Perspective 96

Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, November 13 – February 9

“Perspective 96” is the last instalment of George Gilmour’s annual endowment to showcase young artists. For the exhibition, curator Jessica Bradley chose four painters: Cora Cluett, Eric Glavin, Angela Leach and Steven Shearer. Barring only Cluett, whose work is the most painterly, the remaining three are producing hard-edge. In her catalogue, Bradley makes connections to their work and the entrenched lexicon surrounding the genre: Minimalism, Pop, Op, Neo-Geo, and the thoroughly trampled simulation theories of Jean Baudrillard.

The potential dilemma of wholesale paintings in this style is carrying the overwrought baggage of ensconced history. Bradley is right, you cannot disassociate their work from what preempts it — nor are these artists necessarily trying to. But there are differences between then and now. That all the artists’ works make reference to mechanicalism and digitalization suggests a perpetual motion of the genre which has proven to be particularly adept at continual mutation. In fact, in Toronto anyway, there seems a tangible resurgence of younger artists talking about the theoretical concerns of modernism over post-modernism. “Perspective 96” taps at this generational revisionism as though a kind of paradigm shift mixing in with a frantic end-of-millenia trajectory that keeps coming back to the vapidness and infinitism of technology.

The inclusion of Cluett’s tactile work, which seems oddly and probably intentionally out of place, is her theoretic base: the insulating sociological aspects of computers, particularly with the Internet. The repeated symbols she uses in her paintings spell out, in computer dingbats, kiss (: = *), and are stamped in grid repetition. Her colours are saturated opalescent reds, auburns and aged-whites applied like stucco, rich and tactile, and inches thick. Cluett suggests a polemic between medium and meaning, the human-like warmth of the work butting up against current social insulation and detachment through digitalization. But the result is a bizarre stalemate of either being too obvious or not convincing enough. Obvious in the sense that her references to technology don’t lead anywhere, or appear forced within the overriding context of this exhibition. Unconvincing in the sense that her tactile impressions far outweigh any conceived notion on digitarianism.

But Cluett’s works do have a link, if only in a loose way, to the remaining artists’ works which are also defined by the presence of techno-vapidness, though ultimately they are working at defying it. In fact, to see Eric Glavin’s graphic, linear and cow painting in reproduction is simply ineffectual, even though it is mass reproduction to which his work refers.

Hard-edged paintings like cow paintings are intentionally blemished — a slight variation within flat layers of colour, for instance — that are all important flaws defining his paintings as paintings; elements that scanners cannot pick up. Glavin’s subject matter, or lack thereof, is latent and so far removed from any origin that there is only an imprint of an undetermined memory. His choices of jarring, almost sick, colour combinations and heavily stylized forms hark back to indecipherable made-in-America fashion periods somewhere within the late 1950s right up to the 1990s obsession for retro. In a video shown during the exhibition, Glavin is talking in his studio and tacked to the distant wall is a Snickers wrapper. Oddly, that wrapper — which doesn’t appear to have succumb to any restylized up-dates — embodies the hyper-stylization found in his paintings. His kind of sophisticated populism goes beyond anything immediately retrievable, which is why the Snickers’ graphic seems so loaded as a tempting starting- or end-point.

A similar pseudo-retro sensibility is found in Angela Leach’s work. Her paintings are small and long, like swaths of fabric. Six stripes of colour, repeated in some manner in all of peacock paintings on canvas, meander in patterns like Op Art interpreted through suburban basement decor and, somewhere in there, Jean Miro and his biomorphisms produced under the influence of self-induced starvation and sleep deprivation. (Those are my references, though Leach’s own mentioned sources are just as permeable and arbitrary: an African mask from her parent’s home, her collection of jazz albums from the seventies, a stackable set of stools she uses in her studio, and her adjunct profession as a weaver.) The paintings are beautiful, riveting things, and the six-coloured bands are pure psychedelia. But ultimately, her work is about the tedium of her stencilling and filling-in process that, like Glavin’s slight imperfections, cannot be created by any other means other than by hand.

I would put Steven Shearer and Leach’s work together as the strongest match, in part because their processes to some degree define their work, though Shearer’s Untitled grid paintings that line up along the wall and have the look and feel of kitchen tiles, are completely produced outside of handcrafted production. He uses mathematical equations for signage machines to “paint” the work. Why Leach and Shearer connect is not in their methods — each being the extreme of the other — but the end product. Both are visually similar and equally rich, particularly with Shearer’s intricate grid works. In another stylized series, Shearer turned the bar code into a graphic pattern reproduced in duplicate and in insipid autochromes — one brown, the other orange. To give his colour range more description would suggest something “tasteful.” Shearer’s colours are intentionally anti-tasteful, like a 1970s rayon leisure suit in Miami. These works, and in particular TGIF, which feels completely familiar in its connection to optical graphics of 1950s and 60s, that a distinction from the previous era is hardly perceptible.

The “Perspective 96” painters are serendipitous grazers; lifting, pilfering, appropriating from everywhere but without actually making a direct reference to origins — which is not too far from what the Internet does and is doing; of warping concepts of time and place within chronology, as well as dismantling any sense of property, ownership or originality. Which is different from the kind of appropriation used in the 1980s, with artists like David Salle or David Diao, who grafted from mass media iconography to skew the notion of high and low brow. None of the “Perspective 96” artists refer back to an identifiable icon and any nameable reference point is seamlessly omitted.

Kim Adams exhibition

Gathered in the exhibition space as in a great carnival or flea market, vehicles, models of vehicles, dwellings and model dwellings compete for epistemic authority. The gallery is filled, detail upon detail, in a satirical exploration of a culture’s excessive production. Most of the works in this show are comprised of the kind of equipment used to keep in abeyance our fear of emptiness, either in terms of space or time: the tools and materials of recreational pursuits like gardening, renovating or camping.

