Scott Waters: On Becoming a Man
By Jon Davies

"This scene is something I am incapable of painting for you. It is, perhaps, love."
It's Great to Be a Man On a Night Like This, a painting by Scott Waters

Over the past few years, Toronto-based artist Scott Waters has used painting to grapple with his mixed feelings about his years as a soldier in the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry between 1989 and 1992. He worked from snapshots taken by himself or his comrades of themselves, usually drunk, in moments of impotence-veiling bravado as they posed with guns, bottles, cans, cigarettes, cars, animals and each other in scenes of violent, sexually-charged and boredom-fuelled transgression. A homosocial parallel universe, this bevy of armed and loaded farmer-tanned skids was promised the glory of self-sacrifice and killing the enemy but received only a grunt's life on the bases of Wainwright, Alberta and Victoria, BC.

Waters's soldiers without a war were represented with a charged ambiguity, one that has animated his practice and provided countless hours of philosophical sparring for the artist. Waters's fondness towards his roughneck kin – and his earlier self – in these unflattering portraits was palpable, but any sense of nostalgic verisimilitude was ruptured by his "inappropriate" use of flat colour fields (often bright orange), sections of untouched or pencil-marked wood panel (complete with knots), onanistically suggestive drips and other ostentatious gestures, which showcased not the bravado of Waters the soldier, but Waters the painter. These strategies evoked black holes in his recollections and interpretations of the events caught so nakedly on camera, as well as suggesting that some things just can't be visualized, be it love or shame. Waters also naturally wanted to be critical of the military, a desire that wrestled with the heady, testosterone-scented wistfulness that he felt towards these tableaux of deviant masculine acting-out.

Waters exhibited much of this body of work in a recent exhibition at the Craig Scott Gallery in Toronto, 'Time Heals All Wounds (Negotiating a Lie, Pt. 2)' as well as publishing The Hero Book containing some of the paintings and accompanying photos and texts in 2006 (this is the name he gives to this oeuvre). The question arose: what would Waters do next? Would the pasty troopers caught with their pants down become redundant? Thankfully, Waters was invited to participate in the Canadian Forces Artist Program and sent to New Brunswick to be embedded with a unit in training. The program provided the perfect reality check for Waters, showing him not only how the military has changed in the intervening years but also putting him face to face with his own ideas and emotions about his experiences in a direct and unmediated fashion. The result is that the artist has moved beyond memoir into struggling more concertedly with the institution and the men who serve in it.

Despite maintaining his commitment to acrylic and oil on plywood, the body of work that has resulted is a departure in many ways. First of all, the paintings are much more subtle in terms of their content. The subject is no longer boys behaving badly, but boys struggling to behave how they are supposed to, whether that means enduring the stifling heat inside a tank without going apeshit or posing with one's weapon in a performance mimicking those of every Hollywood movie or pulp novel. Waters found that these soldiers' newfound sense of purpose with the war in Afghanistan was miles away from the aimlessness he witnessed during his own time in the forces, and a new way of portraying the men became vital: an iconography of heroics was required to capture these "believers" rather than the imagery of foundering and dysfunction. The new, proud military man he encountered troubled and transformed how he contextualized his own slapdash stint in his memory's eye, complicating how he approached the representation of the past.

Essentially Waters allows the men to look as noble as they wish to appear, but his deft use of paint still manages to hint at the unspoken shades of gray that contaminate this pure, patriotic image. WO Blackmore, for example, would look like he's straight out of a Canadian Forces recruitment poster, were it not for the knots in the plywood base that spread across the upper part of the image – and the officer's grave and righteous countenance – like a nasty genital rash. Similarly, Blackmore's right arm is visible only in outline, as if he has been caught in the process of materializing onto the board, his existence more phantasmatic than flesh-and-blood.

