Marking 25 years of exhibitions at Oakville Galleries
18 June – 21 August 2005
at Centennial Square and in Gairloch Gardens
Curated by Shannon Anderson
Generously sponsored by:
Works by: Stephen Andrews, Doug Back, Jack Chambers, Panya Clark Espinal, Greg Curnoe, Karilee Fuglem, Wyn Geleynse, Euan MacDonald, Gwen MacGregor, Al McWilliams, Regan Morris, Micah Lexier, David Merritt, Tatsuo Miyajima, FranÁois Morelli, Daniel Olson, Jennifer Stillwell, David Tomas
Dan lets Richie remove the burnt-out candles before guiding his son’s hands in slicing the cake. Laura watches. The dining room seems, right now, like the most perfect imaginable dining room, with its hunter-green walls and its dark maple hutch holding a trove of wedding silver. The room seems almost impossibly full: full of the lives of her husband and son; full of the future… Laura reads the moment as it passes. Here it is, she thinks; there it goes. The page is about to turn.1
The arrival of a socially observed ‘marker,’ be it a birthday, wedding, or national holiday, designates an occasion for deliberate reflection. We are expected to pause and consider the transitional space between the past and present. In actuality, these psychological shifts will just as likely fall upon us at the most unexpected moments. And they tend to anchor quite firmly when they take us by surprise. In The Hours, Laura’s moment of reflection coincides with her husband’s birthday dinner, but the reader understands that the real turning of the page is an interior shift. It stands outside the celebration. We can almost see Laura step outside the moment as it passes, quietly but deliberately.
Curiously, Oakville Galleries’s 25th anniversary managed to sneak up on the staff. This unexpected arrival helped set the tone for marking the occasion. Rather than resting comfortably in the security of a solid number like 25, we opted to focus on the history of this institution as a work in progress. Two key archives exist from which to draw a picture of our past programming: the permanent collection and exhibition publications. A third, and rather intangible source, is the individual memories of these exhibitions. Artist Jocelyne Alloucherie calls this type of memory “the secret life of the work of art, which continues in the memory of our experience of it. This is our weakness, but also our strength, our revenge: an imaginary and continuous visibility. We will forget the various comments on the work, but we never forget the work itself.” 2
Soft passages combines permanent collection pieces with borrowed works from past programming, and aims to take all three of these histories into consideration. But it steers its focus to the gaps in between. Soft passages includes previously exhibited works which lack public documentation, pieces from the permanent collection that we are showing for the first time, and works that announce their presence with a quiet voice.
In music, soft passages are the quiet spaces that exist in tandem with the loud, dominant passages. One cannot manage without the other; the former is simply less bold, although equally resonant. This exhibition focuses on the soft passages in the history of Oakville Galleries. In the building of this institution’s narrative, these works risk slipping between the cracks. This text will focus on the concept of soft passages in relation to the history of Oakville Galleries as an institution. However, in many instances, the individual works add to the conceptual dialogue. They speak to the complex notion of time, or focus on the everyday moments that inexplicably hold our attention. This, and the way in which each work fits into the trajectory of Oakville Galleries’s history, will be addressed within the physical context of the exhibition more so than in this text.
Soft passages is not an anniversary exhibition in terms of a ‘greatest hits’ collection of works, nor an exhaustive presentation of all of Oakville Galleries’s exhibition history over the last 25 years. To approach an anniversary exhibition from either avenue would be antithetical to the direction this contemporary art gallery has undertaken and the goals it has laid out for itself. Rather, Oakville Galleries aims to adopt a self-reflective and self-critical approach in its development. It attempts to challenge its own notions of what it thinks it can accomplish.
Over the years, Oakville Galleries has been carefully developing its permanent collection of contemporary art. It regularly acquires work from its exhibitions, thereby generating a collection that also reflects its programming history. This carries with it some inescapable conflicts. First, contemporary art by its nature continuously adopts new media and practices, not all of which are ‘collectable.’ Therefore, the nature of the collection necessarily omits some practices. Although institutions may attempt to redefine the limits of what they can collect, they remain incomplete and biased. Second, two inherent difficulties exist in a permanent collection. By acquiring works in a range of untraditional materials, pieces may be collected whose lifespan is anything but permanent. Over time, the initial holdings of the collection necessarily become less and less ‘contemporary.’ This raises the question of how a collection can remain both permanent and contemporary simultaneously.
Stereotypically, the ‘vaults’ of a collection are conceived of as a vast array of artworks, precisely ordered behind closed doors. Conservators are entrusted with the role of their eternal preservation. The obligation of preserving the art object becomes the focus; its display and role in the contextualization in art history become secondary. Fortunately, this generalized conception of collections is gradually losing ground. A more active approach to curating collections is taking hold. In her essay, “The Ephemeral Collection,” critic Joan Borsa raises the question:
Does the museum simply continue to amass more objects, as if the social conditions and critical climates surrounding the acquisition, classification, and preservation of visual and material culture have not undergone radical reassessments?… Or do both the museum and the artist take on the phenomena that surround the production, reception and exhibition of visual and material culture, adding critical and informed perspectives from locations inside the cultural apparatus?3
The permanent collection need not be a static entity, whether the collection focuses on contemporary or historical art (or objects). It can actively contribute to contemporary discourse. Institutions should feel obligated to make their collections available to the public, and also to develop collection exhibitions that contribute to curatorial practice.
