Works from the Permanent Collection
23 October 1999 – 2 January 2000
in Gairloch Gardens
Curated by Marnie Fleming
The order is not rationalistic and underlying, but is simply order, like that of continuity, one thing after another. -Donald Judd, 1964
In the history of art we have seen repetition and sequential forms occur many times. Today another generation of artists are again repeating forms and working in multiples and grids. While borrowing indiscriminately from the past, however their work signals a departure from the experiments carried out by artists only a decade or so earlier. This exhibition explores pieces from Oakville Galleries Permanent Collection that deal with systems and formats in which contemporary artists have been able effectively to revitalize imagery. They are interested in expanding the legacy of the minimalist and pop artists of the 60's who sought out common materials, repetition and serial structuring.
In the 1960s minimalist artists like Donald Judd wanted to break away from what had previously been traditional, visually-balanced compositions. The minimalists were interested in working with objects of identical size and shape, placed in serial progression with regular spaces in between. For them, the idea of repetition placed emphasis on their materials and structure. They demanded from their work a new kind of purity, clarity and order of form. At about the same time that the minimalists were espousing the materials and methods of industry, around the same time, pop artists were embracing the processes of mass production. Pop artists worked with images that had seriality built into them - film, comic books and the embellishments of mass culture and consumption. Andy Warhol's Campbell soup cans and Roy Lichtenstein's comic book heroes come to mind. What they proposed was seen as a celebration of the consumerism of mass production and the post World War II era.
From reductive cubes on the wall, bricks on the floor, Brillo boxes and soup cans, art from the sixties insisted on being an object in a world of objects. Grids and seriality that started as radical physicality turned into commodity. Only with hindsight can we now see that there arose a disillusionment with the art object and, with that, a distrust of consumer culture and the pretense of purity. Minimalist and pop art logic no longer sufficed - technology and production had undesirable side effects - progress and purity were no longer issues.
The artists in this exhibition borrow from their predecessors but add a new twist - a twist of consciousness that has been evolving since the early 1970's. And all the changes in this evolution can be traced, by various circuitous routes, to a strong desire to be concerned with context rather than style - to use memory, research and narration. Instead of the grid and sequential imagery being used as a formal device, these systems have now become a tool for making scale flexible, for delineating notions of time, personal imagery, the memory of an experience and a visionary plan.
For example, in Jeannie Thib's Flutter we can consider many things in examining the twenty different handkerchief images - the stitchery, the stylized floral patterning, the feminine realm of craft, the privilege and status of the owners, and the many codes of social behavior associated with them. The blackboard slate which supports the handkerchief image also has properties that evoke memories of the classroom and learning and knowledge. In addition the grid formation and the shelving units allude to a manner of display reminiscent of 19th century natural history museums. It is up to us to bring meaning to the work with all the clues, interconnections and layering of images which have been evoked by the artist. Here the grid serves to point toward differences and commonalities, and to help mediate the knowledge and associations experienced when encountering them.
Similarly, in Sandra Rechico's soot drawings there is preoccupation with poetic suggestion. In these works, medical imagery, body parts - particularly organs - have been created through the use of stencils filled in with rising smoke from a candle. This method of creating an image is almost ritualistic in the repeated gesture of applying wisps of smoke to fill in and soften the edges of the forms. The overall grid formation underlines a rhythmic visual pattern not unlike flipping through a medical catalogue - viewed in isolation and indexed for scientific purposes. The body parts also evoke thoughts of lace or like Rorschach ink-blot tests, they can also suggest playful forms: is that an insect? a horse? We are presented here with only six images purchased by Oakville Galleries from an original installation of forty two, yet the smaller installation of grids still enables us to discern difference as well as the suggestion of an implied continuity.
