Reviews

Silvia Kolbowski, still from "an inadequate history of conceptual art", 1998-1999. Image from the Leonard and Bina Ellen Gallery website.

Silvia Kolbowski, still from “an inadequate history of conceptual art”, 1998-1999. Image from the Leonard and Bina Ellen Gallery website.

Anarchism Without Adjectives: On the Work of Christopher D’Arcangelo, 1975-1979
Galerie Leonard and Bina Ellen, Concordia University
Sept 4–Oct 26, 2013

If we’re being honest, I’m irritated by the Christopher D’Arcangelo exhibition. After two visits to Anarchism Without Adjectives: On the Work of Christopher D’Arcangelo, 1975-1979, and several deep Google dives later, I still feel like I’m only hovering around the D’Arcangelo conceptual iceberg, let alone grasping the tip of it.

At first pass, I found Anarchism Without Adjectives to be a funny collision of objectives: one part archive, one part educational outreach, and one part critical analysis through the presentation of works from other artists. It’s clear that the ironies inherent in mounting an exhibition of D’Arcangelo’s art are not lost on curators Dean Inkster, Sebastien Pluot, and Michele Theriault. D’Arcangelo’s interests in questioning the authority of cultural institutions, their traditions, and their insiders make for prickly subject matter for a traditional retrospective. Furthermore, given the artist’s conceptual practice, the curators faced the additional challenge of working only with archival materials documenting D’Arcangelo’s interventions, instead of tangible art objects.

Because I knew very little (okay, nothing) about D’Arcangelo at the time of my first visit to the exhibition, I was hoping to ease into the subject by perusing some images of his work and reading about his ideas in his own words. What I got, however, was a kind of patchwork composite of D’Arcangelo’s life and art as recollected and filtered through the accounts of others – cue my first wave of irritation. Contrary to a traditional gallery retrospective, there are no photos of D’Arcangelo’s work on display, no copies of the contracts created for his Construction pieces, no pages from his personal notes. Instead, the uninformed viewer like myself is introduced to D’Arcangelo’s work through the memories of others who knew him or were familiar with his work: at the front of the gallery, a bank of monitors showing 6 interviews with colleagues and art world associates, such as Peter Nadin, Lawrence Weiner, and Daniel Buren, provided me with a historical overview of D’Arcangelo’s life, but through the lens of their own experiences. During these interviews, I saw glimpses of archival documents and photos that serve as the record of D’Arcangelo’s work, but at a remove through the camera’s eye and within the frame of the interviewee’s gesturing hands.

Post-wave of irritation, I came to appreciate that this curatorial choice may have been intended to provoke me to reflect on a larger theme of the function of documentation in art. As several of D’Arcangelo’s artworks and interventions have highlighted, the role and power of documentation are ripe subjects for criticism: what importance is accorded to documentation in representing the meaning of an artwork? What choices are made in creating an archive, and how do these choices affect an archive’s contents? Who has access to historical materials, and how are they presented?

I found that several of the works by artists invited to contribute to this exhibition were effective in elaborating on this theme, and in raising additional questions. For one, Silvia Kolbowski’s an inadequate history of conceptual art was a compelling follow-up to the interviews screened in the first room. In asking a group of artists to recount their memories of experiencing a conceptual artwork during the period of 1965 to 1975, Kolbowski explores a number of ideas about documentation and art, including the role of personal memory and the passage of time on how we interpret information. What was particularly effective in this work, I found, was Kolbowski’s desynchronized presentation of the audio track with the video images of the interviewees’ hands on screen. The discord left uncomfortable, unexpected spaces that left me second-guessing the accounts of the interviewees, and as a result, kept me from complacently consuming what I might have otherwise viewed as authoritative and accurate information. This work highlighted the remarkably powerful influence of the human touch in the creation of a history, and how this influence is always at play in how we interpret information as well as how we recall it.

In the end, I’m still bound up about this show, and I’m wondering if I missed something. At the time of writing, my irritation at having to tackle an exhibition that seemed impenetrable to those not steeped in contemporary art has given way to something else: more irritation, but with a creeping sensation that this may have been exactly what was sought by the curators. I can appreciate a challenge, and I firmly believe that art should make us think, react, and question; in these respects, then, Anarchism Without Adjectives may have met its objectives.

James Turrell, "Aten Reign" installation view, 2013. Image by David Heald.

James Turrell, “Aten Reign” installation view, 2013. Image by David Heald.

