and internationally, but she has always also always been committed to the regional art scene. In the early 1990s she was part of After Image Afterimage, a Hamilton collective of artists working with abstraction. Between 1983 and 1999 she showed a number of times at the Carnegie Gallery in Dundas, and she supported a campaign to help them secure their space when the city wanted to appropriate the building for other uses. During this period she also exhibited work at the Glenhyrst Art Gallery in Brantford, the London Regional Art Gallery, The Leamington Art Gallery, the Mississauga Civic Centre, and Cambridge gallery, and she had major solo shows at the Kitchener/Waterloo Public Art Gallery and the Burlington Art Centre.
In 1983, Judy came to Hamilton for a full-time teaching position in the art program at McMaster. She was only 26 years old — fresh out of grad school in Alabama — but she already had a significant body of work and several major exhibitions under her belt. As a young, female artist at McMaster at that time, she was professionally entering a dauntingly staunch and conservative man’s world. Feisty and determined, Judy was well equipped for the challenge, and drew support, in some ways, from the fact that she was also returning to her roots, coming back to work in the region where she had been born and raised.
Judy grew up on a farm in Leamington, Ontario. Her first job as a professional artist was working for the National Park at Point Pelee. Sitting at a drafting table for 8 hours a day making highly realistic and biologically correct renderings of wildlife for the Park’s interpretive centre, she took on the rigorous studio work ethic that has sustained her practice to this day. Interestingly, this experience also sowed the seeds for her life-long interest in abstraction. By the time she entered her undergraduate studies in art at the University of Windsor, Judy had had her fill of realistic representation, and was eager for the freedom of artistic experimentation.
Already challenging artistic conventions, Judy found she also had to challenge academic conventions as a new teacher at McMaster in the early 1980s. Student critiques were frowned on, for example, and Judy was told by senior faculty that “students know nothing, and have nothing to say about their art.” Student exhibitions were also heavily discouraged, and art faculty were advised not to bother exhibiting their own work in local galleries, but to seek the academic prestige of showing elsewhere. Judy persevered, of course, and over the years she and her dear friend and colleague Graham Todd managed to significantly shift the art program towards a more contemporary, dynamic, community-focused and student-centred curriculum.
In some ways, teaching has supported Judy in her artistic practice. As she explains it, “Teaching art keeps your brain going, it keeps you continually thinking and questioning, and talking with students about their art helps you understand your own ideas.” Judy has had a huge impact on many, many students throughout the years, she remembers a surprising number of them individually, keeps track of their progress, and continues to provide mentorship and support.
At Windsor, Judy embraced abstraction, and she began to dissolve the boundaries between various media. She majored in drawing, with a minor in print, and she was also painting, so she started to challenge artistic conventions by integrating all of these processes. She would even sneak into the print studios at night to put ink on fabrics when her professors weren’t around.
Graduate school in Alabama provided even more freedom to subvert artistic conventions. Judy taught herself lithography, which she loved for its fluidity, and continued to combine various different print processes together with drawing and painting. She loved the subtle shifts that came from juxtaposing different materials, and was never happy with one homogenous surface. Her artistic influences included abstract painters such as Jules Olitski, Cy Twombly and Helen Frakenthaler — all artists who worked with fluid forms and liked to keep their compositions in flux.
During the first year that Judy was hired at McMaster she and Graham Todd had a two-person exhibition at the McMaster Art Gallery. Not content to show her student work, Judy applied her ingrained work ethic to create a bold new series, an impressive accomplishment considering it was also her first year of full-time teaching. These and other works from the early-to-mid 1980s were influenced in part by swimming and scuba-diving. Underwater environments provided the perfect compositional inspiration. As Judy explains it, “Underwater things were fluid, not gravity-bound, the light moved over surfaces in interesting ways. There was no reference to horizon or where you were, the viewer was just floating in a dynamic space, surrounded by things in flux.”
