Archive for February, 2011

(My) Identity Crisis: The Work of Jin-me Yoon

Review published in “Last Call”, Vancouver,  2002

Jin-Me Yoon, “Touring Away from Home”, lifochrome, 32″ x 26″, 1998-99

 

 

It’s summer, and Jin-me Yoon sits on the grass, legs stuck straight out like a Chatty Cathy Doll. Looming behind her at least twice her size is a large wooden sculpture that seems to be mimicking her pose; its red painted braids, straw hat, and early 20th-Century sailor dress say (she’s) Anne of Green Gables, although the reductio ad absurdum of the signifiers probably have L.M. Montgomery rolling over in her grave.

Growing up in Prince Edward Island, I spent my pre-pubescent years puzzling over why some Toronto talent scout had never spotted my reddish braids and spunky attitude, thus precipitating my meteoric rise on the musical stage as “Anne.” I imagined turning cartwheels alongside Jeff Hyslop (who played Gilbert, Anne’s romantic interest) and smashing imitation school slates over my astonished antagonist’s head. I was perfect for the part. Many years later while visiting Japan, my interpreter, upon discovering where I was from (I was reluctant to admit it), reassured me that “Anne” was seen as a proto-feminist role model for young Japanese woman in quest of independence.

Mounted as a string of nine suspended 23″ x 30″ sized light boxes, spanning the widest axis of the Presentation House Gallery with a Cibachrome print installed on either end wall, Yoon’s current show Touring Home from Away depicts Yoon’s family’s explorations of Prince Edward Island as they make their way through the tourist gift shops, convenience stores, bed and breakfast lighthouses, golf courses, and potato fields. The conventions of the images vacillate between the casual family snap and the more composed material of a tourist brochure. In tourist high season the family doesn’t necessarily stand out as one of mixed cultural heritage, but like any tourist they distinguish themselves as they pose as a family group in front of tourist attractions, visit with the locals, or get caught in the cranky moments of family pit stops. Some of the images however, give away the ruse of this conceit, where the conventions of the family album are stretched by mannered intervention. A disruption which might provoke reflection on the assumptions of cultural identity in transit, or misfire as a bad Brechtian distanciation device.

Touring the rest of Yoon’s exhibition at Presentation House I was confronted with the all too familiar landscapes of my youth; the Space Ship at Rainbow Valley; site of ruinous children’s’ birthday parties. Woodleigh Replicas, a park full of miniature English castles which my father, an anglophile, relished for the annual family trip (later as a sullen teenager I would refuse to go). The War Memorial in the centre of town, in front of which every November 11th we felt obliged to affect some melancholic contemplation in exchange for a day off school in almost always horrible weather.

Some of the images seem forced; Yoon and her family, crouched beside a potato field (Although depicted often in postcards, potato fields are not usually targeted destinations, even for the locals, unless they are farming them). The group standing to attention in the middle of another potato field, gazing off to the horizon, their matching set of t-shirts promoting Anne of Green Gables and the Lobster Crawl. A little boy (Yoon’s son) standing in front of some scaffolding near a small historic church undergoing restoration, looking uncomfortable in his red yarn wig (Anne again) . No less disturbing a sight, I had to remind myself, than that sombrero my parents let me bring back from Expo ’67; I could be spotted wearing it all over town, it’s two foot peak bobbing over the crowds of tourists’ heads—as complete an image of Mexico as Yoon gives of PEI.