James Turrell, Aten Reign, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum New York

June 21–Sept 25, 2013

Aten Reign, the central artwork of James Turrell’s exhibition at the Guggenheim this summer, is a remarkable artistic achievement on several levels. Turrell, an American artist who works primarily with light as an artistic medium, has transformed the famous spiralling rotunda of the museum into a luminous expanse of colour fields that resembles the interior of a massive kaleidoscope. Perhaps more impressively, however, Aten Reign successfully slows down the typical museum goer’s pace of viewing art, such that viewers begin to reflect on the process of seeing itself.
Constructed from a series of white scrim cylinders that hangs in a cone shape from the atrium ceiling, Aten Reign has been described as a kind of stack of lampshades viewed from the inside. At its top is the museum’s central skylight where daylight enters into the atrium; as it descends, each scrim ring is edged with LEDs that emit a gradually shifting spectrum of light over the course of a 60-minute cycle. From below, the appearance is one of a series of glowing concentric bands that orbit around a central, unchanging eye.

At first glance, Aten Reign appears like a slow day at the planetarium – a nice rainbow spectacle above, and spectators with necks craned upward, wondering when the story will get going. With more time and patience, however, a creeping sensation builds that this space has a life of its own. The rings of light shimmer, expand outward, then contract. The colours ebb and flow from blazing reds that simultaneously warm and menace, to soothing blues, to velvety purples. As the cycle fades to grey then white light, the space itself seems to drain of warmth and energy. Ghostly afterimages of intense colours flicker and skip in one’s field of vision as the cycle begins again.

Watching the human phenomenon unfolding within the rotunda can seem as compelling as the scene overhead. Newcomers alternately jostle for space to sit and twist their heads upward, as if arriving late to a movie. Those who have secured a seat around the perimeter are fixated above, their bodies bathed in pools of light. Lucky ones who have scored a spot on the giant circular floor mat in the centre of the space lie back and point upward excitedly, like kids camped out under the stars.

By making the passage of time so pivotal in viewing his work, Turrell is extraordinarily effective in asking viewers to reflect on not just what but how we perceive. In contrast to the typical drive-by approach to viewing artwork in a museum, Turrell’s work can be consumed only by slowing down. That Aten Reign has achieved this en masse is no mean feat.

Erika Dueck, "The Ephemeral Mind" detail, 2013.

Erika Dueck, “The Ephemeral Mind” detail, 2013. Image courtesy of Galerie Art Mur.

This review was first published on Rover Arts (http://roverarts.com) in August, 2013.

Peinture Fraîche et Nouvelle Construction
Galerie Art Mûr (July 20–Aug 31, 2013)

Although the dog days of summer in Montreal can dull the appetite for cutting-edge, contemporary art, dockside snoozers beware. True, August is traditionally a quiet time in most galleries, with vernissages few and far between. However, for those who want to keep up with the vanguard of the young Canadian art scene, heed this call: drop that third glass of sangria, and head over to Galerie Art Mûr molto pronto. Until August 31st, Peinture Fraîche et Nouvelle Construction offers a remarkable showcase of emerging artistic talent from across Canada.

Now in its ninth edition, this annual exhibition presents the work of undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in art and design programs throughout the country. Participating artists were nominated by faculty members, and hail from 10 different institutions, including the Emily Carr School of Art and Design, University of Manitoba, Concordia University, UQAM, and NASCAD. This exhibition has a well-founded reputation as a bellwether for exciting new artists, as many past participants have gone on to receive prestigious prizes, such as the BMO 1st Art! Invitational Student Art Award, and the RBC Canadian Painting Prize. This year’s roster of talent is no exception: on August 5th, Erika Dueck from the University of Manitoba was awarded first-place in the BMO competition for her astounding, cloud-like sculpture ‘The Ephemeral Mind’.

This year’s Peinture Fraîche et Nouvelle Construction is an engaging, high-energy show that highlights both technical sophistication and breadth of creative ideas. More than 150 works, spanning 2 floors of the multi-tiered Art Mûr, sample from a diverse range of artistic media, such as painting, drawing, sculpture, video, and installation. A variety of themes are examined in the exhibition, such as the nature of artistic materials themselves. Marijana Mandusic (University of Manitoba) blurs the line between painting and sculpture by presenting rubbery masses of acrylic paint peelings that hang gingerly from single nails like flayed skins. Cassandre Boucher (UQAM) tests the properties of her painting surfaces like a scientist: Trouées bears a moonscape of drilled holes and scraped paint, whereas Sans titre (noir goudron) is covered in bubbles of oozing grey and black paint.

Aspects of identity and memory figure prominently in other works. In Sheer Tactual, a 12-minute video, Annie Onyi Cheung (NASCAD) presents a shifting, ghostly interplay between the actions of the artist and her mother. The two women, who are overlaid in a double-exposure effect, perform a kind of call-and-answer in which the artist initially copies the actions of her mother as she stoically presents family heirlooms to the camera; as her mother sits demurely, the artist then proceeds to probe the sensual properties of each object with child-like curiosity. The paintings of Aidan Pontarini (Concordia), populated with mutilated cartoon figures and fluorescent yellow pee puddles, offer glimpses into a personal, hallucinatory world full of slapstick, frustration, and humiliation. Pontarini seems to mine his own psyche in these works, whether obliquely, as in Big Baby, or directly, as in I was killed by a refrigerator. The effect is hilarious, visceral, and thought-provoking.

