The Canadian Art Database

Gary Michael Dault

Colette Whiten, David Bolduc and Ian Carr-Harris at the Carmen Lamanna Gallery
Cioni Carpi at A Space
William Frampton at Gallery Moos
Reg Holmes and John MacGregor at The Isaacs Gallery
Robert Hedrick at the Jerrold Morris Gallery
James Rosenquist at The Jared Sable Gallery [1975]

artscanada #202 / 203, Winter 1975-76.
[ 4,732 words ]

Colette Whiten at the Carmen Lamanna Gallery

Colette Whiten's latest show at the Carmen Lamanna Gallery was of the first importance — both as a chapter in the development of sculpture in Canada and as a rite of passage for Whiten herself who, with this show, has come up with an elegant and satisfying solution to what, in my estimation, was a particularly knotty problem inherent in all of her work until now. The finished work had always suffered from anti-climax when you compared it to the processes Whiten had gone through in making it and the methods she had been required to use. Structure No 8, of three years ago for example, employed an enormously strong and forbidding jig that looked like a medieval instrument of torture — all bolted wooden beams, hooks and chains. It was used to hold four male volunteers motionless while the artist and her assistants shaved their bodies and covered them in plaster. The result of this harrowing undertaking was an exhibited arrangement of smooth plaster casts of the limbs of her 'victims', spectral reminiscences of them. What was important was the concurrent exhibiting of the great dramatic wooden jig itself. The work fell into an unhappy twoness — a fact of which Whiten has not been unaware.

The new work has a new unity, a new intimacy and, at the same time, despite a reduction in raw theatricality, a new forcefulness.

Evidencing Whiten's fondness for structures that take the measure of man, Brick Wall is a wall made of bricks in which there is a person-shaped passageway. Brick Wall is not designed to hold anybody still. It is not a restraining wall. It does, however, perform a similar metaphorical function: 'People step into it,' says Whiten. 'It then becomes a judge, a standard by which people take stock of themselves physically.' It is to walls what Procrustes' bed was to relaxation. 'What happens here,' says the artist (who has been known upon occasion to be less than perfectly serious about this sort of discussion) 'is that if you're too short for it, you hang by your ears.' The piece works admirably as philosophical shorthand that renders everyone very obviously insubstantial — Virginia Woolf's 'luminous envelopes of flesh.'

Even more important than Brick Wall, however, were three related sculptures, Unit 1, Unit 2 and Unit 3, three full-scale plaster moulds — one of the artist herself and the others of fellow artists Gernot Dick and Stephen Hutchings — each housed in a fibreglass, pod-like 'mummy case', hinged so that an exact hollowed-out reproduction of, say, the back half of Whiten rests in one half of the case while a hollow mould of her front half nestles in the other half. The plastering is done right in the cases so that now there is no separation between jig and final product. The cases together with their moulds constitute the sculptures.

They perform superbly. The hollowed-out Gallery figures, self-portraits in negative space, because of their roundness and the way light falls on them, seem to turn and follow you as you move by them. Even in photographs the figures appear to emerge roundly from their cases towards you, whereas in fact they are hollowed out back into the cases, away from the viewer. They are womb-like moulds for producing bodies (they even recall that the human embryo develops in halves which, if all goes well, join perfectly down the middle of the body); or sarcophagus-like vehicles for housing the end of man. The feeling of claustrophobia it produces in the spectator when one of these cases is closed is extraordinary. There is a strong sense of there being a person-shaped space in there. As Whiten puts it, 'It is a curious feeling making a three-dimensional object out of no substance at all.'

Ultimately these remarkable works posit questions about the nature and mechanism of memory and faith (Kilroy was here, 'each man secure in the shell of himself,' a Berkeleyan tree falls in the forest): when a pod is closed, is there anything inside? Can it be reconstructed in our minds? In fact, once observed, can that person-shaped space, when the pod is closed, ever be forgotten? My feeling is that even the thick textured plasticity of the closed fibreglass cases becomes as thin as air, forever tyrannized by the human nothingness within it.

