Monday, January 26, 2009
Monday, October 01, 2007
Robert Youds Retrospective
Robert Youds’ BeautifulBeautifulArtificialField is one of a number of shows that the AGGV has put together that don’t just present work within the rationale of a survey or retrospective, but also create an installation of that presumed summary or framing, so that in effect a manifesto is created. Along with the artists involved, contemporary art curator Lisa Baldiserra and the AGGV staff should be credited with putting together shows that have often brought out a more physical, immersive quality in the work. This is certainly true of BBAF, in which one room constantly alternates between light and dark and the other is completely dark, with the only illumination (and that also in flux) being provided by the works themselves. One is immediately drawn into the quality of light as a present, consequential environment, as a backdrop for the questions presented by the work itself as to their relative effects as windows or screens, objects or atmosphere.
This argument about light succeeds wonderfully in the Kerr Gallery, which is dominated by three works only (more on that momentarily). The tone is more argumentative or aggressive in the Centennial Gallery. My feeling is that the room is a little crowded. The undertaking is to draw together three distinct passages in Youds’ light box pieces, and while this can become very rich with just a little time spent comparing and contrasting, there is a danger of being met a little too heavily by the sheer (in both sense of the word) physical presentness of the pieces.
The alternating light enforces a kind of binary on it all, and that unifies things in a way that can be a little physically taxing. Once one adjusts to the meter it imposes, however there are distinct (and valuable) effects it offers on the experience of viewing individual pieces, in such a way that it becomes hard to imagine them - in an institutional setting devoid of natural light- without it.
To go a bit further: the light also has a curious effect of foregrounding the amount of time one feels one has spent in front of a work or in the room as a whole. Youds is coming from and commenting on a tradition of abstract painting, and one of the things that emerged in the heyday of North American large-scale abstraction was the question of duration vis a vis immersion. That is, at what distance does the viewer first approach a large, involving ‘field’ of the painting’s surface? As one moves toward it, does it reward a progression from the emblematic or monumental to the intimate or topological? If the painting presents as simple (as in a fourteen foot high red stripe on a blue field by Barnett Newman), is its effect on us instantaneous, or are there rewards for looking longer (the saturation and afterimage of Newman’s coloured bands, the sense of being dwarfed that arises from the parallax view of the towering canvas)?
Paint, after all is a ‘slow’ medium (as in ‘slow food’) and painters lament how to grab and hold the necessary allotment of attention of viewers weaned on TV or digital imagery. The lightboxes present themselves ‘fast’ paintings – Youds has referred to them as ‘shopping mall Mondrians’- and the alternating light-dark room makes you very aware of the relative staying power of each encounter. Superficially, it proposes to offer the image-saturated viewer a condensed experience of the back-and-forth, engagement-interval experience that one characteristically has with a conventional room full of paintings. Of course, large-scale abstraction came of age at the same time as the modern art viewing space (gallery/museum as white, featureless cube, as vacuum), and Youds’ work is pitched to that competition. One wonders how his work might operate in a domestic setting with longer, slower intervals of light, dark, and attention.
It is the contrast between the convention of a room full of paintings and the Centennial Gallery that is problematic, but interestingly so. In a recent review of an important survey of classic Colour Field painting and its descendants (in which work by Youds was included), David Moos’ “The Shape of Colour: Excursions in Colour Field Art, 1950-2005”, Robert Linsley commented that much of the current abstract work looked back to its roots for a reference point rather than forward…”I am struck by the general inability of recent work to respond to its predecessors in any way but through quotation” (1.) The danger with the display of work in the Centennial Gallery is to take it in too quickly, reading the whole as some critique of historical abstract painting, to accept and then dismiss its various novel approaches as elegant and/or elegiac repackaging. To do so is to miss one of the retrospective’s most rewarding aspects, which is the movement by degrees from the referencing of paintings’ received tropes against the horizon of an assumed shared historical moment, into a more immediate and physical engagement with the viewer’s perceptual imagination. Let’s unpack this…
On the West wall, north corner, there is a series of three pieces all involving a tall vertical rectangle of coloured light: Booster, Visiteur, and Thank You. The works all seem to present ‘options’ (Booster’s grey and blue panels reference number-coded colour chips from a hardware store, Visiteur offers two near variations on a hotrod-style flame graphic, Thank You, a bit more complex, moves left to right over varying encounters of surface reading: hard, flat and bipartite to soft, mixed and gregarious). The red bar creates a hot frequency on the viewer’s eye as it makes its first approach from the left, phasing out the issue of choice, opening the painting’s proposition of parts and then collapsing it into a singularity. To paraphrase a passage of Nietzsche dear to Rothko, what pulls you in also stops you from going further, so that rather than read deeply, you linger over the phenomenon of attraction. The lights radiate something magnetic: not quite warmth, more like charisma. These works are about a display of power, not as a prelude to force, but to speculation - perhaps indecision- within very limited confines.
This progress (power-attraction -limited sensuality-paralysis) reminded me of a lot of my own experiences with recreational consumerism, that point-of-purchase-precipice feeling of being both master and servant to a host of undecided values. In this sense these works recall Ashley Bickerton’s 1988 work Tormented Self-Portrait, in which a collection of brand logos present themselves as a box, backpack or torso that has been hopelessly overbuilt with the chrome and detailing one associates with the ‘finish-fetish’ of hobby cars or luxury appliances. Youds’ wall-mountings are likewise heavy-duty, ‘overdetermined’ if you will, an impressive display for a pointedly marginal effect. The result is speculative frivolity underscored with doubt and anxiety, sustained by attraction… which feels right for the late ‘90’s, with its overbuilt SUV’s, and anthropomorphic, I-MAC fetishes.
Here I will agree with Linsley and say that these works derive urgency from the sense of something that has come before. We might regard the works as being at once both a nod to the abstract of late Mondrian or classic Kenneth Noland (with their utopian or contemplative baggage riding along), but also a pressing forward of that reference into the ‘now’ of a highly reflective, contemporary finish. The tricky thing is that neither ‘read’ has a lot of staying power: the works don’t quite hold your attention like a period Colour Field painting, and the newness evaporates quickly on a palette of dry wit. What remains is the obdurate obstacle (or spectacle) of the works’ materials and construction. The exception is Thank You, in which the small bundle of fabric – like a cellular anomaly on the frontal lobe- causes a kind of hiccup or seizure in the slick shifts of the surface. The bundle is a reference to an earlier body of work by Youds, Soft Works for Complicated Needs, and its presence as a kind of sub-loop within the larger order is that of an embryo or prisoner: it subscribes to its own calendar.
“Something Looks Back”
The vertical bars of light in the works just mentioned deserve a little more comment. I implied a kind of magnetism in their relationship to both the viewer and their place in a piece as a whole. One parallel that comes to mind is from Barnett Newman’s ‘zips’, the vertical bands that divide and dowse the surface, as a gesture toward unification, and immediacy. Yve-Alain Bois has commented repeatedly on the zip as a force that both absorbs and reflects, not to be read as a ‘figure’ in the ‘ground’ of the picture, but an address to the viewer that opens the rest of the work up to self-identification and location (paraphrasing Newman, ‘a sense of one’s own scale’). As such, the ‘zip’ is both a part of the painting and a definitive break with the painterly rhythm of suggestion and deflection. Bois identifies the zip as a ‘shifter’,
[…] A sign of a special kind, one that emphasizes a certain circularity between its signification as a sign and the actual situation of its utterance: It partakes of the category of words that linguists call "shifters," such as personal pronouns or markers like now, here, right here (not coincidentally, these are Newman titles) […] And this present tense is an attempt to address the spectator directly, immediately, as an "I" to a "You"(2.)
All this by way of reminding me of a remark I once heard Youds make, about knowing when a painting was finished: “Something looks back.” Something similar might be happening with the four pieces in the galley that resemble lamps or eyes, the two spherical pieces titled Argument for Absorption, and the more lens-like Friendlyburn and Skymud.
The Absorption pieces are aggressive encounters. Their surfaces (slightly brushed or scratched on close inspection) are sheer: in regarding them carefully, one immediately feels positioned by them. Standing before the green Absorption piece, I felt a less like the one doing the inquiring, and more as if I were submitting to examination (as in optical testing ‘look here please and do not blink.’)
