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Victor Coleman

Two Sides: Catherine MacTavish
Evelyn Amis Fine Art, Toronto

C Magazine #10, December 1986
[ 867 words ]

'hysteroproteron — the latter before the earlier, a rhetorical figure depending upon a reversal of sense'
                                  — Origins
, Eric Partridge

Catharine MacTavish's first exhibition in almost two years consisted of one large (15' 9" x 9' 3") two-sided painting, two smaller canvases, and fifty-six ink drawings. Her stated concerns in exhibiting this work were to engage two main 'conscious themes [which] are
Subjective Realism and the Dialectical Reconciliation of Opposites.' Another, more implicit theme, is the imagination (and dream) — & the origins of thought and perception.

Dust In The Air, the two-sided work, was suspended between the window and the wall at Evelyn Amis in such a way as to prevent the viewer from seeing all of the planes in a complex structural landscape. Unfortunate. I can only really guess what the whole picture looks like — there are enough clues and guides — so definition is left to the imagination. Imagine a landscape 'explained' by the Dust In The Air; those particles that float, largely unnoticed, between the viewer & the viewed. Cramped in as I was seeing this work, the dust became palpable, while the scape remained a mystery.

Dust In The Air took two years to paint. A cursory look by a passing patron might elicit notions of action painting — with its splatter of white & its seemingly random red / green eyes; until it becomes evident that the white dots form a definite grid. White dots laid out in a Fibonacci series, which is, mathematically: 1.1. 2. 3. 5. 8.13. 21. 34. etc.

'ratio — the faculty of counting; judgment, reason, method, form and senses (see ration, irrational).'
                                  — Origins
, Eric Partridge


This mathematical series applied to the grid (and the Golden Mean) dictated the massive size of the canvas and provided a complex 'narrative' of proportion. Within this grid Ms MacTavish has fashioned her landscape: the traditional ground, horizon, sky . . . If only we could see it. It will take a much larger gallery space to do the work justice.

The other side of Dust In The Air is a relatively spare 'collage' of figures: falling or floating dancers, sportsmen, and astronauts which hover over a chorus line of enthusiastic magazine icons. When the painted canvas discussed above was 'pulled off the wall' it picked up the detritus of the image-world which is then displayed boldly. The fact that this act was contemporaneous with the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, and the disintegration of its seven astronauts, becomes an ironic comment on the action landscape that it backs.

The other two paintings in the exhibition are similar (to each other) in tone and execution. More like wall hangings, they make specific reference to flesh and their ground colours bear this out. Lifelines #1 is a mottled yellow & light purple ground with a green 'estuary' bisecting the width vertically. Lifelines #3 is all browns, golds, rusts bisected by a green and blue 'estuary'. Here the landscape of flesh, the hand, is abstracted so that only the lifelines are visible, made visible by their rendition as brilliant rivers of colour.

The third element in the show was a series of fifty-six ink drawings on paper called The Roots Go On Forever. These drawings began as quick sketches on typewriter paper, but quickly moved to Arches as the imagery began to signify for the artist. A quote from Arthur Schnabel accompanies the series: 'The process of artistic creation is always the same — from inwardness to lucidity.' Here I think Ms MacTavish is having her way with us as the practice of reconciling opposites.

The narrative in the series traces four months of reflection beginning with a number of self-portraits, which develop formally into landscapes. These landscapes vary in their focus, from the close-up of trees to the long view of a cogent, specific landscape. An abrupt transition from the hair on the artist's head (which is performed with 'slashes or stabs') to the almost abstract drawings with their black tree shadows which suggest blood. The eponymous roots that go on forever suggest consciousness, imagination, and dream — 'in dreams begin responsibilities.' The inclusion of everything in narrative (a concept of Gertrude Stein's) allows the artist to associate through the simple repetition of images, providing a dense visual narrative and allowing for the clear reversal of the natural world. This reversal acknowledges the reality of the roots while positing that they penetrate inward.

The nice thing about Robert Duncan's poetry is that, when you read it, you can hear your hair growing.
                                    — Gerry Gilbert (from memory)


Imagination (and dream) is a kind of objective realism, one where the natural configuration of landscape can conjure up images of stands of trees that throw down shadows of blood. And the sudden wind that bends these trees takes on a nuclear cast. The apocalypse of recognition is total despair. The self is powerless in the face of such destruction but for its ability to imagine, at the moment of disintegration, the kaleidoscope of possibilities in a better world.

C Magazine #10, December 1986

Text: © Victor Coleman. All rights reserved.

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