In Keifer on OP, the soldier subject is represented as an insect-like cyborg, with his hands the only visible human features. Just as his equipment obscures his personhood, so too does the familiar landscape and sky transform themselves through Waters's use of garish colour, unexpected textures and sketchy outlines, making it into an alien terrain that seems to be in a constant state of becoming. In fact, no matter how stolidly his figures may present themselves, no matter how mundane and good they make the activities of warfare appear, Waters's painterly gestures ensure that the scene is never complete and knowable but instead always open to the manipulations of memory, ideology and aesthetics. Representing this most conflicted of fraternities can never be transparent, unmediated and unencumbered.

The sole painting from Waters's new body of work to be exhibited in 'Time Heals All Wounds (Negotiating a Lie, Pt. 2)' was 3D Terrain Map, and it acted as a beacon signaling the artist's new direction. We see four soldiers from the shoulders up, looking away from us as they each put on cheap paper 3D glasses. Their new way of seeing, however, is not without awkwardness and difficulty, as is evident from the gracelessness of their choreography. They thus embody Waters's own hard-won shift in point of view, engendered by the trial by fire of the CFAP. This sense of freedom opened up by this new multi-dimensional perspective goes so far as to encompass Waters' branching out into two heretofore alien territories: his Nocturnes, unashamedly lovely experiments with abstraction that focus on the play of light and shadow as they picture artillery fire by night; and the painting of narrative texts in a series of diptychs (as well as the key work, It's Great to Be a Man On a Night Like This, which superimposes painted text onto image).

A real-life echo of Waters's gestural ruptures of the picture plane occurred when the artist encountered an elite sniper whose face he was not permitted to render as it would reveal his top-secret identity. In Lochness Monster, Waters paints his hand instead – hands are a specialty of his, how can the same hand be encouraged to hold a Labatt's one moment and a lethal weapon the next? – and he embraces the situation as a microcosm of the failure of painting to adequately represent intense emotions and events. The man – "Light blue eyes, even teeth, handsome verging on pretty, reserved yet articulate" – forces Waters to admit that the stereotypical image of the "handsome, reserved, compassionate and intelligent soldier-hero" that The Hero Book series sought to scandalously debunk can actually exist and that he has to contend with that fact in order to fully capture the reality of the situation. Next to his painting of the man's hand on his rifle – staunchly realist but for the hot pink background – Waters paints the concluding words, "I am here to insist, through dodgy, painted visual affirmation, that he is a truth and I have wasted a good number of years believing otherwise."

Taking the place for what the visual cannot show, Waters painted a lengthy narrative text detailing his encounter with the rifleman, a perhaps futile attempt to describe the boy that we are not allowed to see, but accomplished through paint nonetheless. Waters suggests that one cannot simply show a guy with a gun and expect the full gravity and complexity of this subject position to shine through without resorting to language to fill in the gaps.

A common thread throughout the work produced by artists who complete the CFAP is the self-portrait-laden-with-gear shot, where the artist turns the gaze onto themselves to capture their full soldierly regalia, no longer a civilian but another beast entirely. Waters was unique in the program for his recent prior experience as a soldier, and he captures this vertiginous double vision of being both subject and object with his own self-portrait Deer in the Headlights (working title) that satirizes the tradition with a pronounced look of surprise and discombobulation. In this sketchy image, Waters has an even more spectral and intangible presence than WO Blackmore does, as if the Scott Waters of 20 years ago had returned from the great beyond more befuddled by the changes of the intervening years – and, of course, the process of growing up – than by any of the rowdy debauchery he may have participated in way back when. His comically stupefied look brings to mind all the wasted boys flaunting themselves before us in his earlier work, but here the unforgiving camera's flash illuminates his realization of the limits of his own understanding of the world up until that very moment.

Scott Waters is included in 'A Brush with War: Military Art from Korea to Afghanistan,' a cross-Canada touring exhibition organized by the Canadian War Museum that features artists who have participated in the Canadian Forces Artist Program.

Jon Davies is a writer, film/video programmer and the Assistant Curator of Public Programs at The Power Plant in Toronto.