The show is a superb achievement. It marks the beginning of Colette Whiten's career as a truly important sculptor.

Cioni Carpi at A Space

Cioni Carpi's brilliant show at A Space tends to defy encapsulated discussion. If, on the other hand, one were to subtitle the entire exhibition 'microcosmic bliss', a phrase of Kierkegaard's from his Repetition, An Essay in Experimental Psychology, and then recommend that hair-raising little book as a suggestive gloss on Carpi's work, one might reasonably consider one's task at least fairly underway.

There is too much to say about Carpi. He demands a whole history.

The A Space show consisted of a number of photographic sequences with accompanying prose-poem commentaries. Except that since most of the writing was done in 1963 and the photographs are from last year, it is possible to assume that the photos themselves serve now as commentary and amplification on Carpi's earlier writings. But even that isn't entirely useful. The truth is that Carpi juxtaposed text and image rudely, apparently without the preciousness of planning. Yet each strikes fire from the other. Words and images are, to use two more phrases of Kierkegaard's, 'repeated backwards' and 'recollected forwards'.

Carpi is, in addition to being philosopher, poet, filmmaker, painter and musician, an ex-mime. The photograph sequences are all images of Carpi himself, Carpi as a concept, arrayed in jest; a great humourist / a profound thinker. W. S. Gilbert said it in The Yeomen of the Guard: 'He who'd make his fellow, fellow, fellow creatures wise / must always gild the philosophic pill.' Carpi's experience as a mime has given him magesterial facial and gestural control, such that in each sequence he is — without changing facial expression, his body, its positioning, its clothing, its props — entirely welded into gesture alone. Each sequence is one slow gesture, bound around with what Carpi cheerfully admits are intentionally and explicitly literary and symbolic ideas; packaged in formats so formally satisfying that it takes a while to get beyond them.

One of Carpi's finest works is We Have Created Atypical Systems. In this virtuoso performance, frozen into six photographs and a short text, Carpi begins more or less as himself, dressed in a shirt, jacket, creased trousers, shiny boots, holding a pile of books on his knee, and sitting impassively on a divan. In the second photo he has changed into rumpled pants, a muffler, a sinister little hat (or is it a comic little hat? Are they the same thing to Carpi?), and a nondescript raincoat. The pile of books is smaller. In the third photo there is another coat pulled on over the first, and another hat placed on top of the first one. Only two books in his lap. Fourth photo: yet another hat, another pair of pants on over the previous ones, another muffler (how literal the names of articles of clothing!), and only one book. Fifth photo: an additional huge smothering overcoat, more mufflers. No books. The last photo shows Carpi still gazing out at the spectator, impassive as before, but swathed and drowning in garments. Investitures. He holds a kind of sceptre in his right hand and something that looks a lot like an orb in his left. Sartor Resartus, the tailor retailored.

There are a hundred meanings available. Culture versus power? Power brutalizes, renders its millions unreachable? Acquisition expands to fill the time and space available? Ninety-seven more, at least.

Carpi's printed commentary goes, in part, ' "...nobody will ever be able to help me, nor the world order, nor the systems nor philosophy nor art nor apt truths nor new institutions, just my present, me, here, in this instant, I didn't exist before, I won't after," he has no future nor past, he has no sign, the professor was born under Boötes.'

'Boötes,' Carpi has pointed out, is not a sign of the zodiac. Boötes is 'a little north of the zodiac.' Past reclaiming.

David Bolduc at the Carmen Lamanna Gallery

It so happened that a few days after seeing David Bolduc's new paintings at the Carmen Lamanna Gallery I had occasion to be reading Kakuzo Okakura's The Book of Tea. His sonorous discussion is worth transplanting to a meditation upon Bolduc's new work. Writes Okakura of the tea-room: 'It is all Abode of Fancy inasmuch as it is an ephemeral structure built to house a poetic impulse. It is an Abode of Vacancy inasmuch as it is devoid of ornamentation except for what may be placed in it to satisfy some aesthetic need of the moment. It is an Abode of the Unsymmetrical inasmuch as it is consecrated to the worship of the Imperfect, purposely leaving something unfinished for the play of the imagination to complete.'

