Earlier Writing: Sandra Meigs, Steven Shearer, Ron Terada, and Julie Arnold

SANDRA MEIGS/ DUMMIES  by Lucy Hogg

 

Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver, May 1997( review published in Boo Magazine, Vancouver, 1997)

Sandra Meigs, Untitled (from the Dummies Series),oil on panel, mixed media, light, 24 x 24", 1996

The paintings sat on the wall like luridly lit aquariums, each with its own ersatz halogen light attached like a hand reaching up from the bottom, inverting the discreet library portrait. Did we say these were portraits? Collapsed red alkyd pustules for eyes, a strip of metallic tape smiling for a mouth, compulsive smearing for hair, the face’s complexion dabbed as if it had been systematically poked at with a stick. A tiny spotted triangle hanging off the bottom of the painting like the end of a tie caught in a car door.

In Sandra Meigs paintings there is a constrained persistent quality to the excess. The ostensible chaos of the materials has its own economy: the transgressive use of the paint is deliberate, with no one system of mark making repeating itself within a particular frame. The use of colour, too, is specific. If one doesn’t get caught trying to identify the image it could be beautiful; but, once that process begins, the colours become denotative, even practical.

Another seated portrait. The polka dot background is an array of 50′s children’s party invitation colours. Only the yellow dots, for some reason, are all dripping. The figure is pieced together in what seems to be the truncated limbs of other people’s clothes: a drapery study of a pink blouse; a striped pyjama leg; a blue silk moiré sleeve; a man’s suit jacket wrapped around the face. But she/he is tied up or held together with brown rope. It looks as though chocolate Duncan Hines icing has been gratuitously smeared and rubbed across the chest area. Two shiny pooling black eyes are crying.

A mucky grey obliterates the simple floral of a child’s cotton print, cheerfully light orange and yellow. This face is asymmetrical. The nose, not quite limp, looks like it’s been dipped into execrable beige matter. The children have been brushing their teeth with peanut butter. There has been an attempt to tidy up these faces, for their birthdays, the first day of school, a wedding anniversary, within the domestic scale of the painting’s support. The polymorphous paint handling suggests the infantile, but there is a megalomaniacal cunning to its articulation that suggests the omnipresent adult.

Sandra Meigs, Untitled (From the Dummies Series), oil on panel, mixed media, light (not shown), 24 x 24", 1996

Perhaps on a first reading these might seem like sick paintings. Drawn into the gallery by the brilliant lighting and colour, the conventional expectation of the brushstroke is disappointed. The discontinuous surface provokes queasy disclaimers of what one is not. However, a second reading triggers recognition: Here is the body’s squalor (for which paint acts as the text) from which no one is exempt. But it’s not all going downhill fast. There is a poignancy to these complex digressions, a testimony to human capacity for coping. Keeping busy at least.

Sandra Meigs, Untitled (from the Dummies series), oil on panel, light, mylar, 36 " x 28", 1996

M  I  M  I  C  S

Essay by Lucy Hogg

Published in TYPE – CAST: Catalogue for the exhibition presenting the work of Julie Arnold, Steven Shearer, and Ron Terada at the Charles H. Scott Gallery, Vancouver, British Columbia, 1995

When looking at the paintings of Ron Terada and Steven Shearer it seems clear that there is an agreement about what a painting might look like; a laconic presentation which engages with various tenets of modernism and the specialization of production through quasi-technological means. Julie Arnold, in the context of this exhibition, is the Third Man – a catalyst. Her work couldn’t be described as painting, but visually and materially it fits. Her earlier production and projected future works point to a number of shared interests: logo-motifs, clichés, melodrama, romance, and needless to say, irony.

Julie Arnold, Logo Series (Installation detail), vinyl letter, paint, 1993 - 1995

We’re like Hall and Oates and she’s the studio musician we’ve brought in.