Judy proceeded in the studio, always changing her colour palette from series to series, switching and recombining print plates, working back into the image, and incorporating bits of patterned fabric. “If Only I had your Stardust” for example, includes a piece of her Grandmother’s rag rug, embedded in the paint.
In 1990 she made a trip to Italy and filled her sketchbook with studies of classical sculpture and architectural detailing. This inspired a body of work, including works like Acanthus, that incorporated more recognizable, realistic elements, along with a new level of investigation into pattern and ornamentation.
When Judy and her husband Rob were trying to start a family, she began to back away from printmaking because the print studios at McMaster were highly toxic. In 1985 she took a course on health and safety in the arts with Michael McCann, and followed it up with a workshop led by Monona Rossol, founder of A.C.T.S. (Arts, Crafts, & Theatre Safety). Gradually, her studio practice began to change. She stopped using solvents, and paint thinners, developed cleaner practices in the studio, and eventually switched to using baby-oil as a non-toxic brush cleaner. Over the years, (in collaboration with Briana Palmer) she has helped transform the studios at McMaster into a much less toxic work environment, and passes her knowledge on to students.
In the early 1990s while Judy was trying to get pregnant, images of fetuses and babies began to enter into her compositions. These figurative forms were often hard to distinguish, floating through fluid fields of pattern and ornamentation, embedded in canvases that also included objects such as part of a tin ceiling, or pieces of fabric. Like the images of babies, the objects would also be thoroughly incorporated into the overall flux. For example, in works like Lullaby you can see how Judy would use paint to continue the patterns of objects across the surface, making it difficult to distinguish between elements. Judy was always “pushing the painting to be less passive” and experimenting with three dimensions was part of this process. “Bloodlines” for example, flirted with sculpture by incorporated a wooden column that stood in front of the painting.
In the mid 1990s, Judy explored working with sculptural elements. In the winters, her farmer father worked as a carpenter, and had a barn full of old railings, bit of molding, and other objects that she was able to use in the studio. In the end, however, Judy decided that these explorations with 3D objects were unsuccessful and went back to making mixed-media wall works. She took forward a renewed interest in objects and ornamentation.
Pieces of her great grandmother’s drapes and their patterns made their way into the work, abundantly floral and strange. “Those drapes were my introduction to abstraction,” says Judy, “the floral patterns were so flat and weird. I used to just stare at them as a child.” Her paintings took on an apophenic aspect, conveying a perceptual sense of interconnection among many disparate elements. At the same time, the materiality of the work had increased. Floral Installation (see below), Judy made flowers out of thick pieces of felt and applied them directly to the wall, while in the suite of small chintz paintings the thick brushwork has a lush, seductive quality, reinforcing the physicality of paint itself.
At the same time, Judy was aware of making a subtle cultural critique. These works were in some ways an act of resistance to the postmodern scorn for beauty that was so prevalent in the 1990s. And there was a feminist message in the work as well. “It always seemed like you had to make work that was masculine in order to be taken seriously,” Judy explains, “In some ways I was reacting to that by making work that was explicitly feminine. I knew that using flowers or babies could be seen as being overly sentimental, but I really wanted to grapple with that.” She was negotiating her place as a woman in the university— where she had to justify a research leave because she had “already taken maternity leave” — and she had a keen, first-hand awareness of the challenges for women artists trying to manage families, jobs and maintain an artistic practice.
As ever, Judy persevered. She never stopped putting in studio time, and never stopped growing in her practice. Throughout the late 1990s she continued to assign herself ambitious challenges with colour, media and three-dimensional form. Works like Unravelled demonstrated a renewed commitment to process and abstraction. Paint was applied with rollers and thick paint directly from the tube.
In the 2000s, Judy has expanded on the challenges she set for herself in the 1980s and 1990s. In the studio she is now, if anything, even more prolific and ambitious than she was in her early years, and the work has taken on exciting new dimensions. She continues to enjoy teaching, interacting with colleagues, and participating in the Hamilton art community.
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