Bolduc's latest show has been of enormous importance in the painter's development. During the last eight years he has worked up a wide and enviable reputation as an artist of high intelligence and abundant technical ability. He has always been a fine delicate colourist and the possessor of all exquisite painterly touch. These were qualities that, important as they are, left Bolduc, in my estimation, merely idling his motor and waiting for something to happen. His painting seemed all dressed up with nowhere to go.

Up until 1974 a typical Bolduc work (Homage to Michael Segal, 1973, for example) has consisted pretty largely of the dragging of layer of acrylic down over layer of acrylic until the artist's sensibility somehow told him to stop. The resulting paintings were sheets of modulating colour marked by absorbing outcroppings of under-coating, punctuations of variegated bits of hardened under-colour breaking through the outer and final veils of pulled paint. 'It's one of the things I do well,' Bolduc once told me. And it's true. It was nice stuff, delicious sometimes.

Now, however, those paintings seem like a nearly interminable line of preparatory studies for this year's work. (There was one direct precedent to the new work — a painting from 1972 called Two Poets (Miró and Apollinaire) that presented two differently coloured paint areas on a ground.) This is what happened. The dragged canvases became grounds upon which Bolduc suddenly began to do a little handsome and very deft drawing of a direct fresh kind. One 2 Three, for example, supports, on a superb coppery gunmetal ground, a stiff armature-like vertical stroke of red and, beside it, yellow, with attendant incisings into the paint which allows other colours to show through as well. Below this is another rough vertical, this time a blue-purple. A white oblique shoots out and up from the base of the red-yellow. The rest is ground (if drawing is discourse, then the rest is silence).

The way this coloured drawing performs is remarkable. The enlivening of the entire painting by the presence of these crucial markings is such that it enables the viewer to see the baroque beauty of Bolduc's generous surface, really for the first time. And unexpectedly, the drawing, while it rides obviously and necessarily on top of the shifting and frequently iridescent ground, does not sit unattached and inert upon a painted surface. On the contrary, there is such a formally inventive interrelationship in these new paintings, between Bolduc's blunt drawing and his shimmering grounds, that the normal figure-ground dichotomies are authoritatively transcended into unities. Okakura's 'ephemeral structure built to house a poetic impulse' is an entirely apt wording of their effect. The new paintings are a fine accomplishment. They've been worth the wait.

William Frampton at Gallery Moos

In the late 60s Bill Frampton made large-scale, unadorned and sometimes complexly constructed shaped canvases. They were derived ultimately, I suppose, from Stella — filtered through someone perhaps less apocalyptic, like Neil Williams. Frampton's goal was subtle but comprehensible structure. He was quite good at it. I remember with pleasure a large yellow and white canvas, split down the centre vertical, one half tilted forward. The play of shadow was important and its continual changing was a small but crucial lever by which the large and otherwise cumbersome canvas was rendered buoyant and alive.

These eventually disappeared and so, for a while, did Bill Frampton. (It was about the same time that Karl Beveridge, Jerry Santbergen, Bart Schoales, and a little later, David Bolduc, also packed in the shaped canvas.) Then, around 1972, Frampton re-emerged with a show at Gallery Moos of what I thought of as lightweight, overly pretty tie-dye stainings on raw canvas. They were small in scale and extremely complex in colour. 'I did them,' Frampton says, 'because while I'd learned a good deal about structure, I'd never dealt with the qualities of paint on a canvas surface.' The spare colours of the earlier shaped canvases were rolled on and were of little importance as a factor in the painting's success.

With his show at Moos, there was some sign of an effort on Frampton's part to bring about a synthesis of these two concerns, colour and structure. The new paintings are still the result of the rather runny approximate staining of a usually quite acidic colour — shrill oranges, reds, purples and bright greens predominate — into the surface of small canvases. But added to them, as a kind of guide for the application of colour, is a rudimentary structuring device — horizontal stripings in November Lights, for example, and a triangulation of colour bars in Orange and Purple Triangle. Nevertheless, the works remain, for me, transitional, tentative. It looks to me as if Frampton is not so much synthesizing as covering all the exits. I think he ought to begin to say what he has to say, and as D. H. Lawrence once wrote, 'say it hot.'