Curator Sandra Grant Marchand has organized a glimpse of Toronto artist Kim Adams’ prodigious output in his first large-scale exhibition in Montreal. Adams resists transforming the gallery into a sculptural place of formal perceptual tension, but relies instead on space socially ordered by the ambiguous status of objects and activities relative to their designation as art. The exhibition space becomes a container “stocked” with sculptures and models. This aspect of the exhibition is consistent with Adams’ assemblage work in general: sculpture from components already assembly oriented like sports equipment, vehicles, toy model kits and household gadgets.

The kit is one of the basic modes of postmodern fabrication and this is one of the organizing themes of Adams’ work. Our urban environment, like the kit, is assembled by a series of components that, in themselves, compose a loose network that can be modified according to the will of planners. This environment provides many of Adams’ materials.

The wheel is everywhere is this exhibition. So are ersatz homes, assembly line housing, especially of the mobile variety. Also, non-mobile implements have sometimes been given mobility through the addition of wheels. In Model: Decoy Homes (1987), for example, a standard metal ironing board has become an oversize skateboard with the addition of four wheels, one at each corner. This work is either a sculpture with no base or a sculpture comprised only of bases standing one on another. The extended legs of the ironing board serve as a base as does the board itself for other elements stacked above in tiers. First, three kitchen garbage cans are housed in a construction which functions to support a second tier. Two hardware cabinets balance on this upper level and they too have wheels which rest on tracks allowing the cabinets to shuttle back and forth, but only a short distance. Both cabinets have chimneys composed of actual ducting and one has a standard galvanized metal outdoor garbage can stuck on its roof. The ensemble is precarious, and it is this aspect combined with the futility of wheels spinning in space, of vehicle/homes which track back and forth a few useless inches, that reveals a sense of ambiguous humour, bleak but compassionate for the unavoidable frailty of the “constructions” with which we comfort ourselves.

Organized along the lines of the figurative structure of linguistic operations, Adams’ works reflect on the rhetorical relations pertaining within language. For example, in He/He (1990) two tricycles are siamesed, sharing a common rear axle and driving away from each other. This vehicle is coming when it is going and vice versa, or transposed into the form of language it is an unsaying in the act of saying. He also draws humourously strained analogies: abstract themes such as the circularity of language as model/model as language manifested concretely in works featuring uselessly spinning wheels. Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1913) substituted contemplation for action, for history, and this suspension of the wheel’s function and the foregrounding of the sculptural base is clearly a motif for many of Adams’ works.

Earth Wagons (1989-91) is comprised of a miniature mountain resting on an assembly of a child’s wagon and two utility trailers such as are pulled behind the family car for work on the house or garden. The two trailers are supported, wheels off the ground, by jack stands which ambiguously mediate or “stand between” the institution and the art. Vehicles ride piggyback on other vehicles, a model train pulls a chain of flatcars conveying recreational vehicles, while the entire ensemble itself rests on “actual” trailers. This piece grafts the miniature onto the life-size, shifting our point of view from microcosm to macrocosm. Alternations of size and scale, from actual-size to gigantic and/or miniaturized models, these models (and all the works become models in some sense) explore mimesis: if the model is composed of items which function simultaneously to indicate a literal concrete reality and to “model” or to “look like something else,” then an absolute relativism results, creating an environment which moves ever nearer to the closure of an endless mirroring. The preponderance of quantity is itself a quality, a way of being that loses all measure. The implication for art is that the work of art may be constructed whenever and however: as in an infinitely rearrangeable cultural space that is similar to the Lego set.

In several ways Adams’ works affirm the notion of “nomadism”; his use of vehicles and of models but especially his reliance on substitution as a logic underlying and informing his mode of construction. The thing about the implements or pieces of equipment that Adams features in his sculptures is their equivalence with one another, their interchangeability. That is, one John Deere tractor is as good as another. The next step is to see that the tractor operator is equally interchangeable, and that the artist is implicated in this order as well. This interchangeability is as much a form of nomadism as the more obvious forms evoked by Adams’ use of the vehicle-home as a theme in his work.

In Modernism we find a uniformity and standardization of spaces; space conceived of as an abstract continuum: quantifiable and infinitely divisible, but above all, homogeneous in such a way that place disappears. American architect Kenneth Frampton has developed a theory of the placeform, a form which he says has a critical resistance based in presentation of a structural poetic as opposed to the re-presentation of a facade. His theory of place argues for a definition of dwellingsitedness which gathers itself only in dividing itself. In differentiating itself, Place makes room for something by creating limits, boundaries that differentiate it from other places. Such places cannot exist within the indifference of Modern or Cartesian space. Frampton argues that to accommodate differences we need, not simply space, but belongingplaces (topos) integral with the social, natural world.

In this conception of space, otherness provides critical relief from self-centeredness through creative encounter with estrangement. Nomadism undermines that possibility by its insistence on non-identity, a move, which without contrasts, cannot provide for the encounter with otherness. By undermining identity in a Nietzschean reversal, authentic relations of difference are simultaneously undermined. Otherness has the potential to function in resistance to the homogenizing of space which proceeds through the expansion of Modernity.

Where Adams’ work promotes the culturally prevalent theme of “nomadism” (interchangeability, the preferred social organization of post-industrial technological culture), we can say, along with Marchand, that it “draws us into a complicity that knows no limits.” If Adams’ work has a critical dimension it is one that rests on the ambiguities of complicity. This might be construed as “resistance,” however the real strengths of this work lie in its ability to unsettle, through mimicry and simulation, the “illusory constructs” organizing culture. When it is not weighed down by the seriousness of indusrial fabrication, there is a whimsical pleasure in the humour of Adams’ ironically “populist” vision.