The question of whether one regards a painting or is regarded is one as old as Byzantine icons or the Hindu notion of Darsan: the painter’s “I and You” is converted to “I and thou” by a viewer who has the uncanny but sensation of feeling the gaze of something specific and inhuman. Within a tradition that accepts the omnipresence of spiritual currency, this metaphysic is at home. In a secular culture, the sensation can be overwhelming: critic David Hickey once commented that being in a room full of Minimalist abstract paintings was like being judged by a circle of Old Testament patriarchs. The Argument for Absorption pieces position themselves as part of the larger construction of the institutional gallery space, a space whose ‘neutral’ white walls are not without connotations of cultural propriety, preciousness and power. To focus on them is to be subject to surveillance, and to stand apart from them is to feel the familiar sensation of being in the blind spot of an aloof security camera and feeling (for no rational reason) relieved (3.)
Friendlyburn and Skymud operate differently, demonstrating that the relationship between icon and the searching gaze is a two way street. Looking up into them, one feels a slight rotation, as if undergoing alignment, the effect of devices (clips? Fasteners?) along the edges of the circular lights. This feels like some preamble to the full affirmation, as does the first gloss of light bouncing off of the disk-like surface. A moment later an impression of colour arrives, but seems unattached to any specific material, (tinted plastic or cellophane, for example) instead hovering at the back of the lights in a way that is relaxing rather than painful to look at. The colours have a peculiar opacity (chartreuse for Friendlyburn and a lovely murky mixed grey for Skymud), despite their obvious transience, like the matte glare coming off the dull side of tinfoil, or the luminosity of rain clouds that are darker yet more luminous than the horizon beneath them. In their calm, almost-passive persistence, they recall the slight-of-hand that suspends a Kenneth Noland bull’s-eye or a pane of light forestalled by James Turell.
My suspicion is that pieces such as the Arguments or Skymud might be more fully enjoyed in the context of sculpture. They suffer from being positioned in a room full of objects that more readily connect to the flat-on-the-wall context of looking at pictures, as the ingenuity of their construction seems unnecessary, even arch, in illustrating how a viewer might (as this critic just has) pare away their presence in the space in a hurry to get to the optical prize: not looking at oneself looking. The opposite is true, incidentally, of works like Lo and Behold, which begin with the premise of flatness and move out from there.
Home is orifice
This argument becomes stronger in two ambitious pieces, Three Hundred Times a Day and Home is Office. Both have started to undertake the feel of self-referencing systems, and both succeed –in different ways- of projecting a sense of intrinsic and extrinsic structure that also allows room for a wandering gaze. They are assembled out of parts that look acquired, readymade, with enough obvious traces of the decision-making mind at work to invite the viewer into the narrative of their coming together. Home is Office establishes a range of forms and presentations from flatly iconic (decal-like squares of enamel) to quasi-organic (the red, float-like sphere bulging within what looks like a zippered garment bag). Likewise, Three Hundred Times a Day looks like a shop window but is also a modernist grid, laden with rows of bags softly enfolding lights. Both pieces invoke connections to a larger world of objects as commodities: 300 Times confronts viewers with both security alarm company stickers warning them to stay behind the glass, and monitor screen that shows that they are the object of surveillance; Home has false plug-like conduits attaching it to the wall and floor of the gallery.
For all of their reference to the Utopian schematics of Modernism, these reflect human situations and problems in a way that constructs a story within the proposition of a schematic. Here one of Linsley’s reductive remarks about contemporary abstraction seems apt: “[the] work is basically narrative, and, like any engaging story, full of interesting characters, treated warmly yet ironically by their author”(4.)
That is, the ‘shopping bag’ shapes in 300 Times a day, or the bulging ball in Home become stops along a visual route that picks up richer associations as the viewer looks, but they are associations from the world at large: garment bags, shop windows, security cameras, keypads. Despite their grid-like presentations, they are not (as Rosalind Krauss once remarked of the grid) about shutting out the world outside, like Mondrian turning his chair away from the window to avoid ‘corrupting his eye’. Instead, their interfaces are the routine ones we engage whenever we leave a world of intimacy – the domestic world- for the increasingly more evident world of travel and transactions.
During my years as an undergraduate student at UVic, I recall Youds showcasing images of the work of Peter Halley for a third-year painting class. Halley’s, abstract paintings have been called ‘Neo-Geometric’. Like many of those questionable Neo/isms of the 1980’s, Halley's newness was caught up with the past…a referencing of the presumed power of seminal abstraction from the perspective of a contemporary cancellation of such possibilities: Halley cribbed his line from French savant Jean Baudrillard in suggesting that his abstractions were ‘simulacra’, insubstantial placeholders of the real thing. The compositional presentations of Halley’s seminal ‘conduit’ paintings were hard and flat, leaving no space for the kinds of dramatic experiencing of implied depth, projection or presence that can emerge from a Mondrian or Reinhart (for instance) when seen in the flesh…in fact, being composed from vinyl mac-tac they weren’t surfaces one penetrated at all, but (as Donald Kuspit observed) the fetishists’ version of painting surfaces (5.)
In hindsight, the ‘simulacrum’ argument for Halley can seem a bit insubstantial (The Matrix for art students), unless you see the artist not as an academic commentator or futurist (credentials once used to make his work seem ‘radical’), but as a humanist acknowledging and working within a reduced scale of expectations as to what a picture –abstract or otherwise- has the power to express. That is, in the very narrow gap between our impressions of real experience, and virtual version of same, there is an authentic- if wan- human moment. The movement made in Halley’s work through the eighties into the nineties and beyond (a move, it should be said, made by many of his contemporaries as well) has been away from emblematic-yet-impenetrable presentations of ‘signs’, and toward increased play of relative aspects of colour, scale and surface, within an established network. They are not (and this is no complaint) aspiring to engage an institutional audience on any real level of moral or political seriousness; they are beautiful hobby paintings (6.)
The gambit is whether components of Modernist abstraction still work for us, and whether they do so as an argot of seriousness, set of glamorous tags or still-vital linkage of endeavours. In this sense it is hardly surprising that in works such as Visiteur we see Youds tapping a Hot Rod aesthetic: he is pointedly building new vehicles from spruced up old parts. In this sense these works are painterly, demonstrating the looseness and confederacy that belies their substantial resources as constructions…their components look adapted and are about adaptation.
There is a Duchamp poem I thought of when I saw Three Hundred Times a Day that I think has some relevance to both pieces. It seems schoolmarmish to analyse it at length, but suffice to say that I think with both 300 Times and Home, Youds starts on Halley’s ground, but expands the relationship that the viewer has to these flat, rebuffing surfaces into something more complex; less like ‘art’ and more like life:
Can one make works that are not works of “art”?
Submit to the interrogation of shop windows (therefore)
The insisting of the shop window (therefore)
The shop window proof of the existence of the exterior world (therefore)
When one submits to the examination of the shop window, one pro-
nounces also one's own sentence. In effect, the choice is “come and go”.
From the demand of shop windows, from the inevitable response to shop
windows, the decision of choice is concluded. No stubbornness, no ab-
surdity,: to hide the coition through a window glass with one or many
objects of the shop window. The task consists of breaking the glass and in
rueing it as soon as possession is consummated. Q.E.D.
On the East wall of the Centennial Gallery are a series of recent pieces that present themselves as larger, rectangular light boxes that feature colours and shapes created by not-quite-discernable objects or screens contained within them. The first features a stack of bottles like a floating refrigerator rack. The boxes with more specific contents could be read as examinations of routine. The objects of Saturday are presented like the shelves of the proverbial bathroom medicine cabinet. Moving in close to scrutinize them for answers, one sees them blur out like a mirage. The choices their contents potentially represent are suspended from judgement.
It seems as if with these works Youds has gotten comfortable with the problem of presenting painterly mechanics using other materials. To put it another way, has gotten through the other end of relating to ‘painting’ as such, and succeeded in producing works whose operations –while strongly reminiscent of the mechanics and metaphysics of painting- are not referential to that medium in a pointedly critical manner. Certain battles from the heritage of Minimalism that are evident in other works in the room seem to have been put aside here, such as whether we perceive a work as a whole or a procession of parts, or just how a painting maintains its powers to beguile and defer as illusion, while also claiming for itself some portion of the larger space – the space of sculpture or designed environment- as a party to that illusion. He has done so by making a series of gestures that could be read as conservative: relying on a consistent rectangular, wall-projected format for presentation, confining all of the works’ available information to a flat plane, and framing the content of the work in terms of the venerable stand-bye of still-life painting.