Yoon was invited as an artist in residence at the Confederation Centre, tied into the programming of Curator Terry Graff. Residencies can have their arbitrary effect, as the artist tries to recontextualize their thinking in a place they might never have thought of going to otherwise. This work records the most obvious signifiers of place, the bathetic aspect of which one might encounter on any touristic venture. Access to any more complicated sense of community could only come with the vested interest of becoming a member. With the exception of one pair of images where Yoon appears to be thoughtfully in discussion with a Mi’kmaq leader in front of what used to be traditional lands, or in another pair, where Yoon seems to chatting with the red-haired tourist guide, the visiting family seem quite isolated, the way families can be when they travel. Previous work by Yoon had prepared me to read this exhibition in terms of a discussion of perception of race in the particularized Canadian context of tourism and immigration, or a feminist analysis of the conflicted roles of the professional and maternal woman. In this exhibition it is all mixed up. As I try to filter out my assorted subjective memories associated with the location, I wonder how a viewer who doesn’t have them might make sense of the work. They will see a family group presenting themselves at a series of generic tourist destinations, posing in varying degrees of ironic self-consciousness, with props whose significance may not seem obvious or important. The irony cross-fires, flattening the intended cultural dissonance by its misappropriation of signs, signs which hint at the conflicts of a denuded rural economy that has to rely on tourism.

My unease at seeing my place of origin reduced to the promotional material of the provincial bureau, might be the same unease of finding oneself a visible minority in a population that is predominately white. This is a point similar to one Yoon made in an earlier work, Souvenirs the Self, a series of images where Yoon inserted herself in front of popular mountain views of Banff and Lake Louise (That work’s format as a set of unfolding, perforated of postcards, was playful in its possibilities of distribution and was clearly justified by its subject matter. In the current exhibition, the light boxes qua light boxes in a Vancouver context always raise the question, why light boxes? Conjuring up as they do in the low-lit peaked ceilings of the gallery space, the Stations of the Cross, or Jeff Wall). For the viewer from “Away,” the collapse of what could constitute an Island identity to the bare bones of potatoes, lobsters, and red-haired girls might not be all that poignant a loss. So the point of comparing that paraphrased identity to the dilemma of the visible minority falls flat.

Projecting myself as the only viewer who might “get it,” I swing between embarrassment and dismay, like a teenager spotted by friends out on an expedition with her parents. No one will give you the time to explain how these things actually do have something to do with who you are, and you are left with the harrowing knowledge that it is these things by which you will be misunderstood.

This is a hazard of making art. As I struggle with my conflicted emotions I wander away from the narrative, back over to the image of Jin-me Yoon and the giant Anne, whose sheer weirdness transcends the didactic panels the viewer from “Away” might otherwise need.

Jin-Me Yoon
TOURING HOME FROM AWAY
Presentation House Gallery, North Vancouver
January 5 through February 10, 2002

Jin-Me Yoon, Touring Away from Home, lifochrome, 32" x 26", 1998-99

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Home Again: Liz Magor

Published in the catalogue for “Stores”, a solo exhibition of the work of Liz Magor at the Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver, 2000

You’ve been running ragged circles in the forest, following some archaic directive telling you to retreat to nature. After the city went down, people were turning into packs of primates. No water, no electricity, no phone. The worst of it was, people were marking territory with their shit, taking over as many apartments as they could, until each one was emptied of comestibles. This looting was made easier by so many people abandoning their homes when it hit. Leaving the house without so much as a can opener. Running in search of some agency that might help. Keyless, shoeless, thinking in a childish way that nothing would be more effective than to show up at the door of a fire station to announce their dire straits. Only then not to find it, or not know where it was, or to find it empty, or gone. Gone, gone, gone.

You sight a seemingly constructed, variegated mound of rocks in the forest setting. There could be very good reasons to stay away from a pile of rocks. It might indicate someone’s unwillingness to dig down six feet to bury a body; a repository of contaminated flesh and unknown rituals. A marker in an otherwise remote unpeopled wilderness. Stumble across it and you realize you are not alone, have not been alone for several hours. Or days. Or for as long as it has been since you began wandering around in circles, lost. But it could be a cache, hiding something you need, especially now. Perhaps this is an opportunity. How long will it take to move those rocks? You could move them aside and then move them back. But the rearrangement would give your presence away. You weigh the risk.