Reg Holmes at The Isaacs Gallery

Three of the paintings in Reg Holmes' show at Isaacs were the finest I have seen from Holmes. They were also, happily, his most recent. Titled simply G8, G9 and G10, the new works are monotonal template-like cut-outs, bereft of the artist's usual illusionistic striping.

G10 is basically an altered rectangle. Its sides are vertical. Its top and bottom edges are cut in flanges that bend away symmetrically from the middle vertical in angles that grow increasingly acute. The only reminder here of Holmes's striping is a thin double strip of differently textured paint that follows and amplifies the course of the angling.

The canvases are flatly painted — G10 is black — and, except for the vestigial stripes, entirely devoid of painterly incident. 'You can't fool around out in the centre somewhere,' as Holmes puts it. 'With no seductiveness of surface, you are more easily led to an interest in the picture's linear qualities. With the new pictures, their form is their image. There's nothing to look at but their outside edge.'

Which, while you see what he means, is of course not strictly true. In fact, one of the great pleasures of these new paintings for me is that very 'fooling around in the centre.' The contrast between the flanged, dispersed edges and the dense monolithic central areas sets up a pronounced 'current' that runs through the painting. If you keep your eyes in the centre you have to actively resist a pressure that tries to sweep you up and out of the picture. They are handsomely emblematic one-shot visual experiences. You slide off them every time. They have a noli me tangere iconic unreachability.

Robert Hedrick at the Jerrold Morris Gallery

Robert Hedrick put together a most curious show last fall at the Morris Gallery. Hedrick, who appears to me to be infinitely more gifted as a painter than a sculptor, brought together within one exhibition a number of serene low-threshold colour paintings ('subliminal abstractions' Jerrold Morris calls them) and a clutch of tiny frenzied expressionist bronzes, mostly masks and reclining figures all (forgive the pun) of a Greco-Roman cast.

Nobody wishes to suggest that Hedrick shouldn't go on making sculpture if making sculpture is important to him, as it seems to be. But these weren't very good sculptures. Whereas the paintings, more of the so-called Apollo series, represented a real and mature achievement. It is therefore the paintings I wish to discuss briefly here.

Hedrick's avowed purpose in the paintings is what he describes as an exploration of an admittedly old but nevertheless absorbing problem of 'how to stretch the viewer's faculty for the careful observation and understanding of depicted light,' to find out how it looks in essential, pared-down situations, and how it performs.

Since Hedrick depends heavily upon slow optical adjustment by the viewer to give his works meaning, he requires a simple linear layout and absolute perfection of surface. As a means to this end each painting employs only two colours, or two tones of the same colour. Hedrick doesn't work out the colour chords ahead of time, but he carefully prepares the area of their eventual interaction: the canvas, when its size has been decided upon, is gessoed; then it is given three or four coats of primer, each coat sanded before the next is applied. Finally, the ground colour is applied. The entire canvas is painted with it. To make the completed painting Hedrick carefully lays three vertical rectangles of the second colour over the first. When a painting is finished it thus presents two colours in a complex relationship.

Hedrick's No 1, for example, consists of three apparently greyish bars on a ground that at first looks pink - but which is in reality another grey. The three overlayed bars have enough green in them to bring out the complementary pink in the ground colour. Similarly, No 2 looks white, all white. Inspection and time demonstrate that in fact there is no white here at all but rather, again, two subtly contrasted greys. No 10, the major painting of the show, looks black. Prolonged viewing, however, allows the eye time to adjust to the painting's true colours: a ground with a lot of red in it and overlaid lozenges of what eventually turns out to be a distinctly metallic greenish colour.

The point is that there is a quiet optical forcefulness here. These pictures take their own time and yours, you cannot rush them. 'My paintings,' says Hedrick, 'are harmonic structures. They are ostensibly only two-part paintings — but those two parts split into a vast number of effects.' They are in fact, above all, highly efficient paintings: a lot of energy out for the work put in. And that is maturity in painting.