Author and critic Siri Hustvedt has written that still life lends itself to self-reflexive painting, because the subject is material but immobile, much like the substance of paint itself (8.) She comments on painters such as Chardin and Cezanne using the medium to effectively reassess the problems of seeing and rendering in a calculated, probing manner. Of course, still life as a subject is all about control over a view, and thus its depiction, a way of conducting an etude in which forms rather than subjects are the concern…this much is the accepted norm in modern painting. What is less obvious to contemporary viewers is that underwriting the escape into formal concerns was the presumed moral content of still life as an allegory of life and death, consumption and waste, venal and virtuous appetites. Arguably, it wasn’t left behind at all, but was transubstantiated into an added dimension of possession and mortality located within an attention to the paint body itself, which is to say that in a work by Cezanne or Chardin the sense of what whets the appetite even as it portrays its own frangibility is the paint stroke itself, as a unit of sensuous attention over time, adjusted for difficulty, pleasure, or both.
Youds’ inquiry into the territory of light and perception is also predicated on an escape from morally freighted allegory. Actually, two (related) allegories: the elegiac tone taken on in arguments for painting’s continued relevance as a public medium (or lack thereof), and –relatedly- the arguments used to supply moral and existential weight to photography, as representing all that painting no longer has to offer in the arena of social and political commentary. Both these arguments are couched around the question of representation - what painting represents and to whom – and undertake the notion that all presentations are conceptually filtered. Abstract painting in these context of these discussions is not abstract painting as an experience or event (that is, proper to the artist and viewer alike), but a cultural object; that is, abstract painting as a sign or placeholder for any number of cultural values: all cause and no effect. Perhaps while touching on these arguments, it’s worthwhile to recall Barnett Newman’s assertion that abstraction made the claim for the ‘presentation’ of itself rather than representation of something else, and that the same claim is made nowadays by artists working in virtual reality. The lightbox works present haptic staging grounds for virtual encounters.
The three pieces entitled Friday, Saturday and Sunday for instance, form a kind of lyrical bridge between the enjoyment of each piece as a fascinating puzzle-object, and the sense of continued time and attention building in the work. Each piece frames suggestions of a mood: sobriety, wakefulness, the residue of obligations, sleep. The blurred, filtered, delineation of objects within the cases speak of persistence and deferral, and over the course of several pieces, develop into a convincing measure of the passage of time in an active mind. The mood is domestic, the objects (as still life subjects so often are) familiar enough to be responsive to minor nuances of situation and attention. All of this happens in a very slim perceptual space, maybe between twenty inches and twelve feet from the surfaces of the lightboxes. Too far away and they become signeage; too close and they revert to being illumination. At just the right moment they project through this opacity an access to interior space that feels like privacy.
The most pleasurable thing about the lightboxes in this respect is their shallowness: the sense that whatever their contents are blur to a thin veil at the horizon of our taking them in. They reminded me of Seurat’s major pointillist painting, Afternoon on the Isle of the Grand Jatte, in one way because they offer a shimmering vision that loses its pictoriality -but not its cohesion- at close range, becoming equal parts admirable material fact and magnetic field. And while we might initially think that’s a good gimmick, we come around to realizing that admirable material facts constitute a pretty durable form of pleasure taking over time. We might go further and say that Youds has achieved what Seurat did: the couching of domestic urban experiences on a scale and focus of execution that is usually reserved for didactic public (political or moral) art, and done so in such a relaxed manner as to be entirely convincing.
1. Robert Linsley, “The Shape of Colour”, Canadian Art, Fall 2005, Volume 22, number 3, p 106
2. Yve-Alain Bois, "Here to there and back - Barnett Newman Retrospective", Artforum International Magazine Inc., 2002
3. This has been said too many times, but a good unpacking of these ideas and their effect on viewership is Norman’s Bryson’s “ The Logic of the Curatorial Gaze”
4. Linsley, p. 106
5. C.f. Donald Kuspit, “ Young Necrophiliacs, Old Narcissists: Art about the Death of Art”, The New Subjectivism, Art in the 1980’s, New York: Da Capo Press, 1993
6. C.f. Thomas Crow, “The Return of Hank Herron: Simulated Abstraction and the Service Economy of Art”, Modern Art in the Common Culture, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1996
7. Marcel Duchamp, “Speculations”, Neuilly, 1913, adapted from Jerome Rothenberg’s adaptation of Peggy Gugenheim’s translation from the French, Poems for the Millennium,
8. Siri Hustvedt, “Ghosts at the Table”, Mysteries of the Rectangle, pp 43-66
Sunday, August 26, 2007
Fault Line #5
[Ed. Note: this article originally appeared in reduced form in a recent issue of Mix magazine. It is still too short, and now has the added misfortune of having been edited into something thinner and flatter than what I would have liked. Please post, so that it might fill out!]
Incubate for Pleasure
Recently I was offered the chance to write ‘a cultural snapshot of Victoria’, something I’ve been both wanting and fearing to try since returning three years ago after a significant spell away. Something had changed in the three years since I left: the sense of immanent possibilities had shifted subtly but decisively for the better. Fear, because of course it can’t be tackled adequately…accordingly, I have focussed on recent developments in the visual arts in particular, as this is my home territory. It speaks to the thrust of this article that the more I made my rounds to collect names and notes, the more subjects worthy of attention seemed to spring up. Victoria’s streets meander -it’s one of the only cities of its size in Canada not built on a military grid-, culture collects in pockets like, well culture, as in an extended, bacterial life form…think here of ‘Victoriana’ as a fecund, mutable category, as in flora and fauna.
John Threlfall is the arts editor of Monday Magazine, the city’s weekly alternative press for coverage of local politics and entertainment. “When I started at the paper seven years ago, there seemed to be more of an exodus out of Victoria—lack of venues, lack of paid gigs, lack of small gallery spaces—while lately more outlets have been cropping up […] ten local theatre companies instead of two, for instance, or five indie art galleries instead of one”, he points out, “…artists of all mediums choosing to stay here rather than move away.” This last point is crucial in a city where the university tends to attract, but not necessarily keep younger people involved in the arts, once it is time to seek out a supportive milieu. More young artists and performers mean more productions, more spaces, and also more informed, engaged curators and administrators, ready to provoke flexibility in established venues.
As in so many provincial centres, The University of Victoria’s Arts Departments are rooted in a 60’s-era ethos in which the most ‘advanced’ manifestations of culture happened on campus, and the university – with its own on-campus media outlets and suburban location- has tended to seem remote from life and activity downtown. In recent years, there has been a discernable connection made between campus and city, whether it’s poets from the writing department reading in series and slams at venues like Mocambo Café, or film students who routinely use Lucky Bar – a local music hotspot - for screening parties. Programs are changing too. The Visual Arts Department has developed courses for curatorial practice mostly in the last five years that encourage students to act as independent curators, often seeking out downtown venues for exhibitions.
The Ministry of Casual Living is an artist-run-centre started in 2001 by two grad students from UVic. Located in Fernwood, a historically working-class neighbourhood on the Northeast fringe of town, the MoCL is a window front space ‘casually’ tucked in next to a corner grocery and video store, across the street from a Laundromat. The sign (a brilliantly inconspicuous mock-up of civil-service drab) and the art in the window are all that give it away. The resident curator or ‘Minister’ helps to fund operations by kicking in rent, living mom & pop-style- behind the storefront. Art openings are the only time the space opens up to the public, which is often a curious mix of artists and neighbourhood passers-by. The MoCL emphasizes this marriage of innocuousness and invention, hosting film series projected on the outside wall in the summer, and recently the wedding-as-art- performance of one of its former Ministers.
Another recent addition to artist-run culture is the Fifty-Fifty Arts Collective, a not-for-profit artist run society organized and operated by a small board of volunteer members. In their own words, the collective caters to, “a diverse group of folks working in Victoria's burgeoning arts scene [including] zine writers, clothing designers, filmmakers, visual and performance artists, music artists and folks working in genres not yet defined by the mainstream.” This often takes the form of activities that emphasize the celebration of milieu: art crawls, film screenings, sock-hops, and recently, a series of inexpensive workshops embracing a variety of activities from collage to free-form musical improvisation to practical sewing. Allan Kollins, founding member and full-time administrator, stresses the difficulties involved in operating with a free agenda, and without major funding, “if an artist run centre isn’t sapping the life out of you, you’re probably doing something wrong”, but adds, “On good days I am merely feeding my own insatiable need to keep my landscape dynamic. I suspect there are some psychotherapists out there that could say the same.”