Animals presage earthquakes by several days. Cattle grow restless, birds fall silent, pets go missing. They sense the infant seismic stirrings that will mature into catastrophe. Collapse. Something is always slipping while our lives sit balanced on the edge. Put together a world that holds, the way it used to be. A cup is missing its saucer. Put this one with this. If that works, try a bolder move: this couch with these drapes, this body with that time. Now change your father, become your ancestor, find the family you lost, the purpose you missed.  (1)

With a cursory glance at Liz Magor’s Stores, one might assume the gallery was a work site, an excavation: a piece of drywall leaning up against a wall, someone’s rucksack hung from a nail to protect lunch from ground intruders. The largest element, a pile of rocks, flags the ruse. A closer look reveals fluorescent orange cheesies creeping out from underneath; larvae-like, they seem to be multiplying under what can now clearly be seen to be a hollow shell. A pile within a pile. Further inspection shows the traces of the rocks’ manufacture: casting burs in the cracks between rocks – excess fluid that has escaped the imprint of the pigmented mold. An attempt to pick up an individual rock is frustrated; they are linked in constellations which form the total effect. Tapping the surface produces a muffled, hollow sound. It is a fake.

On one wall hangs a weathered rucksack, looking as if it might have been recently unearthed, and is perhaps slimy to the touch. It takes a beat to recognize the small margin of visual difference that allows you to realize it is made of rubber, a cast imitation. Relieved of its realness, it becomes more animate, as if it might start to breathe like an artificial lung. A hint of vaguely familiar looking orange powder has leaked out from a deteriorated seam; pieces of macaroni lie on the floor like dead maggots. Through a tear, one can see the unmistakable packaging of Kraft dinner. Three or four boxes, you decide; enough emergency sustenance for six to eight people at one sitting.


TAIPEI: A cat, dehydrated and barely breathing, was found trapped in a house 78 days after Taiwan’s earthquake. The animal apparently kept itself alive by eating another cat, veterinarian Chen Taochieh said yesterday. The head, tail, bones and bits of fur from the second feline were found next to the survivor. (2)

Building materials lean against another wall: a fragment of pockmarked drywall, and a piece of plywood. They are waste, about to be pitched in the dumpster, a by-product of some inefficient domestic renovation. You might walk by them, but something in the way they are placed, makes them appear almost arranged. The crisp, delicate edges of the objects reveal that they too have been cast from a mold, and  this conclusion is further substantiated by their flat, uninflected reverse sides. Stashed behind them are several bags of carrots and potatoes, sweating veritable condensation. Grocery sized, this an amateur cache, a stopgap measure with a short-term view. But cast as  multiples, maybe there are thousands of these lean-to’s, strategically placed for migratory fugitives?

As children we made snow forts. Perfect, no clutter. Ingenious secret doorways, intricate  intersecting frozen tunnels burrowing through the large mound of snow which had been pushed to the side of the road by the snow plow. Anybody driving by would never know we were in there. Hunkering down, we’d have our first secluded domestic conversations with our playmates. Removed from the domain of parental control, our murmurs mimicked the sounds we could hear through the bedroom door as our parents privately discussed the days events.

A white raincoat and a white woven purse hang on a white hook on yet another wall. There is some suggestion of fashion here, someone’s attempt to match these pearlescent surfaces, conveying a tawdry daytime glamour of making do in a rainy climate. The cast bag is a ghost of the kind women carried in the 80s. Its most valuable element, a women’s rectangular pocket-book, bulges tumescently from within. There is nothing else in the bag, but further exploration would be frustrated by the bag’s sealed lips. It is as deliberate as a rubber decoy.

In considering Liz Magor’s exhibition, the professional viewer might at first conjure up analogies of survivalism in the art world: oppositional encampments, conflicted stakeholders, and the dialectic of disingenuous metaphor. On the other hand, the urban pedestrian coming in off the street might be reminded of an incident from the night before; about to disarm the alarm on his late-model car, he notices a sleeping bag in the doorway of a light industrial building, along with some cardboard, a grocery cart jammed with things whose original value is lost, destined to be redirected to the ineffable demands of urban camping.