James Rosenquist at The Jared Sable Gallery

James Rosenquist, one of the high rollers of American Pop Art and environs for 15 years now, is painting as if he had just begun. If the new paintings at Sable were any true indication of the level and energy of his painterly and pictorial inventiveness, Rosenquist, Horseblinders and F-111 notwithstanding, has until recently been engaged in what for him have been merely aesthetic five-finger exercises.

There were two entirely masterful paintings in the Sable show (their first showing anywhere) Tent Star Pale and Hot Vault. Tent Star Pale is huge, deep electric blue, based on a watery painted ground consummately splashed, stained and blotted. In the middle is a bucket with a patch of Zenith Chromacolour TV screen in the bottom. On the left is a triangular American flag, its configuration etched into the paint, its shape outlined with skeins of silk drawn tight, pulled through the canvas and fastened behind it.

On the right is a brilliantly painted and over-painted, wiped and scumbled set of concentric circles. Jared Sable points out that, in the study for the painting, the flag is meticulously painted in red, white and blue, and the superb circular wipes at the right were originally Rosenquist's famous tire treads.

There is more pure painting in Rosenquist's pictures than ever before. For a decade now, Rosenquist's abilities have been used in the service of the depiction of his imagery. Now the opposite is happening. Now imagery is melting down into hot violent gorgeous painting.

John MacGregor at The Isaacs Gallery

John MacGregor is a man in love with painting, obsessed by it. His latest show is his most painterly yet; his favourite images — ladders, chairs, pianos — are here more sorely pressed into purely plastic service than ever before. Where there had always been melding and interpenetration of objects, where chairs got locked into tables and ladders bent to cradle free-floating dressing tables, there is now an unlocking and dispersion of things as they become merely the occasion for MacGregor's rhapsodic performance of expressionistic acts. The familiar Surrealism is a good deal less felt here than it ever was before.

The piano is the controlling image of the show. It's a beautiful choice of object upon which to enact crazy Dionysian themes and variations in drawing and painting; it gives MacGregor the basic linearity and resulting opportunity for blunt chunky draughtsmanship that furniture has always seemed to provide for him; and offers, in addition, the potential punctuation of black and white keys, a built-in patterning which MacGregor puts to virtuoso use.

For me the finest painting of the show is Large Blue Piano. There are piano paintings everywhere — Orange Piano, Large Pink Piano, Duet, Displeased Piano — and they are all good funky tough works (though I think Large Pink Piano fits a bit statically into its picture-space and as a result loses energy). But Large Blue Piano is the top. It's perhaps not the most immediately enjoyable painting in the show. But it surely is the smartest and the most inventive.

Large Blue Piano is a piano that looks like a fist or a flower, all bunched up into one centralized burst of energy, and painted in the coldest blue I have ever seen. It is twisted and gnarled into a knot of gap-toothed piano keys, all radiating helter-skelter from a blue cloud of painted force that is the piano's body. The whole image floats on what, for MacGregor, is a rather sparely painted variegated green-blue sea, over-painted and worked up but still curiously cold and remote. It is maybe an angry picture; I don't know. It looks rather like Fats Waller sounds.

There is one bothersome thing about this show and that is MacGregor's new silkscreens. When MacGregor screens a line drawing and then hand-alters it, it works well. Green Eyes, for example, possesses the energy of the paintings. But when, in a work like Rhapsody in Blue and Yellow, large rough expressionistic patches are screened onto paper, the mechanism of the screening process tightens and negates the picture's activity. The result is bathos and embarrassment. The silk-screens worked well when MacGregor was reproducing more obviously structured images. It's this very problem that Lichtenstein made such brilliant use of when he carefully painted or carefully screened a large Abstract Expressionist brushstroke.