Plenty of unexplored territory exists to broach new methods for exhibiting collections. In her role as collection curator for the 2004 exhibition Full Space at the Ottawa Art Gallery, Emily Falvey observes that the innovating approaches in curating found in contemporary art exhibitions are rarely applied to those of modern art4. One might observe that this is largely the case for permanent collection exhibitions as well. That said, Canadian institutions are beginning to take on this challenge. Recent examples include Agnes Etherington’s Museopathy5, or Spring Hurlbut’s Le Dernier Sommeil/ The Final Sleep at the Royal Ontario Museum6, both in 2001. Exhibitions such as these have reinvigorated the possibilities for displaying collections. However, these examples also point to the tendency for relying on artists to discover new entry points into the collections. There are still many avenues that remain unexplored in curatorial practice.
Exhibitions from contemporary permanent collections, regardless of how innovative their curatorial approaches, serve a key function in art discourse. Unfortunately, art professionals and critics tend to overlook their value. These exhibitions are often important venues for focusing on ‘the art of the recent past.’ Scott Watson brought this phrase forward in a panel discussion in Toronto in reference to a gap in curatorial practice in general7 . The discussion did not consider the important role that contemporary collection exhibitions hold towards ensuring the accessibility of the art of the recent past. These collections often represent the in-between spaces in art history development: the works on exhibit are no longer new discoveries, but not enough time has passed for them to find their place within the larger scheme of art history. They represent the transitional space between the present and the past.
One can conceive of Oakville Galleries’s collection as an archive of its programming history. However, the focus should be on the informality and fluidity of its nature, rather than something that obeys the traditional archival notion of respect des fonds (respect for original order)8 . The collection holdings are continually recontextualized and refreshed, finding connections with contemporary discourse and responding to new acquisitions. Over the last ten years, the growth of Oakville Galleries’s collection has made it possible to create annual permanent collection exhibitions. There have been many opportunities to find new paths through the holdings, and to develop new themes and narrative threads. But what of the works in a collection that may not fit within a neat theme? The ones that stand on their own, in a sense, and don’t always rest comfortably within a group exhibition. Every collection reveals work like this over time. Creating new opportunities to bring these pieces ‘out of the vaults’ is an essential task.
In 2003, Oakville Galleries aimed to accomplish this in Get a little closer… Oakville Selects from the Permanent Collection. From over 1100 works, we generated a careful selection of 75 representative images from the collection. Reproductions of these works were produced in a colour poster that was widely disseminated to the public, whose votes determined the content of the final exhibition. Get a little closer… opened up the process of selection, and provided a role for the general public. Further, the initial process of choosing 75 pieces for reproduction offered an opportunity to highlight artworks that had received less exposure over the years.
Soft passages, in part, follows up on this endeavour by including acquisitions that the public may not have seen before. This includes David Merritt’s trait de l’homme (1988), first acquired in 2000, and Greg Curnoe’s Thermometer #1 (1967), purchased for the collection in 1998. Curnoe’s work is well known by the general public; take, for example, the major retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2001. However, his artistic production, which was both extensive and experimental, means that some works inevitably receive more exposure than others. Thermometer #1 falls into this latter category, making it all the more important to bring forward.
Many of the works in Soft Passages employ materials or techniques that a conservator would term unstable, or a technophile might label obsolete. A contemporary collection includes many unconventional materials: Curnoe’s Thermometer #1 uses stamp pad ink and a host of collage materials; Stephen Andrews’s drawings from the Sins of the Fathers series (1990) are created on sheets of wax. The rigged-up aesthetic of Doug Back’s Small Artist Pushing Technology (1987) is testament to the innovative spins put on technology by new (and not-so-new) media artists. But as a piece created 15 years ago, it also speaks to the potential for such works simply to disappear once the equipment required to update the piece is lost.
Soft passages also focuses on pieces that gain a great deal through first hand experience. Many reveal themselves over time, require repeated viewings, or are site-specific. These experiences are impossible to communicate in static documentation. The 2001 permanent collection exhibition, Construction Compulsion, addressed the space of Oakville Galleries in Gairloch Gardens as a site for restaging the original exhibition contexts for works that addressed this domestic space9. For example, the original period furnishings that accompanied Tatsuo Miyajima’s Changing Landscape with Changing Self (1996) were borrowed again from the Oakville Museum. For Kim Adams’s Country Estate Earth Shelves (1992), the series of toy tractors that originally lined the narrow shelf atop the wall moulding were borrowed from the artist and repositioned in their original configuration.