Questions of technology and fabrication are also examined. Nicole Clouston (York University) creates DIY weaponry in corrugated cardboard – a kind of sinister craft project in which users can assemble their own automatic rifles and handguns out of silkscreened cardboard patterns. Clouston’s racks of folded and glued submachine guns and handguns call to mind a number of dark possibilities, foremost among them the rise in development of 3D-printed, plastic weapons in North America.

True to its title, Peinture Fraîche et Nouvelle Construction is a fresh and energetic exhibition that offers a sneak peek into the ateliers of emerging artists in Canada. Shake off those summer sleepies, and dive in while you can.

Dan Brault, "Je t'aime à la folie (pour Zack)", 2013. Image from Galerie Laroche/Joncas website.

Dan Brault, “Je t’aime à la folie (pour Zack)”, 2013. Image from Galerie Laroche/Joncas website.

Dan Brault, The Good Times, at Galerie Laroche/Joncas (http://www.larochejoncas.com/index.php)
April 11–May 12, 2013

Dan Brault knows how to have a good time, at least as far as painting is concerned. In his current exhibition of new paintings at Galerie Laroche/Joncas, aptly titled “The Good Times”, the Quebec-based artist presents a vibrant, candy-coated universe in which cartoonish doodles, geometric patterns, and painterly gestures all bump and bounce against one another.

Brault’s canvases, each a pastiche of colours, contrasts, and curves, create an appealing dynamic between flatness and three-dimensional space that is hard to resist. Their surfaces seem to jump with energy: monochromatic shapes and planes compete with shapely squiggles, shadows, streaks, and wispy lines. Some of Brault’s forms seem recognizable, like calligraphic stencils that recall Arabic script. Other marks such as drips and dashes escape literal interpretation, but instead suggest a visual record of the mind in action. A repetition of forms adds to the sense of rhythm, and with a longer look, familiar characters begin to appear across multiple paintings.

A key component of the energy in these works is Brault’s juxtaposition of mechanical or digital elements in the form of stencils and traditional painting techniques. Brault describes his intention behind the use of digital stencils as “a form of aesthetic dialogue between human and machine gestures… A form of collage results in visual fireworks, intensely charged and dense.”1 However, the digital element here still seems to evoke human imperfection and asymmetry in some way. In “Je t’aime à la folie (pour Zack)”, the twinned black and white forms look as if they were the result of a giant playing with Microsoft Paint, rather than the product of a precise design.

The heavy layering and building of imagery also evoke a sense of time in Brault’s work. When standing before these paintings, one can’t help but try to pick apart when each element was added, and how each image evolved. Many of the paintings initially appear as though they developed by chance, with each form appearing in response to the one created before it. However, this apparent spontaneity belies Brault’s sophisticated choices in his compositions. Like a great showman, he makes this look easy.

“The Good Times” continues at Galerie Laroche/Joncas until May 11, 2013.

1. Artist’s statement, http://larochejoncas.com/index.php?lang=gb; accessed April 25, 2013.

Ed Pien working in his studio. Image from Pierre-François Ouellette Art Contemporain.

Ed Pien working in his studio. Image from Pierre-François Ouellette Art Contemporain.

This review was first published on Rover Arts (http://roverarts.com) in December 2012.

Ed Pien, Under Water. At Pierre-François Ouellette Art Contemporain (PFOAC).
November 28, 2012 to January 26, 2013.

With remarkable precision and attention to detail, Ed Pien creates a shimmering, hypnotic undersea realm in his current exhibition entitled Under Water. The solo exhibit at Pierre-François Ouellette Art Contemporain showcases eight of Pien’s recent papercut works — astoundingly intricate cutouts of 3M reflective film and shoji paper that depict marine life deep beneath the waves — and scores of ink and gouache drawings from his Deep Water series. Together, the works present a visually compelling atmosphere that highlights the intricate connections between water and humans.

Pien’s papercuts have an extraordinary presence, arising not only from the dream-like scenes they depict, but from the nature of the materials used and the workmanship involved in their creation. The works portray sea flora and fauna, including mermaids and mermen, floating within a shadowy web of sea grasses. Many of the papercuts share an ornate, lacy quality, which is amplified by the iridescent sheen of the 3M reflective film Pien uses to create most of these works. The largest of the papercuts, Bloom, recalls a chinoiserie screen in its delicate, repeating silhouettes of crustaceans and sea plants. The striking beauty of Bloom is undercut, however, by the slightly monstrous appearance of the creatures represented in it, as well as by the asymmetrical details of several of the designs. Although the left and right sides of each design initially appear to be mirror images, a longer, closer look at their shimmering surface reveals the evidence of Pien’s hand in each.

