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Drawing Painting
19 March – 29 May 2005

Curated by Kim Simon



Generously sponsored by:

The matter of how to speak to painting in contemporary art is revisited with fair regularity. As viewers, determining where meaning lies within painting and its varied forms of representation often feels like a maze of dead ends that we knowingly keep choosing to enter. This labyrinth of response is built from paths of knowledge and experience, historical, phenomenological and structural – paths that embody the excitement of hope and the failure of expectation. With his exhibition Drawing Painting, Ben Reeves takes us through his quest to understand how meaning arises and functions in painting. With each work he presents us with a number of possibilities: we can find meaning by acknowledging, in a classical way, the artist’s skill, the narrative content, even the beauty of the work. Simultaneously we can approach from semiological positions in which meaning lies in the intricate system of signs and symbols with which Reeves layers his surfaces. He allows us our nonstructuralist cake while elegantly revealing its recipes.

The concise body of work encompassed by Drawing Painting shares the unusual strategy of utilizing paintings as studies for drawings. However varied in form and content, each initial composition in paint acts as fair ground for Reeves to perform his meticulous exploration through a new work. Scouring the physical surface of each painted image, Reeves delineates every single brush stroke with a rigorous complex of drawn contour line.

The conceptual point of departure for the exhibition lies in Reeves’s Tower of Babel, a rendering of the 16th century Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel’s oil on canvas work, The Tower of Babel. A recurring subject throughout art history, and depicted several times by Bruegel, the image of the Tower of Babel represents a biblical story from the Book of Genesis. As the story goes, a great tower was built by a vast community of people with aspirations of reaching into the heavens and creating a powerful reputation for themselves in the process. God saw what the people were up to and punished them for their goal of omnipotence. Before Babel there had only been one language, so, to frustrate their sense of power, God created different languages amongst the people. Unable to understand each other, the tower was never completed and the people scattered geographically.

Reeves worked his final image through a series of studies. From a photograph of the original Bruegel, Reeves painted an oil on canvas copy of the work. From this painted study, he created Tower of Babel (study), a relatively small scale drawing of the painting’s surface. The final version of the drawing stands at an incredible six by eight feet, every bit as detailed as its earlier study. The scale of the final work forces one to jump between layers of meaning – from the citation of the Bruegel and its particular depiction of Babel, to the hand and eye of Reeves the contemporary painter, to the sudden recognition that this elaborate work is all just a mass of lines.

The particular Babel that Reeves quotes is of interest for its detail in portraying the project of the tower as seemingly feasible, but ultimately structurally impossible. Bruegel had been to Rome and invested his Babel with the visual authority of the classical architecture of the Coliseum. Upon close inspection of Bruegel’s version of the structure, however, one finds embedded details of elaborate but dysfunctional design concepts highlighted by incomplete sections and a rather crooked overall shape. Ultimately Bruegel portrays the tower as an unviable structure with a façade of reason. An image of major accomplishment for civilization at the time, the tower stood as a pinnacle of knowledge. As such, not only does the image stand as the biblical moral warning against human pride, but Bruegel’s detailed structure seems also to point to the failure of human rationality.

Reeves’s Tower of Babel holds the myth of the failed “one perfect language” and highlights the confusion of our very imperfect language systems. After Babel, the need was born for people to communicate across different tongues and, as such, Babel often stands as the symbolic birthplace of translation. Reeves’s Babel refers to this complex conceptual relationship between formal languages, extending the notion of language to any system of representation – visual languages, and, of course, genres of painting. Current thinking on translation no longer sees the process as the creation of equivalences. Rather, to a certain extent, translation always continues a process of making meaning; it re-writes within cultural contexts, thereby implicating the translator’s subjectivity. With glaring clarity, Reeves’s Babel points out the creative gap between an object represented and the manner of representation. His copy, or translation, leaves much intact while generating something new. Reeves’s obsessive visual analysis of Bruegel’s image productively defeats itself, much like the story of those who built the tower. Reeves’s lines depict a hyper-rationalization, a need to understand gone askew. Within this process a paradox in the desire for knowledge through representation is exposed as, in the end, the investigation is overwhelmed by abstraction. Reeves’s Tower of Babel illuminates the content of the Bruegel painting while simultaneously reducing it to a language of beautiful babble.