These restagings addressed the question of the limits of collecting art objects from installations. How important are the original context and surroundings under which the piece was originally acquired? What are the parameters of the art object when it is presented in the context of an installation? Sometimes, clear answers to these questions cannot be found.
Soft passages plays with the notion of restaging, but from a different perspective. Any work that is exhibited at Gairloch Gardens has an obligation to address the domestic surroundings. The fireplace, decorated mouldings, and small gallery spaces are not easily ignored. In Soft passages, the works at the Gairloch location re-exhibit works from past programming, but under different pretexts. These pieces indirectly respond to this former home, and each deals with issues surrounding interior/exterior spaces, both psychologically and conceptually. Wyn Geleynse’s An Imaginary Situation with Truthful Behavior (1988-89) consists of a series of glass houses and the image of a nude male patiently scratching his way through each home. The figure is simultaneously trapped and mobile. The broken homes behind him suggest that he is somehow moving forward, but the unbroken homes still ahead indicate that the passage is slow, difficult, and uncertain.
Karilee Fuglem’s piece there is a coherence in things… is the most carefully restaged piece in this exhibition. Following its initial installation in 2003, Fuglem realized that the lighting conditions and size of the gallery at Gairloch ideally suited this delicate installation. The piece was part of the solo exhibition many things were left unsaid which imagined Gairloch’s domestic spaces as still resonant with the presence of its previous dwellers. As an exhibition, the installations played with shadow and light, and created transient, almost invisible interventions in the rooms.
These time-sensitive and experiential pieces by Geleynse and Fuglem are difficult to reproduce in documentation. Neither works are in the permanent collection, and were borrowed for Soft passages to create another viewing opportunity.
As part of Karilee Fuglem’s original installation, she placed quotes from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse throughout the gallery spaces. The texts were printed white-on-white, nearly invisible unless the light hit the wall just right. So artfully were these phrases placed, that it wasn’t until nearly a year later that a remaining piece of text was discovered, tucked into a corner, which read: “Why then did she do it?” Left in place, it remains like a question to our ambitions as an institution.
Why then did she do it? The process of looking back that accompanies an event such as a 25th anniversary is a process of questioning, remembering and re-evaluating. The aim of Soft passages is to contribute to a process of activating the archives of permanent collections and exhibition histories of institutions. Rather than tallying our successes, the moment is used to take time to reframe the way our history has thus far been written. The process is of course impossible to complete, the holes of documentation impossible to fill. Much has slipped through the archives, and many works have undoubtedly not been given their due. This exhibition is intended as one act of shifting the archives, one attempt at revisiting a history and intervening on its smooth narrative. Hopefully, Soft passages will succeed in adding some footnotes to Oakville Galleries’s story and aid in keeping the process of building art history open for interpretation.
Permission to borrow the Soft passages title has been generously given by Donald Rance, artist and Information Systems Librarian at the Edward P. Taylor Research Library at the Art Gallery of Ontario. His support and confidence is much appreciated.
1Michael Cunningham, The Hours (New York: Picador USA, 1998), 207-208.
2Jocelyne Alloucherie, “Flying the Colours” in les 20 ans du CIAC (MontrÈal: Le Centre International d’art contemporain de MontrÈal, 2004), 207.
3Joan Borsa, “The Ephemeral Collection” in Obsession, Compulsion, Collection: On Objects, Display Culture, and Interpretation, ed. Anthony Kiendl (Banff: The Banff Centre Press, 2004), 273.
4Emily Falvey. Full Space: Modern Art from the Firestone Collection of Canadian Art (Ottawa Art Gallery, 2004), 14.
5Curated by Jim Drobnick and Jennifer Fisher, the multi-site exhibition was a collaboration between the Agnes Etherington Gallery and 10 museums and historic sites in Kingston. Artists were invited to create interventions in the permanent collections of these institutions. The goal was to produce “new constellations of meaning” from the collections. (http://www.queensu.ca/ageth/exhibitions/pastexhibitions2001.html)
6Spring Hurlbut focused on the study collections of the Royal Ontario Museum, artefacts that are rarely, if ever, seen by the general public. The resulting monochromatic installation was delicately presented in Victorian-style wooden display cases, but without the usual thematic groupings and cataloguing details. Hurlbut writes: "These rare specimens and artefacts allow for contemplation and a sense of stillness. There is no chronology, no hierarchy. All things are equal." (http://www.rom.on.ca/news/releases/public.php?mediakey=h8agwweft3)
7 Watson, Scott. “Who creates contemporary art history?” (panel discussion with Bruce Ferguson, Mark Cheetham, Johanne Lamoureux, moderated by Marc Gotlieb), Making History: A Symposium, Innis College Town Hall, Saturday, February 28, 2004.
8 This central principle of archival science dictates that the original content and context of an archive (belonging to, for example, one organization or individual) remain intact and undisrupted.
9 Oakville Galleries in Gairloch Gardens was originally an estate home, built in the 1920s.