Whatever the cause, the instinct to pull into the shell is strong. Introversion seeks its form. The cabin waits. Given the urge, it’s surprising that the country isn’t dotted from coast to coast with these little forts….For the rest of us, the Cabin in the Snow is best kept as an idea. A place where our true self resides knowing it has no real home in the world. (3)

In Messenger, a work from 1996, Magor created a complex evocation of domestic retaliatory retreat. A cabin conjures nostalgic frontier images of pre-industrial settlement. Fitted up with a rag tag collection of military equipment, this environment articulates a self sufficient masculinity, fortified by the rigorous economy of function. The niceties of comfort and hospitality, which might imply a need for social engagement, have been banished.

I was almost forty, and was visiting my parents at their house in the winter. Every night my father ritually locked us all in: wooden bars placed in the sliding door channels, a little screw nested in the bolt lock under the handle of the front door. If an intruder did smash the side window, they would still not be able to turn the knob; this was Dad’s logic. During the night I heard a squalling sound, tortuous, rhythmic, and strangely human. Trying to get closer to the sound, I struggled unsuccessfully with the storm windows that were solidly snapped into place. I finally had to tell myself that it must only be foxes mating, not some sordid scenario of domestic violence across the field. But I realized that if the house were set on fire, we would never get out in time.

The need to control an environment is not unlike an artist’s will to define their production of meaning. The creative process is hazardous, as one tries to find shelter while living in the muck. But this psychological terrain can to be found in every household. To establish pattern and routine is reassuring. Mentally we organize our day, plan our wardrobe, rehearse the rhetoric of daily interactions. We create the identity that will facilitate our negotiation, incorporating the subtle social codes with which to fend off or establish contact.


In Magor’s Sleeping Rough (1999), the conditions of habitation are reduced to a hollow tree, its molded exoskeleton forcing the soft body of a sleeping bag to adapt to its interior contours. There is comfort in these limited parameters, simplified to a world confined to sleep, the choice of deep retreat.

In Stores, there are no signs of shelter. The inhabitant has become a migrant, stability assured only in the secret knowledge of hidden sustenance. Food is the object of desire, and it exists between two extremes: vegetables as icons of wholesome food coming out of the earth, and their nemesis, junk food. The latter can be immediately consumed, raising the sugar and salt levels quickly for emergency repair. The former requires more equipment, patience, and planning. As if subscribing to the exhortations of a self-help book, the scavenger, within these binaries, is able to accommodate mood swings in their foraging strategy.  Complications can only exist as some ratio of the two options, making for some degree of freedom for the life of the mind.

Liz Magor’s work is labour intensive, determined in its will to represent plausibility. One might imagine a lost career in special effects, although Magor’s representation must withstand direct scrutiny, its illusionism not intended for the background of filmic approximation. The barely discernible shift of consciousness occurs with the realization that the camouflaging elements are not real, but are representations. With that then, the hunting and foraging narrative fumbles. The work becomes self-reflective, as we are caught in the details of its simulation.  Moreover this simulation is not singular. The signs of production suggest that there may be multiple caches and calculated decoys, spread all over the map. We are not alone in our inner crisis of speculation and uncertainty, as we attempt to second guess the reason for the surface ruse. But as participants in this economy we are implicated. Caught out in the embattled terrain of our own dissembling, we are positioned for active thought. All bets are off, but we won’t give this place up.

Notes

1. Liz Magor, “White House Paint” Real Fictions: Four Canadian Artists (Sydney: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1996, p. 55.