Terada’s and Shearer’s paintings can be taken off the wall, shipped to another place, remounted, and perhaps sold. Arnold’s artwork lasts only as long as the exhibition; the walls are then painted over, the computer program put back in the file. Shearer’s and Terada’s work is a product of studio practice. Arnold’s work dispenses with the studio; it is ephemeral, a design layout. She determines what her parameters are, and then sets out to produce her exhibition. Ostensibly, she demurs from participation in an economy of exchange.

There are varying degrees of intentionality built into each artist’s work. I think of a seesaw. Aesthetics (formalism) on one end, the agit prop (the discursive) on the other. It’s tipping back and forth. The participants may slide one toward the other; they may even unwittingly trade seats. Arnold’s work more consciously engages representations of corporate power; the idea generates the form the work might assume. In Shearer’s work the intentionality is found in the production, or rather, the production embodies the idea of the work. It is for the viewer to make it out. Terada might be placed between those two positions. The process – painting – remains intact, but he has a specific idea in mind before he begins.

Steven Shearer, Untitled, acrylic on canvas, 17.5" x 17.5", 1995

Steven Shearer, Untitled, acrylic on canvas, 17.5 x 17.5, 1995

C A P T U R E D   B Y   H I S   C L O T H E S

Shearer’s democratic surfaces consist of ubiquitous patterning which invoke the banal familiarity of family restaurants, wallpaper, or the upholstery of 70’s car interiors.  The patterns consist of a raised surface of paint on top of a unified ground. The paintings exist in co-dependent relationships; as single entities they are not meant to be self-sufficient. (The paintings are best exhibited, at the very least, in pairs). Daniel Buren talks about the problem of making work with the consciousness of where it is going to be exhibited, the “unspeakable compromise of the portable work of art [1] “that in trying to anticipate where it will be shown, the work takes on the characteristics, chameleon-like, of “…the predictable cubic space, uniformly lit, neutralized to the extreme, which characterized the museum/gallery of today.”[2] Shearer’s work suggests this complicity: the viewer moves from one painting to the next to find out if its better or worse, different or the same. There are no revelations or surprises, no climaxes or dénouements. The resolution of ego is waylaid, its location postponed in a social world where its identity is doomed to convoluted reflexivity. On a bad day, this could be about deferred desire produced in the language of capitalism. But left with no narrative, one can ramble. The colours feel familiar, but are carefully chosen and combined: a fragment of a glimpse of a car at an intersection, video games, the covers of record albums, fashion magazines. When all else fails the colour is invented, which is to say, mixed in a heuristic fashion. The patterns test the limits of what is actually an obsolete computer technology used to produce vinyl signage – exhaustively reworking the variations that the machine’s limited capacity can generate. If one is attentive, one can see the hand buried in the paintings, existing in a constricted and perverse way. The mechanical surfaces are produced by a paradoxically intensive labour of the hand, which, in seeking to deny itself, produces an effect more perfect than one attainable by purely mechanical means. The paintings also disguise themselves as self-referential, alluding to the discussion of the endgame of painting and the critique of the loaded hairy stick. But there is a compressed pleasure to be had in the cumulative experience of viewing these careful paintings. They are not contemplative, but these fragments of the quotidian crystallize with fugue-like precision, suggesting a complexity in the adversity of the banal.

Ron Terada, Untitled (My Mother), acrylic on canvas, 30"x30, 1994

Ron Terada, Untitled (Fred Astaire), acrylic on canvas, 30" x 30", 1995

L O O K I N G    G O O D

Nothing is worth having that you can’t have both ways.[3]

