Monday, October 15, 2018

Sullivan, Timely But Unsatisfying

Françoise Sullivan, Only Red No.2, 2016, acrylic on canvas, 60" x 72"

Sullivan at the Modern, The Modern, 68 Abell St., Toronto, Sept. 20 – Nov. 17, 2018

Françoise Sullivan holds two key places in Canadian Modernist history: as a Canadian pioneer in modern dance and as a signatory of La Refus Global. Given she is one of Les Automatistes who signed that famed manifesto, she should be historicized as a more important painter than she is. But while hardly unknown, she has been overshadowed by the other members, all of whom are male - Riopelle and Borduas especially. Today, when older female artists are regularly being revisited (Sullivan herself is the focus of three recent and upcoming exhibitions in Quebec), this exhibition promises currency and possible historic correction both ethically and aesthetically. 

However, as exciting as a Toronto-held Sullivan revision may be for those following Canadian art history, from a feminist perspective or otherwise, it is just not possible here given the mediocre and often unrelated selection of seventeen paintings. Better work may be seen at a concurrent show of sculpture at Galerie Simon Blais in Montreal, not to mention within this exhibition, notably the seven reprinted photographic stills of Sullivan's iconoclastic 1948 dance performance Danse Dans La Neige.

In contrast, the acrylic on canvas Proportio 8B, 2015, disappoints. The diagonal splicing of the canvas into black, grey, rose, and lavender shapes appears derivative of Bush; moreover, the shapes' light, sketchy outlines take on a provisional quality incongruous with the belaboured layering of colour within the shapes. Then consider Only Red No. 2, 2016, a rectangular quilt of reds whose line, which rhythmically links the subtly changing tones of the red squares (from rose to near orange), fails to buoy what again is overly cautious hence stifling layering. Her paintings, at least in this exhibition, remain unresolved.

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