Contemporary artists use paired, multiple or successive images to induce a narrative or relationship between images. Because of this they are able to enhance or control their direction. Stephen Andrews is one artist who is particularly adept at paring down the most cogent aspects of visual, emotional, formal and intellectual components so that flexibility in interpretation is simultaneously restricted yet activated. His Facsimile, Part II depicts images of friends who have died from AIDS-related complications. In 1991 Andrews was in Paris and learned from letters that more friends had died from AIDS. He requested faxed photographs of these deceased friends from his correspondents. Subsequently, the dark, obscured and frequently unrecognizable images he received distorted his memory of these individuals, emulating a kind of forgetfulness. In delineating these pixel-formed faces in wax and graphite, Andrews was able to express deep personal loss that also spoke of mourning and the fear of forgetting. The multiple images, arranged and stacked in rows and rows, amplify an overwhelming feeling of devastation. They also recall the mechanical enumeration of the fax machine that reproduces and blemishes - leading us to other analogies and speculations with the lethal virus. As with Sandra Rechico's series, Facsimile, Part II represents only a portion of a much larger body - the other parts belonging to the Art Gallery of Hamilton and the National Gallery of Canada.
Strategies of repetition can also suggest relentless labour or repeated production. (This is in fact, a legacy of Andy Warhol, who equated his serial imagery as a mimetic device that emulated the machine.) Aganetha Dyck uses this strategy to full advantage with Canned Buttons (from The Large Cupboard). In 1984 she acquired thousands of buttons when she moved into a studio previously owned by a clothing manufacturer. The buttons were stored in flimsy boxes, and, so when the boxes began to deteriorate, she thought of ways to preserve their contents. Eventually she transferred the buttons to Mason jars used for canning, and then wondered what would happen if she actually performed the feminine task of "preserving" them. So, they were pickled, deep-fried and glazed. The result is both dramatically beautiful and strangely bizarre. These eleven jars, too, are part of a much larger installation, but we can surmise from the ones presented here that repetition is being put into play, not unlike that of serial production and banal domestic labour. As with so much of her work, Dyck takes objects that make up the fabric of daily existence and reinvents them, allowing us to speculate on their potential and possible meaning.
Movement is implied in the sequential figures of Magdalen Celestino's Proud Flesh. Here, ten little black latex figures are arranged one after another in an oval shape mounted on the wall. There is an unfolding progression of serial figures that seem caught up in a cycle evocative of a merry dance. While rejecting the grid altogether, Celestino is still able to put seriality and repetition to compelling effect. Considering that each of the figures is missing a leg, an arm, or is surviving some destructive event, they seem remarkable resilient. Constructed from red threads and rubber latex, the figures carry with them inherent associations related to flesh in their ability to peel, stretch, slit, suture, pierce and hang. Even though these images contain many material, physical and psychological associations, they become obtuse to rational explanation yet force us to engage our imaginations.
The gothic windows of Sylvie Belanger are arranged as though we would experience them in a church nave - one after another. While formally they also recall minimalist characteristics - sequential, exact size and equal spacing - the principal difference here is content. Within the frames of the windows we see split images of cities, a contemporary view on top and architectural plan below and through a process of scrutiny, we discover that each is different. The artist has intentionally produced a confusion or collapsing of time and place, leading us to question many variables such as personal concepts of the sacred and technology, the effects of technology on social space and on our bodies - an ambiguous quasi-narrative to be sure. Yet, content, previously considered a foe of modern sensibility, has emerged here with new impact and vigour.
Finally, the seriality of Micah Lexier's Set of Seven (Siblings) invokes notions of commonality and comparison. This work consists of individual photographs of seven siblings posing in their parents' kitchen. They are standing in the door frame, a typical spot where parents mark their offsprings' height as they grow. Each photo is mounted to a separate book so that the seven portraits are lined up, one after another. The similarity of pose allows us to observe difference and commonality, and, through this process, we can reflect on such notions as familial relationships, growth, knowledge, the aging process - and perhaps recall a similar memory. Here, the sequential imagery encourages speculation on the relationship between images.
The practices of these seven contemporary artists acknowledge the lessons of the 60's in the repetition of elements and serial format. They use these strategies in various ways - to speculate on notions of time, difference, sameness, continuity, mechanical processes, movement and labour. Ultimately, their serial formats assist us in a continual negotiation with memory, awareness and imagination, proving a new kind of encounter in placing "one thing after another."
-Marnie Fleming, Curator of Contemporary Art