In addition to the Ministry and The Fifty-Fifty, there are a series of loosely affiliated activities driven by the music scene, skateboarding and graffiti. Groups such as The Woodpile Collective, Anteism and PRMNT MRKR exemplify this tendency, hosting informal, densely sprawling shows that are as heavily attended as they are fugitive. Tellingly, PRMNTMRKR has begun a practice of publishing catalogues to accompany their shows: most recently a graphically lush edition of black & white imagery entitled The Feast. I’m tempted to draw on an old definition from painter/film critic Manny Farber, recognizing a “termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art” that “goes always forward, eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity”(1.) The difference between Farber’s 1960’s moss and Victoria’s is how industry translates into transaction: all of these groups seem to excel at drawing a crowd and managing their communications, with comprehensive websites exhorting memberships, submissions, donations, purchases and participation.
The Feast and similar events have taken place on the waterfront near Victoria’s Chinatown, once North America’s largest, now a dainty but colourfully pungent six square blocks or so, home to tattoo parlours, guitar shops, witchcraft suppliers and any number of artists studios. Gallery 16 ½ is a walk-up in Fan Tan Alley, the narrowest street in Canada, which in its one-block squeeze opens out into a rich profusion of shops and studios. “This place used to be an opium den”, grins Kirsten Wright, the Ottawa-born proprietor of 16 ½. Wright has at various times used the space as a home, studio, and now store and gallery. She sells work by independent artists and designers that often blurs the boundaries between art, craft, and commodity, selling vintage handkerchiefs with silk- screened silhouettes and glossy enamel toasters customized by sharpie drawings next to original hand-pulled prints and mixed media paintings. In the corner of the retail area is a gallery space that Wright prides herself on as a frequent venue for first-time solo shows. “Some of these people don’t know anything about having a professional career”, Wright comments, “and that’s part of what makes them such amazing artists”
Just through the alley is Flight 167, a store selling a mixture of drawing, paintings, cards, books and clothing made by local artists who rent space in return for a larger-than-usual share in the profits. As in 161/2, the space is not as slick as a typical retail environment, but there is a curious consistency to the mood, a kind of DIY-Dadaism comprised of flavourful vernaculars such as anime, activist graphics, ironic/unironic nature, and vintage. Owner/designer/yoga instructor Joanne Thompson has noticed a similar ad-hoc approach in terms of aesthetics, but also (crucially) business, in small shops and galleries in San Francisco and Montreal. She agrees that something is happening, “the timing is probably just right,” she says of the five-month old store, “maybe last year, but definitely this year”.
Similar words might be heard from Wendy Welch, the artist-turned-director/CEO of a newly accredited art college, the Vancouver Island School of Art, on the north side of downtown’s revitalized -if not yet gentrified- Quadra Village. VISA began in the industrial area of Rock Bay (also home to many studios), in fall of 2004 as a one-room operation with forty-five students. It now occupies a heritage-designated schoolhouse and boasts over two hundred students, darkroom and sculpture facilities, and an independent exhibition space, The Slide Room Gallery. “One of the benefits of having a young school is being able to employ recent MFA graduates, so they stay in the city”, says Welch, who herself started the school shortly after finishing graduate school, in response to a need she perceived for serious students to be able to learn on a part-time basis.
Welch says “contemporary context” frames VISA’s ongoing mandate, a phrase which resonates on the other side of town at Open Space, among Victoria’s oldest artist-run centres (only studio co-op Xchanges has been around longer), having had to define what ‘contemporary’ means for more than thirty years. The building, on the second floor of a converted turn-of-the century stables, was recently renovated to allow greater public access to an area devoted to research facilities. Director Helen Marzolf describes it as, “A place for investigation”, and while she concedes, “I know that’s the party line…” her refreshing candour does nothing to undermine the fact that the current show –a collection of digital projections, ad-hoc video games, found objects and mail art, worked around the theme of ‘failure’- projects its mixture of humour and metaphysics with discernable integrity. “Dowsing for Failure”, is the product of visiting curators, and Marzolf underscores the importance of maintaining a “casual” atmosphere for incoming creative traffic. She cites a new music group will be making ongoing use of the space in the new year, as well as “Roving Projects”, short-term, impromptu programming that allows artists and performers to realize an idea without the more lengthy submission and review process. Marzolf is interested in networking with other groups such as the MoCL to draw in as diverse and dynamic a crowd as possible, in her own words, “create something more robust […] to compensate for the long stairwell”.
Up another long stairwell Deluge Contemporary Art, is both gallery and new headquarters for the AntiMatter Film festival, run (respectively) by partners Deborah de Boer and Todd Eacrett. Deluge began as the Rogue Gallery located in old town’s retail centre Market Square, before moving to the top floor of an urban shopping mall, the Hudson’s Bay Centre, in a space defined by vast expanses of unfinished concrete. De Boer has been playing the independent curator game longer than most, and the latest reincarnation of her endeavour (a pristinely retrofitted former fire hall) feels like an important ‘next step’ for contemporary artists who have already paid their dues elsewhere. It is also a way for established artists (such as UVic art profs Sandra Meigs, Daniel Laskarin and Bob Wise) to show in their hometown on a solo basis, something that didn’t happen very often even five years ago. Deluge is a pristine white space that emphasises professionalism and doesn’t shy away from a commercial dimension of its operation, something that helps to lend its sophisticated shows a more accessible edge.
Anti-Matter is an experimental film and video festival that is going on its tenth year, with an increasing sense of international participation and prestige. The ‘screenings’ (held at Open Space) usually consist of several short pieces grouped around a given theme. Eacrett points out that much of the festival’s content defies the feature-film mould, to explore cinema’s roots in relation to visual art, performance and music, and emphasizes the importance of drawing a popular audience as well, “getting people together for communal experiences, and exploring the opportunities that arise out of that”.
“Communal experiences” also seem to be the emphasis of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria these days. In tandem with an energetic series of educational/recreational programs, the gallery has taken up the practice of staging openings in its various galleries (art rentals, the Lab, Asian galleries, etc.) on a single night, so that various elements of the art going public mingle to create a palpable sense of event. Since the arrival in 2000 of director Pierre Arpin, the gallery has made a concerted effort to clarify its role with regard to greater cultural concerns and its immediate public, installing infrastructural upgrades that have allowed for a greater range of significant visiting exhibitions, while inaugurating a new space for experimental projects, ‘The Lab’. Contemporary Curator Lisa Baldissera has been credited with bringing an ambitious, theoretical focus to shows featuring both local and international names…Incoming director Shirley Madill recently praised Baldissera’s survey of utopian art, Fantastic Frameworks, as a “curatorial masterpiece”.
It’s important in assessing a scene to recognize individuals (and too many have been left out here), because looking back, one realizes how contingent everything is. Stamina is required, but even more so is a willingness to merge with the efforts of others. “No one does it by themselves”, de Boer states, “find me the guy that tries that, I’ll throw him out the window”. In one way, Victoria’s isolation - it’s islandhood- contributes to the lack of territoriality. Citing the local alternative music scene as “eclectic and recognized”, Kollins says one of the unique features of Victoria is its openness to differing genres and the way it “incubates for pleasure”. As Threlfall notes, “in a bigger city, we could focus strictly on being an alternative, but Victoria is just too small for that and we need to represent as much of the arts community as possible […] Look at the faces you see at the various arts events—most of the time, they're the same whether it's at theatre, galleries or a literary reading. Performers/creators aside, that's Victoria's arts community
1. This quotation opportunistically lifted from Michael Duncan, “Opening Salvos in L.A., Art In America magazine, November 2006, p.83, from “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art”, in Negative Space: Manny Farber on the Movies, New York, DaCapo Press, 1998, p. 135. I’d like to point out that while both Duncan and I make use of Farber’s analogy, we do so in order to describe very different models.
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
Baroque, Banal & Uncanny [Peculiar Culture at the AGGV]
First, the Received Information:
Peculiar Culture is an alternate dimension of the AGGV’s Baroque extravaganza, aiming to “explores contemporary expressions of the Baroque”, bringing together Uvic’s Luanne Martineau with notorious Young British Artists Jake and Dinos Chapman. We read that Martineau and the Chapmans like Baroque artists, “combine beauty, perversity, humour and horror to engage the audience with their elaborate executions”.
