Friday, May 25, 2018

Video, Viewer, and Violence

Dominik Lejman, Yo Lo Vi, 2007

Polish artist Dominik Lejman incorporates viewer interactivity into his paintings in a way that recalls video art of the early seventies, notably Dan Graham's. In Lejman's piece, Yo Lo Vi, 2007, for example, the artist projects a delayed image of the viewer over a painting with a reflective surface. The painting depicts a male figure whose hands are tied behind his back and whose head is hidden by a white cover that appears half dunce cap, half torture hood. Torture is the main connotation though, given not only the man's bound hands, but also the foreboding, shadow background. Therefore, the viewer, cast without permission in this macabre scene, is impliedly complicit in a violent act. A discomforting placement for sure, and it's a placement that recalls Dan Graham's early video experiments in surveillance and time delay, notably the eponymous Opposing Mirrors and Video Monitors on Time Delay, 1974/1993. In this piece the audience is videotaped, their recording appearing on a monitor visible in a mirror as it looked a few seconds before their real time mirror image. However, unlike the time delay in Graham's video, which according to the artist was meant to create a time warp that had a psychedelic drug-like effect on the viewer, Lejman's hesitant response bends reality to reveal its dark, violent undercurrents. Accordingly, Lejman highlights a universal human capacity for violence, and as viewers, we're part of it, like it or not.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Renaming a Painting Does Not Sanctify Its Colonial Content

The Art Gallery of Ontario's iconic crowd-pleasing Emily Carr painting Indian Church has undergone a name change to remove the problem word "Indian." Its title has been changed to Church at Yuquot Village (1929). I disagree with the AGO's decision.

Certainly, the word "Indian" is offensive to many in the indigenous community for stirring up Columbus and subsequent colonization; however, the Christian church on indigenous land that the painting depicts is equally if not more hurtful. 

The choice to retitle was a poor one for reasons beyond continuing to showcase a problematic work albeit with a tweaked title.  Leaving the painting but altering the title implies language is more provocative than images (Lacan and Derrida would be happy, perhaps). Yet if that were the case, should not the frequent use of the same word in Carr's well-known children's book Klee Wyck be redacted or at the very least the book be removed from Canadian school curricula where it appears every now and then? More importantly though, the renaming suggests that the AGO, although through no fault of its own, is not practicing real decolonization, at least through this particular gesture. Not just Carr's painting of the church but also her totem poles idealize indigenous life (the colourful totem poles she painted were actually faded and crumbling) and thus perpetuate the colonial. Add cultural appropriation into the mix, and her paintings of totem poles, some of which the AGO own, display much more of a colonial history than one word in a painting's title does. If the AGO were to follow the decolonization argument it is timidly introducing, all these paintings would be gone. Of course, no ticket- and government-funded institution could weather the subsequent shit storm. Look what happened with the National Gallery and its proposed auction sale of one Chagall. Then there is the thorny matter of hiding colonial history rather than critically educating audiences on its portrayal in Canadian art. 

Perhaps the AGO felt it was doing the best it could to act as a liberal institution, or it simply wanted to follow museological trends by emulating the Rijksmuseum in retitling art works to remove offensive terms (it should be noted here that the Rijksmuseum focused on retitling works whose titles were attributed to them by art historians not the artists). Either way, the renaming of Indian Church does more damage than good. First, it assumes that once an artist passes, she, he or the estate representative no longer owns a title. By now, in this post-post conceptual art era, a title can be seen as part of the art work. And it is the art museum's responsibility when updating to honour to its upmost ability the artist's intent in making a work: to restore and not to recast or remake. While Toronto Star art critic Murray Whyte is certain that Carr "would agree" with the renaming, that "she, of all people, would be comfortable with a term loaded with the freight we now know it to carry," I am not so sure.  Carr, whose love of the indigenous people has been oft-recorded, could simply have done what many liberals do when accused of racism: go on the defensive and deny. That said, I would not hazard a guess either way. What's more, the retitling certainly does not as Whyte claims, "pay respect both to the artist and the people she so admired." Quite the opposite. The euphemistic title change disrespects the artist's right to have her work exhibited as intended, and even worse, it supports Canada's colonial legacy by helping us conveniently forget that Carr's images were part of it.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Michael Morris: Toronto Letter

Michael Morris, Rote Liebe, 1990 (L.), Gelbe Liebe, 1990 (R.) 
Courtesy: Paul Petro Contemporary Art, Credit: Cheryl O'Brien

Michael Morris
Toronto Letter – A Concise Colour Bar Survey 1966 - 2017
Paul Petro Contemporary Art, March 30 – April 28, 2018

Rarely does a private Toronto gallery mount an exhibition that puts the curation of public galleries to shame. Toronto Letter – A Concise Colour Bar Survey 1966 – 2017 is one of them. This five-decade survey of British Columbia-based painter Michael Morris, which Paul Petro curated, stands out for succinctly linking abstract painting to quotidian life, and in doing so, enhances the history of modern painting in Canada by countering the frequent portrayal of abstraction as autonomous.

This exhibition of paintings, video, and works on paper stems from two key influences that develop the exhibition historically and theoretically: The Letter Paintings and The Colour Bar Project: 1970 – 1978. Each of The Letter Paintings (1968-9) comprise graduated vertical colour bands. The series’ title, referring to written letters, signifies a communique with the outside world. Accordingly, the paintings are not discrete: the act of walking by them as if they were part of a streetscape is integral to their interpretation. These are influential paintings, and not just here in this survey. Their lineage can be seen, for instance, in Ian Wallace’s photographs pairing street scenes with Modernist abstract forms. Referencing the series in this exhibition are more recent paintings including Gelbe Liebe, 1990 and Rote Liebe, 1990, respective yellow and red monochromes composed of red or yellow plus greyscale diagonal and tipped vertical bands. The welcoming of the ambulatory viewer or passerby into The Letter Paintings and subsequent works, for one thing via architectural references that imply an ordinary street scene, is important for linking Morris’s paintings to the second exhibition building block: The Colour Bar Project 1970-1978. A collaboration with Vincent Trasov, this project was an ongoing colour research project that resulted in 1,900 small colour bars (enamel painted on 7" x 1 5/8" x 3/4" blocks of wood): monochromes in seven colours, grey scales, and full spectrum. Painted at Trasov’s and Morris’s bucolic and bacchanalian studio in Robert’s Creek B.C., the colour bars are set against a natural backdrop in the included Colour Research, Babyland, 1972-1977 (a DVD conversion of 202 slides). Here perhaps more than anywhere else in the exhibition, Morris explicitly connects abstraction to real life.

Morris’s bridging of painting to the everyday is too often overlooked in historic accounts of his work. For instance, Dennis Reid’s entry on Morris in the authoritative A Concise History of Canadian Painting, grants Morris’s canvases formal rather than situational analysis. Entirely absent in Canadian art history is a history of queer abstraction that Morris arguably initiated, a history that among others included General Idea (whose Colour Bar Lounge, 1979, was influenced by Morris’s and Trasov’s project and whose ziggurat paintings show a similar interest in that form that Morris did in preceding works such as the included silkscreen, Babylon, 1967). Morris’s paintings, like General Idea’s installations and paintings, blur boundaries between pictures and the public in an abandonment of strict, largely heterosexual formalism. The expansion of the Canadian painting field makes Paul Petro’s tightly-curated show an important one historically and thus a highlight of Toronto exhibitions this spring.