2. The Province (Vancouver), 10 December, 1999, sec A, p.48.

3. Liz Magor, “Messenger,” in Liz Magor: Messenger (Toronto Sculpture Garden, 1996) n.p.

Go Play Outside (The Paintings of David MacWilliam)

Published in the catalogue for “Weak Thought” a group exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery, curated by Grant Arnold and Bruce Grenville,  2000

The rock face loomed as we slowed down just a little on our way through Squamish, in an attempt to spot the insignificant bits of coloured humanity clinging to its steepness. The ‘Chief’ is a popular recreational site, a short commute for the Vancouver urban dweller’s respite from the regimented stress of the nine-to-five world. Hardly the armchair for the weary businessman.

It’s a late Saturday morning and the sports equipment co-op is full of shoppers planning the ergonomic details of their next outdoor experience.  Spanning up over their heads is a large abstract relief, its sensual undulations suggesting the body. On its earth-coloured ground are subtly coloured plastic organ like attachments spaced at an arm or leg span from each other, implying articulated movement upward. It is a vertical landscape of monumental proportions, conjuring up a domesticated interior version of the old romantic ratio of man diminished by nature, yet called to conquer.

If we trace any kind of consistency in the art work of David MacWilliam we might find a certain kind of sheepishness manifesting itself as an obfuscation of style. Here style is the eradication of style, at least in the larger sense of gesture or motif. Earlier work, with its overt figure and  ground relationships,  flirted with the heroic, awkwardly, in the way a lot of painting of the early 80s was awkward, recognizing as it did  after two decades of minimalism and conceptualism a certain redundancy of a ‘debased and irrelevant tradition’[1]. Unlike the more contemporary mediums of print, photography and video, painting apparently didn’t participate in the languages needed to respond to history, politics and strategy that the critical avant-garde had been demanding.

"Cornucopia", oil on canvas 122 cm x 214 cm, 1981

MacWilliam’s later 80s’ work reflected his growing knowledge of the craft of oil painting, and style began to insinuate itself into the work; this being an imperative of habit, or maybe a Modernist response to the spectre of an imaginary market. The  motifs, derived from historical examples of painted drapery, linked us reassuringly from painting to painting with a certain logic echoing the narrative  found in any monograph chronicling your average 20thC artist’s course of development.

Corolla, oil on canvas, 166 cm x 151 cm, 1990

By 1993, a crisis point was reached, and old studio procedures and conventions were rejected. Canvases and supports became unpredictable in format and material, and seriality broke down.  MacWilliam’s paintings became contingent upon each other, simpler fragments needing to be grouped to form compound structures. Style could only be pegged as an attitude, willful whimsy or as random trajectory. No longer did the paintings refer to traditions of fine art, but more to the industrial techniques of the manufactured surface (sanded, polished, rubbed, ground), unmediated by the gesture of the hand.  Formats transformed found shapes of the everyday, templates vaguely referring to some previous, practical use.

 

 

 

 

He  was listening to himself for a change, doing whatever he felt like, because who cared[2]

 

 

David MacWilliam’s recent rock climbing paintings acknowledge not so much a particular interest in rock climbing, but reflectively act on localized aspects of contemporary West Coast leisure culture. The aesthetisization of  interactive gymnasium structures  (which can be found in venues with names like Vertical Addiction, Cliffhanger, and Rockhouse)  immobilizes them, offering up a melancholic rumination on the inertness of formalist concerns (here read a critique of modernist painting) , analogous to the domestication of raw nature as it is colonized by technology. The colours of the shaped figures and their contrasting grounds have been derived from brochures for interior design, offering us received ideas of what constitutes good taste, furthering the domestic analogy and reassuring us that we could still be shopping, affirming our lifestyle choices, whilst grappling in a fundamental way with the laws of gravity.