The notion of extending an ethos beyond its historical context here is provocative and potentially relevant; especially as the accompanying Misshapen Pearl exhibit works to flesh out said context. As the promotional material notes, the Baroque period saw the exploitation of high production values to communicate religious themes in a direct, theatrical manner that implicated the viewer’s emotional involvement, and that the aristocracy also saw the dramatic style as a means of expressing wealth, power and control…the artwork as counter-reformation propaganda, a spectacle of force that conjoins religious experience with the language of power for the last, definitive time in Western Culture before the Age of Reason took hold.
Perhaps you could posit that Baroque imagery creeps into our own millennial zeitgeist as an exposition of the morally freighted power relations of the Neocon era with their ever -elaborating of modes of promotion, commodification, security and surveillance. Contemporary visions of the Baroque, like the films of Peter Greenaway or the pickled sharks of Damien Hirst, call to mind a culture voyeuristic to the point of moribund ‘pornocracy’, obsessed with the palpable possession of material prestige (as in real estate) in an abstracted, information-based society.
All this is by way of relating to some of the information posted with the exhibition: that Martineau’s felt sculpture - “addresses social realism, racism and conceits of high modernism”, by using traditional felting techniques to create “beautifully grotesque soft sculptures”. The Chapman brothers are billed as ‘collaborating’ with Goya, taking some of the imagery and much of the look of his famous Disasters of War and Caprichos etchings, and combining them with their own lexicon: stabbing middle fingers, swastikas, and mushroom clouds.
Recently a student reminded me that a lot of the Chapman brothers’ images might emerge from a 1970’s adolescence: the mushroom cloud everyone learned to expect (as in Generation X writer’s Douglas Copeland’s many and varied suburban nuclear apocalypse fantasies), the swastika’s Holocaust as not-quite-fiction agitated into an open sore by the middle-fingering sex pistols. But there are other implications that build through the consistencies and inconsistencies of the staggered prints. The image of a hanging man (cribbed from the Disasters of War) appears as a repeated emblem…Like the Chapmans’ swastika of severed fingers, it is the gesture created out of dead parts, bringing to mind something that is acted upon but does not act – human meat as emblem, but not agent. The image breaks out of a stew of loose marks and scratches (a mannered nod to old-master facture) to become an intractable revenant…a body without an internal organizing principle that has been shaped into its present condition by terrible force.
This suggestion of invisible, violently oppressive or torturous forces working on the body recalls French philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s writing about another displaced expression of Baroque: Francis Bacon’s images ‘screaming’ Popes, drawn from incomplete quotations of Titian and Velasquez (1.) Deleuze suggested that Bacon’s incomplete figural expressions amount to a kind of mapping of call and response from the painted body to our own, a catalogue of twitches, reflexes, starts, pains, rushes and jitters, what Bacon referred to getting across the sensations of ‘the nervous system’ (2.)
The trouble with the etchings is that what happens on a physical, ‘nervous’ level with Bacon (and, as I’ll go on to say, in Martineau) is literalized into sensationalistic illustration the etchings. The smudges in the etchings look quoted: they’re too deliberately positioned in relation to the source of their quotation to be felt directly, rather than through historical reference-making, so the sensation is not immediate, informal and rich with crude/sophisticated ambiguities as in original Goya, but is a slightly queasy ‘slippage’ (there’s that word again) from reference to an implied content.
The confluence of the etchings (as an accumulative experience, as in their staggered hanging) is a stain or a smear - linguistically, a kind of slur, a word that doesn’t have its own meaning but refers only to the indignity of another word or identity…as the bodies are not ‘whole’ bodies, they suggest a syntax that is not whole. As a totality, they don’t add up to anything like the imminent sense of the farcical or monstrous that develops in Goya. Instead, they look like public toilet scrawls or the marginalia in a high-school notebook. I like the idea that hysterical, circumspect, self-defeating adolescence owes something to Goya & vice versa –because it does- but it gets a lot more mileage in ballpoint on notebook paper than in the overcultivated replications that are the etchings.
Bacon and Goya both assembled a visual syntax language out of parts: Bacon’s consisted of film stills, stop-motion-photography, art historical reproductions, newspaper clippings and his own photographic studies of models. Goya’s was cobbled together from first-hand Velasquez, second-hand Hogarth and Rembrandt, and probably some influence of his one-time acquaintance with Piranesi. In both cases, there was an expedience or impoverishment of resources that retained its fragmentary character in being deployed in the service of an incomplete subject. Goya’s etchings are filled with elements of visual obscurity that the look and mode of printmaking accommodates…the viewer feels that clarity is being deferred, and both desires or dreads a sharper view; Bacon, for his part, could not assemble his compositions without an accidental mark. I love that the Chapman Brothers have made dioramas using old Airfix WWII modelling kits. My feeling is that by sticking with an as-yet-unconsolidated vernacular (late 20th century male adolescence), the sense of the unformed body as the potential threat or liberator of the pictures would have some serious power.
By comparison Luanne Martineau’s felted pieces are more immediately affecting. The nature of the felted material, and its unsuitability in creating sculptures that look like bodies presents the most obvious superficial tension. The pieces remind us of clothing, blankets, upholstery or cushions, but up close reveal parts (appendages, limbs, extremities) creating confusion over whether they are passive (as in garments or furniture, porous and domestic) or active (tactile, potentially responsive, alive, becoming). Standing close to them, it is hard not to feel ticklishness in the spine or fingertips at the dramatic physical character of this contradiction.
What allows this contradiction to become durable, surviving the initial impact of their own visual/tactile hook, is the unresolved nature of the felting and sewing. Felt itself is already an aggregate, and in the errant stitches and half-formed structures, there is an aggregate of time and attention. There is a suggestion of denseness in both the immediate look and feel of the work, then, that is met by the implicit labour the work took to produce. The sense of handwork keeps getting bumped out of the way by the gestalt of the pieces as figures, however, so that something ‘uncanny’ emerges in the struggle, like the growth of a bacterial culture from spilled milk or a stalagtite from mineral runoff…a mindless, continuous development that threatens to take on the stature of a full-blown organism.
Like the Chapmans, Martineau places her work in opposition to a formal/ historical mode of viewing, in this case the body in relation to architectural elements that enclose, elevate and define it: plinth, table and chamber. Martineau’s figures are forms that become agglomerations of form before and after they are singularities, and the linear frameworks they are presented in allow them to seduce, beguile and mislead from unified approach to irreconcilable diversity. Here again I’m tempted to refer to Bacon, recalling John Berger’s note that the details of rooms, furniture and tailoring invariably survive the contortions of his figurations intact, supplying an institutional foil for the crisis of the body (3.) These stage-dressings (preciously complex in the early work, cruelly simple in the late) were part of Bacon’s interest in the motif of the crucifixion.
Martineau’s tall piece that runs from the floor to the wall in fact resembles a similar form in Bacon’s Three Studies for a Crucifixion Three (1962). It seems to simultaneously slump and rear up. Like certain insects, what we first assume to be the ‘head’ might just as easily be the tail. This also recalls the figuration of Philip Guston’s late work, all legs that don’t lift and noses dangling like worn out genitals. The analogy is to these painters more than superficial: both Bacon and Guston employ a stroke that hangs suspended from its impetus, looking both dead and alive. Matineau’s handwork is a series of episodes like a painter’s bouts and flurries, and their own deft absorptions belie an inert centre.
In this sense, we could also read the ‘uncanny’ as an cancerous outgrowth of Baroque complexity as the conspicuous display of power … a spider’s web might be creatively misread as ‘Baroque’ (indeed it was a common 18th century image in music, literature and decoration), but the mummified body of an insect or a bulging egg sack tightly bundled at the centre of the web is a bit uncanny. It implies that a stylistic mode that has been made to contain more than can be demonstrated or comprehended from the usual point of its attraction. I say, ‘cancerous’, because display without communication becomes an endless repetitious cycle, a multiplication without fertility, an elaboration that becomes self- referential and self-consuming. Martineau’s pieces present an unseen, unaccountable process posed in the attitude of disconnected, explicit display.
Where I would like to go with the spider analogy is to say that awful stopping-point of repetition/complexity versus display/inertia in Martineau’s presentations always offers more: there is a weird, conciliatory the possibility that the web can be rebuilt again and again, and that the subject represented may be neither dead or alive for certain. More pointedly, that its means of continuity may not fall under the usual categories of dead or alive, but instead present an array or bacterial or insect behaviours: superficial appendages, camouflage, cannibalism, feigned death or sexless reproduction. What they present is the sub-human as possibly more than human, which I suspect is their connection to issues of racism and genocide.