Ron Terada uses the monochrome, but its appearance is deceptive; encountering it one becomes aware that it is not the ‘industrial’ surface of 60s monochrome painting. Terada’s painstakingly produced surfaces are clearly not the readymade referred to by Thierry de Duve, in which a painting is reduced to its ultimate signifier of the purchased blank canvas.[4]The grounds are hand painted, using a cross-brushing method to achieve smoothness, and may consist of up to 80 coats of paint. They could be seen as Neoclassical, in the sense of Ingre’s enameled surfaces, the tromp l’oeil effect sublimating the act of production.[5] In Terada’s surfaces, the hand, again, is hidden. Their purity is the subjected to the one coat of text, a discernable layer of painting floating on top, which becomes the figure on the ground. The text operates as worldly referent in a realm which would otherwise refer only to itself – the materiality of paint on canvas, a unified ground sitting flat on a wall.[6] The oxymoronic ‘personal ad’ presents an emotionally vexed writing challenge: how to convey the specific (the personal) in the form of acronyms, clichés, meta-clichés, and other reductions of self-description and sexual preference. The monochrome implies the generic yet actualizes itself here as specific, providing the context for the advertisement of an individual’s desires which are most often constrained to generic expression. The laboured surface of the painting disguises itself as the mechanically reproduced surfaces of everyday life – from newsprint to Melamine; the text in its ineluctability suggests all that cannot be represented in the language of the everyday.

Norman Bryson discusses the hidden labour in nineteenth-century academic painting, arguing the surfaces could no longer be perceived by the body (as opposed to the eye) in the tactile apprehension of brushwork. He compares a work by Ingres to brush painting of the Far East. The act of viewing in the latter is a kind of re-enactment by the viewer of the initial creation of the work by the body of the artist, much as we might think of Jackson Pollock’s marks as being able to take us through the act of his painting. In Ingres this sense is suppressed.[7]

I once read an article in Vogue on how to distinguish a fake Ralph Lauren polo shirt from a real one.

Lee Krasner recalling Jackson Pollock asking her: Is this a painting?[8]

M A Y B E   Y O U   C A N   B E   O N E   O F   U S

The mediated relationship to materials in Arnold’s work makes for a certain alienation, not unlike how one might feel in relation to the mass-produced elements in contemporary life. Arnold finds a counterpoint to this alienation in the visual play of cliché and parody. All of the words that she uses in her installation – logocracy, logodaedaly, logolatry, logomania, etc. – can be found in the dictionary, yet when placed together on a wall they have a nonsense quality to them. The visual component, both the name-marks and logos, are invented but appear to be authentic, in the way a logo acts as a stamp of origin. (In the beginning, was the Word…). Her purposeful use of cliché is reiterated in her choice of image, typography, and vinyl surfaces in the laser cut signage she uses. Arnold ‘dumps’ – as a graphic designer would put it – the orange and black colours found on a Power Ranger toy into a notion of aggression; the image of a heart and a ‘’feminine’ script is dumped into a notion of romance. Knowing she was exhibiting with two painters, she imagined her allotted wall as a painting, with Shearer’s and Terada’s serial works tunneling towards her installation at the end of the gallery. Her wall, in its monumental scale, may be seen to refer to the pre-Renaissance period when painting had not yet become portable. Or it could remind one of a billboard, its temporary image subject to the tides of consumer marketing. She mimics the portable, predominately square-format paintings by Shearer and Terada in her design layout, while at the same time echoing Malevich’s 1913 monochrome, which proclaimed the “ …tolling of the funeral bell of polychromatic painting”.[9] Finding itself in this context, her work mutates to the conditions of the exhibition. Like a Commedia del ’arte Pierrot, it assimilates the language of the court, yet remains insidiously ambiguous. Arnold’s overt acknowledgement of the construction of advertisement and corporate signage nudges Shearer’s and Terada’s work out of the comfortable confines of formal and art historical reference: casting doubt onto their self-sufficient distance and coolness. Conversely, the paintings catapult Arnold’s work into the realm of finish and surface, forcing a recognition of how the manipulation of certain materials, any materials, may be read in an aesthetic, rarefied manner.