The paintings suggest that a potential art audience (and market) lies tantalizingly out of reach of the purview of the Vancouver art community, instead replaced  by the highly visible recreational culture dominating our city where obvious capital investment (memberships at the yacht club and timeshares at Whistler) could otherwise find its way to cultural institutions, educational programs, and fine art collections. Here, where the majority of all paintings bought are conventional landscapes, MacWilliam’s works offer a nature as it is produced and consumed by its audience, no longer the sublime viewed untouched through the pictorial window, but as concrete commodity. However, the genres are mixed. The figure is evoked by the proportions of the paintings, derived from the standard 4×8-foot format of plywood, recalling a human span of reach. Within the implied architecture of building materials the climbing holds in their molded colours ask the body to move on up. We swing diagonally upwards, engaged and vertically challenged into a primary co-ordination of hands and feet. We are the figures in the ground, virtually called to consider where we are moving to or from, within the life-size theatre of action and consumption. Nature is culture as we tentatively reach for the next foothold, and success or failure in that relation will not necessarily depend on ascent.


[1] Ian Wallace, Painting in Spite of Art: David MacWilliam, Vanguard, December/January, 1983/1984 pg. 22

[2] Lucy Hogg, The Rest of Our Lives, Publication in conjunction with the exhibition The Rest of Our Lives, recent work by David MacWilliam, Stride Gallery, Calgary, Alberta, 1995.

Essays on Painting: Charles Rea and Johannes Zits

Two essays published in “Altered Visions” catalogue for series of exhibitions curated by Susan Edelstein at Artspeak Gallery, Vancouver, British Columbia, 1998

Painting and Other Acts: The Recent Work of Johannes Zits

“Place a Fantaisie” acrylic on billboard, 2.5 x 3.6 metres, 2000

The large print-outs of designer interiors seemed foreign in the dusty warehouse studio, smelling incongruously of ink jet spray. Images of generic comfort were photographed as if for an upscale bed-and-breakfast brochure, promising both familiarity and fantasy in an uncontroversial setting. Next thing I knew they were on the floor, Johannes poised like Jackson Pollock over the surface of a pristine digitized image. Gloppy, spattering paint landed with a certain precision upon the pixellated reproduction with palpable transgressive effect. I guess you only get one shot at these, eh Johannes?– if you mess up you have to start all over. Johannes laughed, nervously.

When I first met Johannes he was a straight-ahead painter. Or as straight-ahead as anyone could be, back in 1981. We were all messy oil painters: young, and caught up in a wave of self-definition, killing our post-painterly fathers. What I mean by straight-ahead is the idea that paint itself embodied some kind of subjective honesty, a direct line to the core of humanist expression, harkening back (of course it goes further back than this) to a pre-World-War-II expressionism. Johannes’s earlier work consisted of life-size portraits of his family and friends, the paint calling up the gestural quality of Alberto Giacometti. Later work positioned nudes in ambiguous settings, which register only enough to point out the psychological distance between the figures.

What we might not have been so conscious of then were the structural conditions of an 80s’ boom economy and the conditions driving the art world back to an emotional reunion with the acceptable bourgeois commodity item. As Benjamin Buchloch pointed out in his 1981 essay Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression , the return to representation in European painting in the late 70s’ (and its subsequent reverberations in the various international art scenes) invoked the historical amnesia of 1930s Social Realism, its subservience to fascist and socialist regimes comparable to the restrictive imperatives of capitalism under Thatcher and Reagan. The brush-stroke’s complicity was its claim to unmediated expression of subjectivity, taking us all down the garden path in melancholic rumination over  the loss of pre-industrial notions of individualism.

Some of us gave up. Some of us changed channels. Some of us moved on to photo-and-text installations . Some of us consciously put bags on our heads, and kept on painting. The working fiction of a craft-based medium is that if you persevere, your technique improves, And straining the narrative even further, a consciousness of technique (because it is so heterogeneous, and arbitrary without this) is a consciousness of concept, historical process, and the survival of painting. The anti-aesthetic (or lack of training, however you want to look at it) of 80s’ painting couldn’t take this into account; it needed time to develop its own fictions. It became harder to be straight-ahead. You’d be accused of being a knuckle dragger, a monkey painter.