In that essay on Francis Bacon, Berger ultimately condemns Bacon as a conformist, for presenting behaviours without offering relief from them, a state which Berger compares to the implied abjection latent in a Disney cartoon character (here supplied by a grainy illustration of Jiminy Cricket). I think that Berger is off the mark…he touches on, but fails to reveal a more complex operation in Bacon’s work that demands a more open reading: David Sylvester’s early essays on Bacon identify a problem with Bacon’s use of background space in relation to his figures that gets closer to the point (4.) In any case, I was led to the Disney/Bacon contrast in part because of Martineau’s references (via the text panel and her drawings) to early pulp cartooning like R.F. Outcault’s “Yellow Kid”. Berger suggests a static presentation of either a Bacon or Disney image with the imagined caption “This is all there is”. What he implies is that both Bacon and seminal Disney possessed a transfixing power in presenting a fully realized language of distortion as if it were a state of open transition. That is, you think the cartoon characters are flexible, but their grotesqueness is in fact terribly consistent, surviving temper tantrums and falling pianos without noticeable consequence. Bacon seems to present a character in metamorphosis, but has swept away all but the most superficial cues to the picture as a narrative construction. There is no way out or in, only display.
In many of his early, darker pictures, Bacon employed certain props that now seem arch, notably putting sheet glass in front of his work in a way that caught the viewer’s reflection, teasing out the question of a more direct, visceral engagement of the viewer that broke through the convention of ‘illustration’ that Bacon both condemned and mastered. I want to put Martineau’s work on one side of the glass and the Chapman’s on the other. I want to say her work connects you more directly with all of these problems in a way that goes on connecting, altering, offering possibilities; while the etchings are a footnote, a closed episode, a look in on Goya’s content of fantasy, depravity and gravity that proves to also be a bore: a definitive, limiting spectacle.
1. C.f. Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, “The Diagram” and “Painting and Sensation”), and in general their use of Artaud’s ‘body without organs’.
2. I realize that Bacon is the uninvited guest here, but he has been a certifying ghost for a particularly Young British expression of the abject. There is the apocryphal story, for instance, of Bacon’s being transfixed before a Damien Hirst cow head, which served at the time as a sort of passing of the torch from one generation –and kind of notoriety- to another.
3. C.f. John Berger, “Francis Bacon and Walt Disney”, About Looking. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980.
4. C.f. David Sylvester, “Bacon I”, in his recent posthumous anthology, About Modern Art, Critical Essays 1948-2000, Revised Edition. London: Pimlico, 2002.
Thursday, January 18, 2007
Fault Line Vol.1 #4, Winter 2006-07
Fault Line is an irregularly- produced forum for free contemporary criticism and commentary. The purpose of Fault Line is to encourage interest, argument and pleasure, and comments and complaints are welcome. Fault Line is an online project, which exists as a bulletin sent via attachment (Word or PDF format) to a list of subscribers, and a Blog site to allow for reader feedback and anonymous postings. Future projects may include a broadsheet or magazine. Articles featuring art criticism or arts-related topics are welcome in a variety of formats (including poetry and humour). We favour shorter pieces (typically 250 to 1500 words) and accessible, engaging writing wherever possible. The art discussed needn't be current or local but the sense of occasion should be. To add your name to our subscriber list, or to send submissions, please correspond by e-mail to email@example.com. Post comments at .
Fault Line is seeking submissions of writing on ongoing exhibitions, and we hope to release another bulletin in early spring. As you can see in our ‘Briefly Noted’ segment, short submissions – particularly in the case of multiple submissions on a single subject- are welcome. They help draw attention to work that might not otherwise receive a broad enough audience, and encourage the kind of informal discussion that so often lays the groundwork for more thorough involvement, here and elsewhere. Thanks for your contribution! Our spring issue will feature (delayed) notes from the AGGV’s Fantastic Frameworks exhibition, as well as further field notes on Victoria’s alternative visual arts community (see interview below).
Inga Rommer at the Slide Room Gallery/at the Fifty-Fifty
“Yes that’s better. It’s like before, Baroque.” I am helping to hang a show of Inga Romer’s paintings in the front room of the Fifty-Fifty Arts Collective. This is the second time we’ve worked together this way, and the language used to communicate questions of placement has become paired-down. “Yes, that’s it”, or “It’s too much”, are momentarily enough: the relative colour, scale, and proximity of the paintings in relation to one another, how high or low on the walls they need to be, and also what kinds of correspondences the different works maintain between their own tenuous connection and the architectural foibles of the space. But why “Baroque?”
Romer is hanging the work in what she refers to as a ‘rhizomatic crawl’: paintings spread out across space, hopscotching from low to high, paired off or strung along. The paintings are not evenly sized or spaced, and a lot of their impact as a grouping would seem to depend upon a certain random energy in their placement. Having said that, our discussion when hanging the pieces is distinctly contemplative. The first time I stepped into a roomful of Rommer’s work (the MFA graduate show at the University of Victoria) I sensed the space drifting apart from the raucous concourse: it became distinctly open and light, drafty even.
Trying to read Romer’s paintings as forcefully energetic fails: there is a certain awkwardness in their coming together compositionally. The painted forms –overlays of variously coloured linework depicting objects but especially parts of places – mostly do not create a central concern of the kind that agitates a speculative view and absorbs and throws back a direct gaze. Areas of ignition between the overlays -and there are many- do not gradually arrive at some bigger constellation or vortex of attention. Instead, they shift the penetrative gaze to one side. The eye catches one form, is drawn into another, and can often seem to slide right off the surface. In this sense, the pictures are not ‘tight’: old-school painting-argot for a will to self-reflexivity, autonomy and implied pleasure-as-rigour whose most famous name-check is Cezanne. Trailing off of the edge of one of Rommer’s painting, the viewer’s attention might as easily slip onto a piece of nearby ductwork as onto the loose strands of an adjacent picture, most likely both. The pictures can be almost vacuously clean looking, but the relations are promiscuous and run to plurality.
Looking for ‘rhizomatic’ I refer myself to an essay by Gilles Deleuze, “Rhizome Versus Trees”…Deleuze says that the model of fragmentation so ingrained in the modern experience (from cubist collage to The Wasteland to twelve-tone music) always refers back to a centre, which has been lost but is still present as a conspicuous, magnetic absence. The rhizome is something else: a network of independent parts whose relationship is not held together by the anti-matter of loss, but by momentary, arbitrary contingencies…Modular, but endlessly compatible.
The week I read this definition, I went to see the Fantastic Frameworks show at the AGGV and wandered into Yayoi Kusama’s tentacle-like polka-dotted forms sprouting from the floor. The pieces look uncannily sensible (sensitive and/or sense-able), meaning that the dots -which one gradually recognizes have all been painted by hand- keep pushing the bright, matte colour-shapes into an optical-tactile tug of war that makes them visually very mobile. One minute they’re a bit of graphic interference, the next minute they’re rigid silhouettes against a flat blur of wall. The accumulative effect of repeatedly apprehending the forms from different points of view is a powerful sensation of stasis (those hand-dotted dots) fighting with a creeping suspicion of immanent animation.
My suspicion is that Rommer’s works are also working out of the confusion of static/ dynamic relations. Her colours effect a shift from form to form via inscrutable likeness –tone on tone, as in the steely grey blues descending into cast iron blacks or oily flat browns – or analogous hues, typically vibrating yellows, oranges, reds or crimsons, whose juxtaposition seems to create a ‘third man’, an added sense of richness and profusion. This kind of palette could be traced back through painters the artist is certainly very familiar with, Oskar Kokoschka and (a generation earlier) Lovis Corinth. Both use a slippery palette and a demonstrative, generous hand to create leaps from stroke to stroke and form to form. Thus a lot of classic Kokoschka (and much late Corinth) looks like meat falling off the bone, recalling the cook’s definition of the verb ‘render’. This approach deployed in heroic figural tableau expresses a compressed version of the Baroque ‘grand tragic drama’, as in Kokoschka’s Windsbraut of 1912, or Corinth’s turn-of-the-century scenes of the deposition
Romer’s compositions lack the urgency engendered by the presence of dramatis personae, thus the ‘weakness’. It is replaced with a connection to the space, and colours that no longer look as if their flesh (as it were) wears any bones at all, at least within the limits of the support. Instead, the grounds of her canvasses (tailor-mades with flat, titanium-acrylic finish) collude with the walls of the space, and the slips of colour half-fixing the forms, the outer-extent of the grasp of our sensations, like afterimages of glare, roving from one blank spot to another. There is a figure, then, in Rommer’s installations, that is, the viewer as a passive character, gradually pulled apart by the tangents of experience. At its best, Romer’s installations feel ‘Baroque’, because the development of a subject through a dynamic (yet monumental, = encompassing) movement from one state through many others is –as in The Ecstasy of St. Theresa or a Fugue by Purcell- a subject of the Baroque.
