JIM was born five years ago when Mitchell Wiebe put a canvas in a stairwell going up to the artists’ studios above Halifax’s Army/Navy Surplus store. He and fellow studio-mates Ivan Murphy and Jack Bishop started leaving marks over a period of five years to create a dazzling, multi-coloured image of the red staircase itself. “I thought it was such a fabulous painting,” says Saint Mary’s University Art Gallery assistant curator Pamela Corell, curator of JIM: Jack Bishop, Ivan Murphy, Mitchell Wiebe, on view to Dec. 11.

She invited JIM to work in the gallery for two months painting individually and together to create an exhibit that is playful and passionate, bold and boisterous. She interspersed the individual paintings in the main gallery, allowing viewers to make their own connections; the alcove gallery features the group of JIM paintings and installations hung in a casual, joyful way. The three artists, encouraged by the space to work larger than they ever have before, share a passion for the material of paint and the process of putting it on canvas in vivid marks; thick, dizzying pileups; or faint, watery touches.

“We’re all trying to get away with paint first and image second,” says Murphy. “The material is always prevalent.” Murphy’s brooding, atmospheric paintings derive from his memories of the ocean, sky and rocks he sees at night as he works as a deckhand on pilot boats in Halifax Harbour. He builds wonderfully thick surfaces of pits, scratches, smears and cuts; his rain is an exciting frozen cascade of grey drips. It’s possible to glimpse container ships, waves and rocks but Murphy calls his rocks “shapes of paint.”  His vast spaces are filled with uncertainty and elemental drama.

JIM installation view: Rainclouds, oil on panel, Ivan Murphy, 2022; Ribbons of Corduroy/Ribbons of Joy/Ribbons of Porcelain/Ribbons of Cowboy, glitter, oil on canvas, Mitchell Wiebe, 2022; Bad day looking for a way home, looking for the great escape, gets in his car and drives her away far from all things that we are, oil and acrylic on canvas, Jack Bishop, 2022, (photo: Pam Corell)

Bishop and Wiebe both love colour in different palettes with some crossover – oranges, yellows, mauves, and rusts for Wiebe, searing reds and pinks contrasting with deep blues and greens for Bishop. Bishop is exhibiting two paintings from his traffic series of toy-like cars clogging roads at business parks to demonstrate what he was doing before he moved into one half of Murphy’s well-lit studio seven years ago. As he watched Murphy paint, he decided to draw on memory and push the paint forward in landscapes of the wide-open highway.

He, his wife, and his dog are in a tiny car, headlights in streams of colour bars, on a dark ribbon of road surrounded by pine trees in beautiful, dark blue dabs. His skies of starry nights or glaring sunrises and sunsets are stunning. There is a sense of exaltation in the land but also a slight fear. Are the aliens about to land? For Bishop the car is a jumping off point into his imagined world of colour and abstraction.  “I’ve been trying to work with light and have a glimmer, a glare, lens flares, those phenomena.”

When asked about his unusual imagery, Wiebe says, “It’s just an excuse to paint.” His studio has no natural light; it’s an electrically lit, fantastical space. Wiebe works in thick and thin paint, leaving sections of canvas bare. His fragmented fictions of images that belong to a carnival funhouse, a Macy’s Day parade or a child’s nightmare of a toy shop, come alive at night.

His animalesque and human creatures, often in parts, range from a mutant pumpkin-headed figure inspired by seeing Kentville’s pumpkin people to a floating candy cane to an isolated toothy grin.  He connects his emerging/disappearing flood of imagery with swooping lines of paint for nightmarish, yet comical pieces.

JIM installation view: Beautiful NB, oil and acrylic on canvas, Jack Bishop, 2022; Searchlights on Wake, oil on canvas, Ivan Murphy, 2022; Somnambulist Raft, oil and acrylic on canvas, Mitchell Wiebe, 2009/22, (photo: Pam Corell)

Four paintings above the gallery’s front door belong to a powerful, compositionally strong, new series of ovals that he calls “portals.” They contain rigid colour bars and are set amid organic swirls he playfully calls “windy, whippy stuff.”

“I feel this is a hybrid which includes abstracting an image. Maybe that’s what these are doing, being autonomous hybridizations like an alien visitation.”

While all three artists work with reduction, they dispute the idea of pure abstraction. “It’s tricky,” says Wiebe. “Can you paint something that has no basis in reality, in referencing other things?” “I tried once,” says Murphy, “and it didn’t work.”

They define JIM as a conversation and they like to talk a lot – about paint, song titles and their favourite artists. All three of them, who jam together, love American modernist Marsden Hartley, who spent two life-altering summers in Blue Rocks, N.S., in the 1930s, and Nova Scotia conceptual artist Gerald Ferguson. Bishop is fond of Neo-expressionist Philip Guston; Ivan Murphy is obsessed with American painter Richard Diebenkorn. Wiebe admires American abstract expressionist Joan Mitchell. A friend calls him “Joan Mitchell Turner Overdrive.” When they are working together as JIM “we’re thinking out loud,” says Wiebe. “Some of these feel like there is a grace. We don’t have rules; if we all agree on it, it’s resolved.”

The loose and lively JIM paintings clearly combine each artist’s style and colours and are about artmaking and being together. They depict a studio with paintings and beer bottles; they include paint-laden palettes and the letters JIM; they spring off into landscapes and ladders then return to pure tactile tangles of colour. Corell perceives the JIM paintings as being “around the experience of being together in a social place.” While there are precedents like Royal Art Lodge and the trio of  Clemente, Warhol and Basquiat, she thinks this trio’s ego-less collaboration is rare and “incredible.”

“We’d love to take JIM on the road,” says Wiebe.

JIM: Jack Bishop, Ivan Murphy, Mitchell Wiebe was on view at the Saint Marty’s University Art Gallery from October 1 to December 11, 2022.