Johannes, who is of Dutch extraction, began to account for his own identity in the early 90s’. By adapting the brushwork of Frans Hals or early Piet Mondrian, his work reconstituted Dutch landscape as might be seen by the tourist from a bus, in painted snapshot compositions of pilgrimages to family origins.These paintings were moving away from the existential implications of earlier work into a search for the constitution of self as found through nationality, both personal and artistic. When this search for self moved into the realm of sexual orientation, the paintings became figurative again; but the figures were ready-mades, lifted from gay pornography magazines, inhabiting Ikea-like domestic interiors.

“Salon Moderne”, acrylic on billboard output, 2.5 x 2.5 metres, 1999

Johannes’s current work’s salient feature is the separation of figure (or figures) from the ground by a dichotomy of media: photography = ground, paint = figure. This apparent split formally invokes the desire for reconciliation between the two (that old painting saw). The nude figures in their multitudinous splotches of flesh tones are at times barely distinguishable as a couple in an embrace or at other times separate, occupying different parts of the room in relational tension. His figures move through luxurious settings of velvet and brocade on thick, off-white pile rugs, with carefully arranged intimations of traditional values and the pretense of old money . Here, we have hired housekeeping in a Vermeer casting of light. These figures have time for their idylls; they also have time, apparently, to work out at the gym. They represent lifestyle choices, which, pushing the edge of plausibility, suggest we go shopping. Because we are not quite perfect. There is room for improvement, or our rooms need improving, we’re not quite sure which. Desire, though, remains at an ineffable remove within the insistence of the decor (no matter how rich) and the generic nature of the featureless figures (no matter how trim and fit). We have, too, the domestication of the painterly sign. The drops and splotches recall us to that fraught moment of the post-WW-II abstract artist, poised in the arena of the canvas, about to commit an act of creation. We are cheated of that vicarious experience as the mark coheres, focuses, moves us into the more prosaic demands of representation. There is a self-conscious calculation in its placement – even minimal attention to signification will undo its free-wheeling expressionist autonomy. This is made all the more explicit in its present context of pixellated ground. The structure of paint becomes the underside of digitization, and vis-versa . Both become abstract; but given certain distance of focus, they freeze into recognizability. Like signage that, once registered , becomes legible from previously impossible distances, we are captured by the image. And, once we’re in there, how do we get out.

“Traditional Home”, acrylic on billboard output, 2.5 x 3.2 metres, 2000

Published in “Altered Visions” catalogue for series of exhibitions curated by Susan Edelstein at Artspeak Gallery, Vancouver, British Columbia, 1998

Who’s Afraid: The  Recent work of Charles Rea

The translucent glazes sit uneasily on the synthetic, metallic ground, their arbitrary viscerality recalling bodily fluids, or unformed desire. Or so they often say about paint. Eventually it can be seen that there is some method in the application , small frenetic up and down motions, digit sized. Short actions of the wrist. But there is a coolness to the paint, and then I realize I am looking at an unfolded canvas, a Rorschach print. The resulting image is short on focal depth, like a photograph pulled out of the developer too soon.

Charles Rea, Occupational Hazard, oil on vinyl, 110 x 302 cm, 1998

In the early 80s paintings of Charles Rea we have a crystalline space of unfolding rectangles literally painted on books, the physical structure of their composition echoed in the illusionist representation. Like a child’s kaleidoscope the images suck us into their vertiginous perspectives, our viewing is stopped flat by the oppressive heavy paint . What were once open books have become subtexts, hidden by the skin of paint.

Charles Rea, Love God, acrylic on books mounted on plywood 117 x 166 cm, 1981

In the later work (1993-96)  the books flatten out, but they are at least offering their titles. In their cosmetic packaging they seem formally organized by a certain logic of colour until we find common themes in the receding columns (ah, we’re in the self help section?) pushing us in and out of the flat matte monochrome picture plane, toying with our emotions as we puzzle over their ersatz vanishing points. Whose book collection is this anyway, the titles of contemporary and historical artists’ monographs sandwiched between a wide range of popular reading selections, from Dr. Suess to Danielle Steele to Jean Paul Sartre, vaguely conjuring up the identity of a third year university liberal arts student, collapsed onto the reading shelf at the cottage. However, all they can give us now is the promise of their  brightly coloured promotional graphics, the contents of one book easily substituted for the contents of another, left unread.