Recently I found myself at a Christmas party with the artist, leaning over a living room railing that opened out onto a sudden drop. It turned out to be an indoor swimming pool that had been drained for ages, and was dark, cracked and patched, magnifying its depths. To look at it, was to feel an internal lurch forming in the chest, a convex-surface-of-the-moon. One became much too conscious of the rail as part of a formula in which the torso needed to supply its rightful half of some obscure but resonant angle. “You’re going to use this space aren’t you” I said. “Yeah, I guess I have to”, she said.
Alan Kollins and The Fifty Fifty Arts Collective
Recently I had the opportunity to write some notes on the developing art scene in Victoria for Mix magazine. The article’s focus was on the last three to five years, with the underlying point that cities, schools, ‘scenes’ and the like enjoy cycles of activity and that Victoria seemed to be enjoying one now. As a research project, this was great fun, though of the desperate variety, for the usual reasons (a short timeline to write; an even shorter final word count in the end). In an upcoming posting, I hope to be able to include more of the raw material, or an expanded version of what will appear in Mix shortly.
In the meantime, it would not be right to let January pass without some acknowledgement of the Fifty-Fifty Arts Collective’s anniversary (maybe not a precise anniversary, but looking back to the ‘Grand Reopening’ in January of 2004, and also the claim –via the collective’s MySpace Site- that the Fifty Fifty is a Capricorn!) Whether many Victorians are aware of it, the Fifty-Fifty performs a role that is absolutely vital in helping to galvanize the city’s music/arts scenes.
In art history lectures that tend perforce to focus on ‘greatest hits’ (Paris before the Great War, Zurich in 1916, Berlin in the ‘20’s, New York in the 50’s, etc.), I try to always remind students that a milieu – people coming together for all kinds of artistic practices, social and political activities, pleasure and entertainment, in a way that is spontaneous, fugitive, and without support, permission or endorsement- is what generates the art that decorates calendars and coffee mugs half a century or more later. Allan Kollins and the Fifty-Fifty have been supplying an indispensable part of Victoria’s milieu as such for four years.
[The following interview was conducted via e-mail, December 15th, 2006]
J.L.: How did you get started?
A.K.: By default really. A group of friends with creative sensibilities and itching to create programming that wasn’t being served by the music or greater arts community asked me to join their collective in the making shortly before taking over a space in Vic West that formally housed an antique store. (This commercial space had subsequently been renovated for live-in purposes by a friend of ours. however, after time and money was invested in this conversion the landlord feared the legalities of the situation and forced an eviction. unable to recover his costs, the thinking became how to best maximize his own work and ultimately the space was passed on to us without much red tape). I believe it was my film interests that initially perked the collective’s interests in having me as a board member (one of 14). At that time I was immersed in academics and the thought of curatorial and administration work hadn’t even crossed my mind until the situation presented itself. Within 6 months as our board shrunk by half I found myself doing both, with great investment, on a regular basis.
J.L.: How would you describe the evolution of the space from its earlier location/incarnation to its present incarnation?
A.K.: The only dramatic change that comes to mind is the personnel. In the fifty fifty’s lifespan (four years) membership turnover has been relatively consistent. The nature of the work involved, all volunteer, demands commitment and energy that folks with full time jobs and outside interests simply can’t devote over the long haul. I mean, if an artist run centre isn’t sapping the life out of you, you’re probably doing something wrong.
The initial mandate of the fifty fifty has remained the same throughout its tenure in Victoria: provide a multi-purpose exhibition and performance space for emerging artists at no to little cost to the artists. To my mind, the longest standing board members (past and present) take pride in the notion that the initial mandate of the collective remains intact despite various obstacles that arise.
Our most significant alteration was the decision to leave our space in Vic West due in large part to noise complaints and a property management purchase of the building. Following a 4-6 month period of “homelessness” we managed to locate a larger space, more suitable for multi-purpose programming and located more central to the city’s core. We turned over a street level warehouse/storefront that once housed a furniture stripping company; a building that was very close to being sold to the city to build a new and improved bus depot but fell through due to a lobby group compiled of local businesses who wanted to see the city’s central bus station remain downtown. As a result of this political debacle, the space had been vacant for almost a year and not listed for leasing. Thus when we pursued occupancy, the landlord treated any money coming in on the place as gravy and we were able to secure it for a reasonable month-to-month rent. Unheard of in this town, really.
J.L.: What role does it play in terms of an alternative art venue?
A.K.: We house art exhibitions for young and emerging artists usually at the beginning of their careers. We also provide space for experimental and independent music performance, genres that generally have a difficult time finding appropriate venues in Victoria.
J.L.: How do you choose the artists? Is it mostly from people submitting proposals or do you approach known artists and invite them to show?
A.K.: Local artists are encouraged to submit portfolios and rarely do we refuse anyone a show. Given that most of the submissions we receive are from younger artists seeking their first or second exhibition, our only requirement is that they their submission proposal consider our requirements, which in the interests of providing emerging artists with ‘professional’ experience, we request proper portfolio requirements. This is about the only level of sophistication demanded of anyone who exhibits at our space. Artists also gain curatorial experience as our coordinators provide as much room as possible for the visiting artist. The fifty fifty has on occasion hosted group shows that have involved open calls. These generally work to bring the artist community together and raise funds for the collective. One recent example being The Likeness Project, a self portrait show curated by former board member / arts coordinator, Lauren Marsden.
Similarly, music events like Rock Lottery and One Hit Wonder work on an open call basis and promote interactive creativity among working musicians in the local scene. These annual shows are extremely popular and the demand (and city by law restrictions) have forced us to move them off site to larger venues. Themed music shows are ultimately the emotional and psychological pay off for our board as these events demand interactive and hands on programming involvement.
J.L.: Where do you look for funding? How do these play a role (if any) in shaping your public profile/interface?
A.K.: Given that local municipal governments are unwilling to provide operational funding to small upstart art centres functioning on small revenue, much of our funding comes through internal sources (board member rent contributions) and creative programming initiatives such as hosting music shows, off site benefits and in house programs. We have received a couple modest project grants from the city of Victoria, but funding resources beyond this body have proven futile any time we have sought them out.
One of the benefits of the fifty fifty’s revenue system is it actively engages board members to develop their own programming initiatives which usually wins the support and assistance of volunteers and other board members. It has always been the thinking that without events, the space loses site of its creative mandate, its necessary revenue and the fifty fifty will undoubtedly fold. It’s this fear of collapse that keeps the space afloat. I can’t tell you how many directors and board members of Canadian artist run centres have looked at me across an interview table baffled at how the fifty fifty has managed to operate on site for four years with little to no private or gov’t funding. Board members developing programs is uncharted terrain in artist run centre culture. So long as arts funding remains the competitive feeding frenzy that it is, the taboos around in-house programming need to change. It’s a question of survival.
J.L.: How important is the role of individuals (such as yourself) in forming ‘community’ as such?
A.K.: If I don’t exorcise my own programming demons, I will wilt. If community falls into place as a result of this narcissism, great. No harm done.
J.L.: How would you describe the current situation in Victoria in terms of territorial divides (academia, artist-run-centres, home-grown collectives, government institutions, grant-giving bodies...)? Recognizing that this is a huge question, feel free to take on one aspect only.
A.K.: See above
J.L.: How much interplay/cross-pollination do you observe between disciplines/media/venues, etc. (live music, live theatre, visual art, performance art, poetry, etc.)?
A.K.: It’s a large part of how the fifty fifty operates. Our mandate demands that the collective is open to multiple genres and disciplines. This pretty much dictates our programming.
J.L.: Would you describe your current outlook/position as optimistic, wary, ebullient, the product of a sustained feat of incredible stamina, or something fluctuating between these points?
A.K.: All of the above except for ebullient, as I don’t know what this word means. Not even sure I could reach such a state.
