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Ian Carr-Harris

Ironic Disguise: Al McWilliams
Cold City Gallery, Toronto

C Magazine #16, December 1987.
[ 1,252 words ]


Al McWilliams would prefer that his work claim its own 'being-in-the-world', unconfined by words. But as McWilliams demonstrates here, words are hard to escape, and they can focus desire with exquisite economy. I want to employ some of that economy to clarify what it is that McWilliams seeks to represent in his work. I also believe that this can only be properly understood within a context that recognizes that McWilliams has received critical acclaim and national recognition for his work.

We need to note then, some recent remarks by Gary Michael Dault, published in Canadian Art. Discussing the Power Plant's inaugural exhibition, Dault reveals the existence of a Canadian 'mainstream avant-garde', a 'nationally constructed A-List' of favoured artists, artists with 'a certain look, a certain stance, and a certain way of being an artist'. Dault describes this look: a stalwart sang-froid, an introversion, a lack of edginess, a strange tentativeness of emotion — a look that is 'hard, clean, ironic, metaphorical, slick with doubt about what is real and what isn't'. Dault's critique is refreshingly candid, if a tad gauche, in its identification of a contemporary national style. Of course it would be almost too simple to challenge his over-simplifications and take issue with his disappointments. But Dault is not alone in fingering a set of conditions linking artists who, for no easily locatable reason, have become Canada's international representatives. The National Gallery's Diana Nemiroff, commenting as a reviewer in 1983 on the Stuttgart show, noted 'a surprising communality of strategies — mirroring, doubling, projecting, the dislocation of normal appearances and their turning back into themselves', strategies that she suggested were attempts to reconstruct the subject. McWilliams was included in that exhibition, and in a review of his work for Vanguard in 1981, Russell Keziere talks in similar terms about 'theatrical ambiguity' and 'the artist's intention of making a work of art that is either straightforwardly equivocal or equivocally straightforward.'

Dault, it would seem, has simply collated the main adjectives, and expressed an unease about a 'dominant history'. It is important for us all to examine that history and Al McWilliams provides a focus by which to represent it.

All four of the works included in this exhibition were candidates for Dault's checklist. I think it is sufficient to describe two of them, and illustrate a third. Portrait consists of two large, unframed, vertical drawings placed slightly apart and capped at the top by a colour enlargement of an adolescent's legs 'taken' from behind, standing and spread to form an inverted 'V' equivalent to that constructed formally between the drawings and photographs themselves. Only the legs are shown, the crotch and feet cropped by the edge of the photograph. Formal in composition, and ambiguous in gender, these legs are referenced further by the subject of the drawings — a simplified rendering of a generic upright chair clearly derived from mechanical and architectural aesthetics. The scale and the simplified masses of this chair, and of this piece, echo precisely the child's clean form, and imply an ambivalent correspondence between the usefulness of the chair, and the usability of the figure's body. It is a highly intellectualized work, disguising — or is it revealing? — a highly eroticized intellect.

Untitled (with beeswax, copper, and gas-jet flame) constructs a large, rectangular, painterly frame of reference. The ground is divided to construct a square on the right-hand side, which is entirely and evenly coated with coloured beeswax. The vertical strip on the left side of the rectangle, not included by the beeswax square, is covered with a sheet of burnished copper in which are set two small, flaming gas jets. Within the square, there is sketched in a darker wax the cartoon-like outline of a male head wearing a fedora and leering knowingly at the two small jets of flame that penetrate the copper surface. The leering face instantly and 'unequivocally' establishes the focus for this work, its eyes sliding sideways to rest on the dancing flames against the copper skin. But if the focus is the flame, the subject established is the face itself, the face of the artist as voyeur, imprisoned, like an unwary insect, in the seduction of his own making.

The odd markings on the surface of the steel plate [in and the man . . .] are language — Braille, the language of the blind. Its text reads: 'and the man liked the woman.' The Braille script is formed with small jade balls penetrating the plate. The image of the woman, photographed in colour, is by Piero di Cosimo, around 1500. Nameless, she is only the subject of a painting. The work is constructed of ironic misalliances between the 'man' and this woman. The woman's identity and beliefs are lost in history, while the man remains merely a vague reference in a contemporary text; the text is in Braille, a modern language that this woman could never have known; the woman is an image, and Braille is for those who cannot image. The steel plate, with its 'words', separates itself metaphorically from the paper of the photograph. Across this complex gap there lies a barely contained desire, an introverted pornography instituted in the unwitting invitation of the woman's naked breasts, and a man's fumbling fingers on the hard, round surfaces of words becomes physical. The 'confined' passion of this contradictory equation is exacerbated in the curious monotone of the text itself. 'And the man liked the woman' is so impersonally neutral in its statement, so infuriatingly unsatisfying, that we are forced to disbelieve its neutrality, to read it as a poor disguise, as — indeed — an intentionally transparent act of dissembling.

I believe it is exactly this 'intentionally transparent dissembling' that aggravates Dault, and constitutes the project behind what he and others have described as the 'look', or perhaps we could even say 'the gaze', characteristic to a generation of intelligent artists, male and female, in this country. What has been dissembled is not necessarily the specifically sexual passion evident in Al McWilliams non-verbal confinements; what I think is being thinly, ironically, disguised — because disguise has been seen by these artists as the principal means by which to 'reveal' — is our physical condition in the world, our productions, our dissolutions, our structures — the means by which we have defined meaning. It has been said that the artists of the 70s, the artists of the artist-run spaces, of' sociological investigations, of 'feminist critique', were uninterested in surface and form, uninterested in artworks as vehicles for passion. I believe this is a massive misreading, and I think the complications in Al McWilliams's work represent a generation caught between 'passion and reason', caught within an awkward, far-flung frontier culture unable to define itself, and defined consequently by crushing indifference and hostility No wonder there's dissembling and tentativeness. If that condition became the touchstone of a disaffected generation, if it became a 'mainstream avant garde', if it appeared in certain respects problematic, surely that is only to bear witness to the contradictory and always 'problematic' needs of an era, and the power of an idea. And what evidence is there that the needs expressed in Al McWilliams's work, our needs, have disappeared?

C Magazine #16, December 1987.

Text: © Ian Carr-Harris. All rights reserved.

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