Charles Rea, Differential, oil on canvas, 247 x 191 cm, 1996

By 1996-97 the images of books have metamorphosed into diagrammatic doodles, their configuration developing incrementally in counter clockwise fashion round the large canvas. Their quasi-scientific appearance suggests a technological optimism or cyclical healing pattern as the figures migrate across the uniform ground colour, like a time release mechanism moving inexorably towards another conclusion or another beginning. They shift only very quietly in hue and intensity, but one is not sure if this is because of their actual difference in colour or the effect of inconsistent conditions of light in the room; the measure of actual differences of pigment, or simply the circumstances of perceptual instability. Objective or subjectively fluctuating. Does it matter?

Charles Rea, The Comedians, oil on canvas, 247 x 191cm, 1997

In the current works (1997-98) the figure ground dichotomy is similar; articulation of image separates itself from a flat, but this time luminescent, silver ground. The modulated colour has a chemical acerbity: quinachrodone and dioxine violets, pthalo blues and greens, hansa oranges, exacerbated by nervous, vertical markings which upon closer viewing don’t serve any descriptive purpose. In the smaller, more intimate works the image is doubled once, an interior space is folded to create a fictive passage to its vanishing point. These images are taken from a variety of sources (architectural digests or technical manuals) of hospitals, clinics, prisons, banks, civic ministries: all institutions devoted to corporal or corporate management. As structures they require certain codes of behaviour and our tacit compliance. Notably, the expectation of the human figure is disappointed; we are forced to traverse those passages of erie quiet ourselves. The cold trajectory seems limited in psychological specificity, making us fearful of the generalizing effect of the cure. In the larger diptychs the folding is doubled again. The original source image is split, the left side folded to mirror itself on one canvas, and likewise the right on another. They are then seamed together to form a diptych, divided by sister colours. What was an asymmetrical image becomes two symmetrical images, presented for scrutiny like non-identical twins. Taken from images of factories and machine shops, these paintings are more alien, more viscerally threatening. The materiality of the paint in its agitated consciousness resting lightly on the surface stops us from any kind of reassurance of renaissance perspective. We are, ostensibly, centered, but we have to do a double take.

Charles Rea, Hearing Impaired, oil on vinyl, 117 x 281 cm, 1998

As we discover that what is in one image is not in the other, our peripheral vision is called upon in an attempt to stabilize. We are left with an unresolved stereoscopic vision that suggests that the right and left hand sides of the brain have yet to synthesize. What were assembly lines, production bays and tooling machines anthropomorphize, the Rorschach allowing us to identify and re-invent ourselves as monsters in crisis. The titles of these paintings refer to institutional descriptions of what could be a myriad of human conditions. ‘Hearing Impaired’, ‘Leave of Absence’, ‘Occupational Hazard’ create categories to define interruptions of production which are a result of human frailty in relation to possibly oppressive conditions. The industrial sites too are certainly melancholic in their depiction of archaic or soon to be redundant technology. Like a sick nervous system the disoriented body of production is pinioned, spread-eagled for examination. We are touched by the fear of loss of motor control, touched  the desire for equilibrium,  touched by the need for gainful employment. Or maybe our disequilibrium is the active state, the real condition of our relation to the authority and approval of the institutional mind. Charles Rea’s paintings in their spectacular quality hint at a certain beauty in their reflections of instability. The monolith of order is the mirage. Our grounding is flexible, our own unruliness  a part of the equation as much as the conspiracy of circumstance.

Charles Rea, Leave of Absesnce, oil on vinyl, 112 x 320 cm, 1998