J.L.: What events around Victoria (in terms of shows you’ve seen or hosted, people you’ve talked to, politics, etc.) do you consider to be positive signs for a ‘scene’ or community? …Bad signs?
A.K.: Art shows: The Make and its two predecessors. Proof that collectives can form briefly and create effective on-the-fly group exhibits at little costs to the organizers. Music: bands like Frog Eyes, Wolf Parade, Chet, Islands, Imps, Carolyn Mark and co. suggest Victoria’s music scene does not genre bash, incubates for pleasure and provides a breeding ground for an eclectic and recognized alternative music scene. Residents of Austin, TX. don’t know what they are missing up here. Film: lots of work needs to be done to diversify film exhibition in this town. I don’t believe the major festivals are placing enough efforts into their curatorial mandates. Theatre is much more vibrant in Victoria. Perhaps this says something about all the drama on the streets and in the bedrooms of Victoria.
J.L.: Do you plan on staying where you are (or at least in Victoria) for the foreseeable future?
J.L.: Grants or sales aside, do you feel you’re performing a service?
A.K.: On bad days yes (sometimes curatorial duties feel like babysitting). On good days I am merely feeding my own insatiable need to keep my landscape dynamic. I suspect there are some psychotherapists out there that could say the same.
Flagella Vibrations While waiting in line for caffeine of choice at Cafe Fantastico on Kings road in Victoria, one could easily be lured over to Scott Evans' recent sculpture exhibition. Firstly, the cell structure drawings gently introduce you to a short venture through what one could perceive as a microorganism’s cycle. Interesting juxtapositions between organic materials and plastics are mounted on separate household/everyday items. For example, eloquently placed flora wheels seem to be taking over the kitchen chair seat. "Urgh", I thought to myself. This reminds me of the science project involving examination of a dirty kitchen rag... The rag was a vehicle that spread populations of bacteria around one's abode; we studied the different bacterial families that colonized the rag. Scott Evans' work may suggest the takeover of plastics, and most definitely the spread of various kinds of populations. Goosebumps. However, the nature in which he intricately places the materials conveys an even deeper intellectual message that an individual could only begin to fathom. By the end of the works’ chain, tucked over on the far wall, a giant collaboration awaits. This massive electronic, ship-like cityscape structure hangs there, an intimidating wonderland? It successfully displays detailed nooks and crannies, a world wired by electronics. - Marlene Bouchard
Saturday, December 02, 2006
[The following notes were cooked up rather extemporaneously, by way of text for a catalogue for Marlene Bouchard’s 'Analog' show at the Slide Room Gallery (runs through December 12th) They represent a game correspondence with the works involved, as with Bouchard’s own sensibility as a curator. - J.L.]
Analog(ue) represents the most dramatic use so far of not only the space of the Slide Room Gallery but also its palpable contexts: the parochially-tongue-in-groove-panelled walls of a schoolroom that have become both an exhibition space and a lecture hall. Sculptural works share in common an idiomatic foregrounding of material – inflated fabric, clustered light bulbs, cast wax, spooling magnetic tape, heterogeneously homogenous flotsam and jetsam- with modes of presentation that sag, spill, lean, press, tangle, tip, amass and clump. Each piece subjects its motifs to multiplicity and difference, establishing within its formal economy a circuit of social implications.
Marcia Huyer’s massive, inflated sculpture sets this process in motion with the intrusive spread of the organization (a word my computer’s thesaurus has supplied in place of the rather overused ‘body’), and its many appendages. There is something gothic about its structure, that is to say the logic of a form whose interior has dictated the anomalous and irregular spread of its exterior. Here the inside has been turned out, and in its immediate presence we feel the suspension –like an intake of breath- between spaces, real and virtual.
Nearby, Rebekah Johnson’s arrangement of light bulbs and neon tubing clambers toward the window as if for a literal and figurative frame of reference. Rather than being forbiddingly fragile, the triangular spread of the bulbs reads as sociable, chattily populous in their invitation to counting sameness and difference. The fractious passing around of illumination suggests a party, reflecting our own celebratory, compulsive, delimiting addiction to light.
Megan Dickie’s cantilevered wax forms hover somewhere between confection and confession. The silhouettes of the artists’ body are aspirational, asserting her independence amid clouds of domesticity. The narrative is of the ‘outfit’, a suit of clothes that grants their wearer the momentary wholeness of a profile. Charged with both positive and negative spatial tension, they drift forward into tactility like cartoon tropes for figure and ground. Some are only drifts of parts like pattern remnants; one wonders if it is the clothes that are dreaming, of their ideal body.
A similar feeling of agglomeration governs Scott Evans’ miniature masses. Here a seemingly common currency of fancifully surreal forms in recreationally psychedelic colours is undermined by the facture of the materials themselves: sponginess, stained-ness, absorbency, frangibility…the fragile pomp of the presentations masks the intense passivity of their culture. Dynamically credulous, they assemble a richly germy infancy.
Tyler Hodgins’ floor pieces are lengths of ‘blank time’, empty sixty and ninety-minute audiotape sandwiched between slabs of tempered glass. The contrast between the curls of tape as loose and wayward or pressed and graphically liquid is vaguely uncanny: from loose time to gripped viscera. The ‘tape presses’ succinctly sum a relationship suggested throughout the exhibition: the nostalgic fetish of the analog...The wish or apprehension that forms might animate themselves, in their seeming hypostasis mirroring our own life-force. This shows up in sharp relief against the backdrop of digital relations, as a beauty of duress, of the pain and the ticklish humour of metamorphosis.
Friday, November 10, 2006
Fault Line is seeking submissions of writing on ongoing exhibitions, and we hope to release another bulletin in early December featuring reviews of the AGGV’s Fantastic Frameworks show, as well as Scott Evans’ sculpture (currently on view at the Quadra Street location of Café Fantastico) and Inga Romer’s painting (recently seen at the Slide Room Gallery and now installed at the Fifty-Fifty Arts Collective). As you can see in our ‘Briefly Noted’ segment below, short submissions – particularly in the case of multiple submissions on a single subject- are welcome. They help draw attention to work that might not otherwise receive a broad enough audience, and encourage the kind of informal discussion that so often lays the groundwork for more thorough involvement, here and elsewhere. Thanks for your contribution!
Robert Hengeveld’s “Farley’s heap: Casper’s keep”
[September 22nd-Oct 1st at the Fifty-fifty Arts Collective]
After spending two years with miniature kitchen stoves and installations that provoke the awkward feeling of “unfinished” construction sites combined with the feeling of organized “stages” inside of nice gallery spaces, my visual perception of the everyday surroundings we are all living in, got turned upside down; followed by his specific sense of humour. This humour that takes an important part in contemporary art making and in the perception of life in general.
In this new installation at the fifty-fifty arts collective, the miniature door on the right to the entrance gives me this giggling feeling inside of my throat and I am just thankful to him that he shows me the world in a different less important manner mixed up with his specific sense of humour…supported by the “construction site cave” that evokes this feeling of ambiguity: On one side, I want to get in action, the performance: to crawl inside, but one the other hand the “cave” is made out of construction site materials: raw, cold, unorganized, un-cozy. The viewer gets stuck in this feeling of ambiguity and isn’t really enthusiastic of crawling inside…. Robert Hengeveld mixes up what we think is “eternal”, the structures we live with in our everyday life, the forms, the views, everything we like to surround us and that give us the feeling of ”stability and security”, in our nests...he is playing with those notions of our actual society, breaking up the ceilings, replacing, this ongoing process of demolishing and constructing, renewing. The ongoing process of real life that some of us have lost in their lives because of too much “materialist security” plus the focus on structures that we dismiss and ignore.
[…] I really don't know what to think about his work...it just seems so self-conscious. What it made me think about was the relationship of works of art and the space or environment they are presented in. Because his pieces are primarily made of discarded construction material like a demolition sight [sic] and the space actually looks like it is in the process of being demolished it makes it difficult to recognize what is the art and what isn't. The concept of presenting building materials as discards or garbage and then seeing what they look like as we see them normally do is in some ways interesting. It also made me think of reversed skeletons or seeing on the outside what we normally don't see. Perhaps that is his point or perhaps it is irrelevant...it was just a reaction and it made me ask myself how I would have received this piece had it been in the Art Gallery of Victoria. Am I really that shallow that the space has that much importance [?]… The place is unattractive and not welcoming in any way but I guess that is pretty superficial of me to think it would or should be […]
- Dan MacDougall (in correspondence w. Xane St. Phillip)