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Victor Coleman

The End of Intelligent Art

The 1st Monumenta
Vanguard, December, 1982
[ 1,732 words]


Sunday, October 17, 1982, The Rivoli, Queen Street West, Toronto: It's 'The John and Gary Show', a self-generated ... debate? Forum? surely the Italians have a word for it designed to keep Toronto's art community interested in the '82-83 season opener in the alternative galleries. Much has been written about it, broadcast about it, gossiped about it. Seventy-five artists hastily assembled and exhibited in four downtown galleries (A Space, YYZ, Gallery 76 and ChromaZone) the sheer force of numbers alone insuring that minds that have been hazy with summer will respond.

John B. Mays (art critic for the Globe and Mail) and Gary Michael Dault (photography critic for the same paper and erstwhile cultural producer for the CBC) are flanking a garish red-bespattered slide screen exhibiting their generally good-natured cynicism for a packed house of young Toronto painters. Having arrived late I am forced to stand at the back of the room, where I can hardly hear their unamplified voices. Gary's is deeper, his diction is choppier, more pointed; John ranges from authoritative yawp to chiding whine; and there is plenty of laughter, some of it at the expense of the artists. For some reason John is bathed in red light and Gary is in relative shadow. Right at this moment Vera Frenkel is fantasizing Mays in white silk and Dault in black leather; but it is her fantasy, not ours.

The other, the object of representation, can be drawn in many ways, presumably as many ways as there are artists to set their hands to the task of representing. Representation's mute offering rules the eye, engages the mind, and just might possibly nudge the emotions. The other, in an art gallery, could be you, the carrier of those eyes that ultimately completes the art relationship, the looker, with a brainpan big enough to recognize a bread basket.

With its narrative roots (those Lascaux paintings were not mere doodles, but records of lost things). Representation is firmly edged with history, biography (the portrait), and economics. The system that operates it is as old as Narcissus, as renewable as the infant discovering its hand (not to mention its sex). And 'Story' his or hers if it's at all worth telling is worth telling well.

The four galleries that co-mounted Monumenta (for a paltry three weeks) have been steadily moving in this direction since the end of the Seventies. A Space (Granny), Gallery 76 (semi-detached from the Ontario College of Art), YYZ (the middle kingdom, and nominal sponsor of the exhibition), and ChromaZone (the trend-setting upstart) have provided us with an object lesson in collaboration, laying bare the common foundations of their pursuits in an art community that grows larger as it diversifies, an art community increasingly disenchanted with the technocratic hegemony of artists who, in the Seventies, put the corporate above the corporeal.

Monumenta's curators were David Clarkson, Stan Denniston, Brian Groombridge and Bernie Miller. I'm told they put the show together in two weeks this summer. I might infer from this that none of the participating galleries had anything 'better' to show as season openers, the first show in September being the traditional kick-off point and sign-of-the-time, something usually designed to excite and incite. One hopes that the organizers of Monumenta would not excuse themselves for the sloppy choices in this hasty assemblage, a seemingly sincere exercise in tender excess.

Monumenta, the word, ricochets with meaning, from gravestone to military statue, from Stonehenge to the Running Fence. One arrives at the display ready for architecture, statuary, grand scale; but one encounters something more akin to an Eaton's catalogue. One hundred and fifty works by seventy-five artists! Original Canadian paintings, sculpture, photography, assemblage! All crammed together into eight small rooms (and a closet)! And no abstraction to cloud the mind! Perfect for the bombed-out living room look of Recession Canada.

So this is the New Art. It looks a little like the Old Art, incorporating as it does just about every painterly conceit in the book. My first reaction was shock, and confusion. This was not the socially conscious agit-prop I have learned to expect from a big splash on Queen Street West. I was offended, at first look, by the sheer lack of space within which so much art is crammed. Paintings on top of paintings, abutting assemblages, sardined drawings and photographs. A plethora of descriptions of 'the other' from an ostensibly objective point of view. But where was the handle? I was impelled to look again out of sheer lack of mnemonic power.

Oddly enough I kept running into critics on my second pass through the four spaces. I detected a general nervousness, a slight tinge of incredulity, underlying the cautious remarks that passed between us. John Mays was unusually quiet, bemused by what he might interpret as an explosion, as opposed to a spew. Gary Dault seemed secretly delighted at the downfall of both abstraction and conceptualism in one blow. Jennifer Oille was non-committal, wry as always. I was on my own. Everywhere I went there were art students taking notes, as I was, as if a thousand scribes had been unleashed upon the little art world herein exposed. Whatever happened to Art for Art's Sake?