Pien creates an interesting push-and-pull experience for the viewer, between the desire to look closely, even to touch, and the need for distance to appreciate the forms that emerge from the tangled web of lines. In moving back and forth, one’s eye is caught by the sheen of the reflective film that glitters and ripples across its surface. The texture of this material recalls galvanized steel, a resemblance that creates a fascinating tension with the seemingly fragile forms depicted.

Under Water continues its deep-sea exploration in a series of drawings entitled Deep Waters, shown in a room adjacent to the main gallery. These drawings, previously exhibited at the Canadian Cultural Centre in Paris in 2001, create a compelling counterpoint to the large papercut works. Whereas the papercuts appear carefully planned and deliberately executed, Deep Waters exudes a stream of consciousness quality. Arranged in a series of frames in one corner of the room, the drawings read as a kind of mythical graphic novel in which human and amphibious forms emerge from and dissolve into one another. Entangled flippers and human limbs morph together, then twist apart, from one panel to the next. The tentacles of an octopus-like form slither across three separate drawings. Tears flow from the eyes of a figure in one drawing into the mouth of another in the neighbouring frame.

The works in Under Water demonstrates Pien’s skill and appetite for drawing, whether in traditional form or through exploratory, sculptural media. His dexterity with line envelops viewers in a surreal, almost magical space where the imagination roams free.

Image from 'A Step on the Sun', Janet Biggs 2012

Image from ‘A Step on the Sun’, Janet Biggs 2012

This review was first published on Rover Arts (http://roverarts.com/) in November 2012.

Janet Biggs – Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal
October 4, 2012 to January 6, 2013.

Brooklyn-based video artist Janet Biggs is known for creating thrilling, and sometimes terrifying, video portraits of lone individuals pursuing extreme activities in harsh environments. In her exhibition currently showing at the Musée de Art Contemporain de Montréal (MACM), Biggs stays true to form by transporting her viewers to the frozen landscape of the far North, and to a dioxide-billowing sulfur mine in Indonesia.

Each of Biggs’s four videos features a silent figure doggedly and stoically carrying out his or her work under extraordinary conditions. Three of these comprise The Arctic Trilogy, a series shot by Biggs while sailing near the Arctic Circle aboard the schooner the Noorderlicht. In the Cold Edge (2010) follows a spelunker into a crevasse within a glacier, his helmet lamp (and the light of Biggs’s camera) illuminating shimmering ice and rock formations. Fade to White (2011) portrays a rugged Arctic guide expertly gliding in his kayak through ink-black, frigid waters; these images are interspersed with shots of the performance artist John Kelly dressed in white, singing a mournful aria. Kelly’s hauntingly beautiful voice carries over into several of the scenes of the Arctic landscape, providing a stirring counterpoint to the raw sounds of wind and waves.

Brightness All Around (2010) also interweaves views of the stark Northern horizon with musical performance, this time featuring a young, female coal miner and the singer Bill Coleman. Initially accompanied by the noise of heavy industrial machinery, the miner descends into the subterranean labyrinth, her shape sometimes discernible only in silhouette cast by a truck’s headlights. In turns, the video cuts away to Coleman, dressed in black leather, who sings and dances frenetically in a performance worthy of a heavy metal show. His repetition of the lyric “there was blackness all around me” echoes in response to the dark, other worldly environment of the miner.

In the fourth and newest work, A Step on the Sun (2012), Biggs follows an Indonesian man who collects sulfur from Kawah Ijen, an active volcano in Indonesia. Amid clouds of dioxide gas, the man gingerly extracts rocks coated with yellow sulfur crystals from vents in the surface of the volcano, and then carries his heavy load across his shoulders for a 2-hour descent to a weigh station below. Like the scenes from The Arctic Trilogy, A Step on the Sun rivets the viewer with its push-and-pull between the visually compelling and the emotionally rending—the rugged, surreal beauty of the yellow-crusted mountainside and the electric blue waters surrounding the volcano is undercut by the horrifying reality of the individuals working in toxic conditions with no protection.

Biggs’s imagery is vivid, captivating, and quietly unsettling. Together, the portraits of individuals labouring alone at the frontier present a contemporary twist on the notion of the sublime: the overwhelming sense of awe and terror evoked by nature’s beauty and power. By portraying environments in tremendous flux due to human intervention, Biggs leaves the viewer with the creeping sensation that the possibility of the sublime may be eroding as quickly as the surrounding landscapes.

Janet Biggs’s exhibition was part of Montreal/Brooklyn, a collaborative multi-venue exhibition that recently concluded in Brooklyn.

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