Julie Arnold, Logo Series (Detail), vinyl letter, paint, 1993 - 1995

L O G O R R H O E A :  EXCESSIVE  FLOW OF WORDS ESP. IN MENTAL ILLNESS

There was one more thing I had to read before finding myself in front of the blank page; “Valery Proust Museum” by T.W. Adorno.[10] I read it to the end. The weekly Sunday nap was calling to me. I lay down on the couch and dreamt about a small painting. It was on a prefab stretcher, and I could see that the on colour of blue that was painted on it (cerulean, straight out of the tube, readymade) was barely inflected. I couldn’t read anything in it. Not enough to be sky, not enough to be a seascape. Nothing. Just blue paint smeared in an uninteresting way over a white gessoed ground. I realized (in the dream) that the painting meant nothing.

In the essay Adorno creates a fictional discussion between Valéry and Proust on the nature of museums. On one hand, the artwork finds itself in a ‘neutralized’ self conscious space where it has to compete with a cacophony of lesser and greater artworks, its autonomy of purity confused; on the other hand, the artwork is ‘raised’ up out of its original surroundings (the studio, the domestic interior, the boardroom) and placed in a space that, in an absence of decor, “symbolizes the inner spaces in which the artists withdraws to create the work”. Both points of view posit that the original life of the artwork is over: the former spells out a small death, a reification: the latter suggests that the life of art, once separated from its original intentionality, is created in the space between the object and the viewer. Somehow consciousness of both those points of view is necessary.

The works in this show inflect on one another, suggesting that what might appear formal or even decorative can be read in a textual way, and what is ostensibly more textual may collapse into the formal. The raised text on the wall moves onto the monochrome which then spreads itself into a pattern across the canvas. The vinyl edges of the signage point to the plastic edges of the acrylic painted surfaces. All of the work takes up surfaces of the everyday. In Terada’s and Shearer’s work these are dumped most explicitly into the language of painting – a language which is no longer the vehicle of the contemplative. Arnold’s wall of logos drags the paintings of Shearer and Terada into a dialogue with language and corporate signage. In juxtaposition, these works make the conditions of display – and how we identify the objects (or installation) as art in the gallery context – more explicit. Subjectivity (always in danger of manifesting itself as cliché in painterly terms) is situated here through the negotiation of pattern, text, emblem, acronyms, and visual condensations of desire. The cliché is turned in on itself; and the viewer, when looking for some kind of confirmation, must find themselves in the interstices. The banality of the object – or its subject matter, has indeed found its way into the exhibition space as Buren has suggested; but, as Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades have demonstrated, the art object’s permeable and mutable nature lies in the inevitable impact of context and discussion.


[1] Daniel Buren, The Function of the Studio, tr. Thomas Repensek, October #10, 1979, p.54.

[2] ibid. p. 55.

[3] From an unpublished volume of aphorisms by L.J. Woods.

[4] Thierry de Duve, The Monochrome and the Blank Canvas, Reconstructing Modernism: Art in New York, Paris, and Montreal, 1945 -1964, ed. Serge Guilbaut (MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 1990, p.260.

[5] Norman Bryson, Vision and Painting, The Logic of the Gaze, (Yale University Press, 1983) p. 89-92.

[6] A hint of illusionism (an external referent has always saved painting from itself: Walter Darby Bannard, a painter/critic associated with Greenberg, writes about the late-modernist painter Julis Olitski “…[he] suggests it [illusionism], softly, here and there, so that we know it is there, kept in reserve, backing up the painting.” (Artform, January 1970) The reductivist logic that would finally boil a painting down to a blank canvas is thus avoided. But the implications of the use of a referent, sky for instance, were not discussed.

[7] ibid. Norman Bryson

[8] ibid.Thierry de Duve

[9] Rodchenko cited by Anatolli Strigalev in Art of the Constructivists: From Exhibition to Exhibition, 1914 – 1932, Art Into Life, Russian Constructivism, 1914-1932 (The Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, Seattle, 1990) pg 28.

[10] T.W. Adorno, Prisms: Valéry Proust museum, tr. Samuel and Shierry Weber (MIT Press Cambridge Massachusetts, 1981)


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