Ian Carr-Harris at the Carmen Lamanna Gallery

One of the main themes of Ian Carr-Harris's recent work is comparison. One of his simplest yet most effective excursions into the activity was Wendy Sage Being Compared with Elizabeth Taylor, a fine little piece from 1973. As you may recall, in this restrained and focused work a real-life photograph of a girl named Wendy Sage was juxtaposed with a photo of the same size of Miss Taylor herself. The business of who resembled whom was thus entirely and economically settled for anyone who saw the piece.

In his show at Carmen Lamanna, Carr-Harris went on with his comparisons, but on a greatly inflated scale, and at a much more theatrical level. The show was complex; out of the five or six major pieces comprising it, I wish to deal briefly here with only two, both from 1974.

The Violin Lesson by Balthus (one of five of Carr-Harris's works chosen for last year's Paris Biennale) is a curious, hermetic, sinister piece. It is also funny, in a chilly way. Carr-Harris constructed a fine 'occasional' table, a mock Louis XVI affair; nice turned legs, glossy black finish, with decorative drawer-like moulding on one side and a 'secret' drawer on the other side (it looks like moulding but turns out to be a drawer that actually opens). On top of the table in a conventional black frame, appearing at first rather like one of those respectable photos of the family that stand on grand pianos, is a black and white reproduction of Balthus' painting The Violin Lesson. It depicts an older woman, the teacher, 'having her way' with (I think that's the phrase they used to use), 'making free' with, her half naked and apparently entranced pupil. In the drawer — it is up to the viewer to discover it — is a grainy 11' x 16' enlargement of a picture from a book of a woman being executed in Imperial China. Carr-Harris describes it as a 'grisly' picture — which it assuredly is. The woman has been tied to a post and, I am sorry to have to report, chopped to pieces. Apparently she is missing her arms and parts of her legs.

When you first happen upon the work the drawer is closed. But you are seduced into opening it: on the table top, in large handsome white Letraset characters, is the message ' "The Violin Lesson' by Balthus, and the relationship between Painting and the Photograph contained in the hidden drawer, now exposed to the judgment of the General Public.' 'The title,' says Carr-Harris, 'links the two pictures. And the pictures proclaim similar attitudes toward inviolability, towards the privacy of the human body.' There are the sets of obvious comparisons: photo (reproduction) with painting (reproduction), sex with violence, and disruption in China with disruption in the music school. And so on.

But consider the carnival, medicine show come-on of the white lettered message. It leads on further into the full sleaziness, the full honesty, the full irony of the comparison process. And the final and most important comparison of all. The message functions as a voice for the artist and suggests that the table, with its drawer full of disquieting information, is a surrogate artist-mind — in a state of poised, child-like closure. It proclaims the artist's ability to make unflinching comparisons and, possibly, even his need to make them.

Carr-Harris's art is extremely private at its core, but ostentatiously public in its methods and in its need for our co-operation. These twin concerns are taken even further in A Thing of Beauty. This piece is made up of a screen of painted wood slats; an elaborately made painted wood projection screen (the legs and stand absurdly bathetic in holding aloft the tiny movie screen); and a 16mm silent movie projector on an equally elaborate painted wood stand. The projector shows a 1½ minute colour film of a still of Margaret Trudeau taken from a photo in Maclean's, and finishes with a couple of seconds of Keats's opening line from Endymion, 'A Thing of Beauty is a joy forever.'

One's first impression is that Mrs. Trudeau is being made fun of. A moment's reflection, however, engulfs you in more fruitful ambiguities, paradoxes, possibilities. 'A Thing of Beauty is a joy forever' is triply ironic when you think about the way this optimistic statement of sensuous perpetuity is left only momentarily on a tiny screen after an extremely short though still boring flickering film image of the evanescent Mrs. Trudeau. 'Our experience,' wrote Walter Pater, 'is a continual vanishing away.' Since all change is a kind of violence, the act of comparison is almost inevitably accompanied with an ubi sunt regretfulness or, more often, with genuine bitterness. A Thing of Beauty is not just studded with ironies. It has as well a galling kind of acerbity. All of Carr-Harris's recent work has. Comparison may not be odious, but it is acerbic.

artscanada #202 / 203, Winter 1975-76.

Text: © Gary Michael Dault. All rights reserved.

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