Reeves views much of his source material as quintessential images. Such is the case with Canada Geese (after Tom Thomson) – one drawing in a series based on Thomson’s Wild Geese in the collection of Museum London, in London, Ontario. Reeves first came upon the work reproduced as a card in the Museum London gift shop. A fairly typical painted sketch, Reeves considered the work as emblematic of Thomson’s mythic status within Canadian art and viewed his nondescript “wild geese” to be loaded with the identification as Canada geese. He was able to photograph the sketch and blow it up large enough to make visible the exact contours of Thomson’s geese which, of course, are represented through single brush strokes. As Reeves has said of the work, “So much cultural importance is associated with the now hardened pigment that once flowed from [Thomson’s] brush. I wanted to examine the mythologies attached to his hand, his gestures. How these ‘dumb’ blobs of paint are animated by these contextualizations. By using the handmade gestures of the quintessential, heroic Canadian artist I have heightened my terms…the gestures are all the more meaningful and (as loci of such tremendous drama) all the more absurd as a result.” [1] Extracting the formation of flying geese from Thomson’s landscape, Canada Geese (after Tom Thomson) is a delicate and lyrical pencil drawing on paper, reproducing and enlarging Thomson’s particular painting of the geese through the abstracting lens of Reeves’s signature contour line.

A pair of abstract drawings completes the exhibition Drawing Painting. With Monochrome I, Reeves points to abstract painting as an agreed-upon language of form and content; a system of signs and symbols that has become just another genre of representation. Reproducing a monochrome painted by Reeves himself, the all-over composition reads like an overexposed photograph of a painting, an x-ray revealing only a screen of marks which structures the way we look at it.

Held within the complex palimpsests of his practice, Reeves’s exhaustive attention to surface surprisingly always reveals a depth of multiple layers of meaning and reference held between the lines of source and copy. While Drawing Painting does not exhibit Reeves’s source material, his finished drawings certainly embody the gestures of his sources. Of course his works are more than just copies, but a recent description of the copy’s “evil twin” –  forgery –  is useful for this discussion.  Alexander Nagel discusses the current state of forgery as:

            …not merely the criminalized version of what had been in earlier times a legitimate replica. A collateral effect of a system in which performativity is all, the forgery is the copy in metastasized form. It crawls over the surface of art, imitating with obsessive care the appearance of the original. Ultimately, of course, in serving the cult of the authored artifact the forgery aims to subvert it: it is out to prove that an artifact can escape its historical moment, and its author. It claims that the singular can be repeated. [2]

Reeves’s exacting drawings of painted strokes are closely aligned with Nagel’s concept of forgery, the only difference being what becomes visible. Reeves’s aim is not explicitly to exhibit pictorial content but to picture the content as an authored event, to expose the very performance of an image, revealing the illusions of visual language systems. The images that Reeves presents in Drawing Painting are Nagel’s forgeries gone awry; they are the aberrant homage that allows us to see ourselves looking at painting, that allows us to have our cake and eat it too.

Kim Simon

[1] Ben Reeves, personal correspondence, 18 January 2005.

[2] Alexander Nagel, “The Copy and Its Evil Twin: Thirteen Notes on Forgery”, Cabinet, Issue 14, pp.102-105.

About the Artist
Ben Reeves studied at the University of British Columbia and the Chelsea College of Art and Design in London, England. Some recent exhibitions include: For the Record: Drawing Contemporary Life (at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 2003); the travelling exhibition, Lines Painted in Early Spring (2003-2004); High Points: Canadian Contemporary Art, Ten Years of Recent Acquisitions (at the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal in 2004); and he will be exhibiting in Shifting Space: Cultural Transformations (at the Sichuan Institute of Fine Art in Chongqing, China) in May 2005. Reeves has taught at the Emily Carr College of Art and Design, the University of British Columbia, and is currently Assistant Professor (Painting) at the University of Western Ontario. He is represented by Equinox Gallery in Vancouver and lives with his wife, Dawn, and his two-year-old son, Isaac, in London, Ontario.

About the Curator
Kim Simon is an independent curator and writer living in Toronto. Recent endeavors include work for Doris McCarthy Gallery at the University of Toronto at Scarborough, Oakville Galleries, Mercer Union and Fuse Magazine. She did her graduate studies at both the University of Western Ontario and the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College. Kim is also the Director of Programming at Gallery TPW in Toronto.


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