If Monumenta signals a movement, it is truly retrograde. The exhibition is full of 'good' and 'bad' painting: there is a smattering of 'excellence' but very little style. On closer examination, my first impression, that this was 'cheap' art ( I thought of those heinous 'original oil painting' shows in hotels on the airport strip whose main feature is that the paintings can be had for as low as $29.95) was corrected. The works in Monumenta were not being actively hustled to the unsuspecting art patron. In fact, they didn't seem to be for sale at all.

Did I mention Art for Art's Sake? Most of the work in Monumenta exemplified a sales-oriented approach, in direct opposition to the grant-supported, unsaleable Canadian art that peaked in the Seventies. This was, really, an art market, with the dead chickens hung in plain view.

With a few notable exceptions (General Idea, Stephen Cruise, Robert Bowers) the artists in Monumenta are second generation post-moderns, having nurtured their quirky craft in the context of conceptualism, video and performance art. Variety without diversity.

Try as I might, my analysis of the many elements in Monumenta did not elicit a theme (why should it?) or even a common movement toward some material intention. Superficially the show reflects a trend, that of the re-objectification of the Real; and the most telling thread that connects much of the painting is a kind of blind clash between the Classical and Romantic, the formal and the amorphous at War. Hearts beat, and souls reach out of these simplistic canvasses. It is infectious after awhile, and not a little confusing.

Is this really the bold new movement that it is being touted as? Does the 'John and Gary Show' tell us anything about the amount of attention Monumenta received and continues to receive, not only in the art press, the daily press, on the CBC, etc., but on the wagging tongues of the denizens of Queen Street West, who can smell the blood of potential sales?

Or is it a reactionary retrenchment of artists dead-ended in abstraction and elegant obfuscation, the diminishment of Conceptualism.

The 'event' of Monumenta so many artists, four collaborating galleries -- put together like a John Sayles script for Roger Corman, six days in a Hong Kong Hotel, it's almost like it hadda be done! But then it might have been a mere convenience for galleries that didn't have anything spectacular to open their season with. Then there's the issue of Toronto's Metro Council refusing A Space and Trinity Video their municipal funding. There was nothing really offensive in Monumenta, the hoards of high school and university art students I saw taking notes attested to the accessibility of the show.

Beyond the currently ubiquitous feminist work in Monumenta, there is nothing overtly political; which is not to say risks were not taken. Trying to define the art herein leads to a perception of the monumental task involved in assembling this collectivity. At first it seems profoundly muddled. The galleries at A Space and ChromaZone are essentially closets (one work, a receding truck's rear end complete with real red rear lights, was actually exhibited, to great advantage, in the closet at ChromaZone decidedly not site specific. Gallery 76 is five small rooms and YYZ, the largest single space, is still tiny compared to the more expansive downtown art dealers' galleries.

The gems in Monumenta, and there were actually quite a few, tended to glitter in the smog of representation. Stephen Cruise's wooden box with lights that said 'B O W' (which went off and on the first time I saw it, but was on all the time the second); Jayce Saloum's cut-out sylphs with garish flower arrangements; David Buchan's Family Tree consisting of brilliant colour portraits by George Whiteside of Lamont del Monte's near (and far-out) relations; Andy Fabo's boxers; George Whiteside's 'altered' photographs; Robert Wiens's gently ironic piece about an Indian's failed attempt to acquire his pilot's license, complete with canvas airplane; Elizabeth MacKenzie's semiotic silhouettes; colour and form with a hint of representation in the paintings of Judith Huntress Allsop and Renée Van Halm; the ChromaZone trademark works of Oliver Girling and Ed Radford; Chris Ann Stathacos's wildly applied assemblage/paintings; John McEwen's installation at gallery 76 (the only piece given an entire room, which made it seem almost excessive at first); a stunning portrait by Simon Harwood that seemed out of place in its exactness; and Matthew Harley's meticulous painting of his studio or was it pastels? One of the many bones I had to pick with the curators was the lack of materials identification, because there was such a plethora of different media on display.

There was also something downright democratic about Monumenta. The artists were real participants in a collective statement about the state of current Toronto art. The New Representation is alive and well, if slightly crowded. Monumenta was anti-elitist, open to all, with the pretty and the ugly shoulder to shoulder and nose to nose. Let's hope it wasn't just a flash in the new pantheon.

Vanguard, December, 1982

Text: © Victor Coleman. All rights reserved.

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