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Robert Fones

When Form Becomes Content:
Remarks on three works by Greg Curnoe

M5V #1, 1991 [Impulse, Vol. 16 #2].
[ 1,371 words ]


Mummy is an artist's pigment made from 'GROUND UP MUMMIES' as Greg Curnoe informs us in a work entitled Before Marks. When mummies were being unearthed in Egypt in the nineteenth century, the asphaltum used as the embalming agent was found to produce an excellent, deep-brown pigment. Mummy was generally available until early in this century when its grisly source became known. Kurt Wehlte, in The Materials and Techniques of Painting, describes seeing '. . . thick arteries and hollow bones . . .' in the sample of Mummy he obtained from a German pigment manufacturer.

While many artists' materials have been derived from animals — rabbit skin glue, sable brushes, vellum, sheep intestines for paint 'tubes', etc. — the use of human bodies in art is exceptional and unnerving. If an ancient Egyptian can literally become part of a painting, then what kind of content — physical and metaphysical — is embedded in other materials used by artists? In three rubber-stamped works completed in the spring of 1987, Greg Curnoe poses this and similar questions about the nature of content in his own work. Where does form end and content begin? In what sense does the artist become part of the content of the art he or she produces?

Before Marks, Organic Pigments, (Origins & Applications), and Ingredients, all have artist's materials as their subject matter. These three works introduce most of the ideas developed in the other works included in the Wynick / Tuck exhibition. The rubber-stamp letters used to make these works, resurrected from Curnoe's work of the 1960s, have a close affinity with printing type. In both cases black ink is applied to reversed type and an impression made on paper. As a result, these texts convey literary content more effectively than Curnoe's painted letter works.

Before Marks is a list of twelve pigment names, aligned flush-left on painted paper. The title evidently refers to the completion of the work before blue paint marks were splashed across the surface. The width of the paper has been determined by the width of the first colour name, Bremen Blue, so that subsequent names are either cut off by or fall short of this Procrustean boundary. This formal device raises the question of how many letters could be severed before the name itself would be lost. It is one of many formal devices used by Curnoe to question the manner in which content is embedded in form. The shortness of the word, 'Mummy,' which is included in this list, draws attention to it, as well as to the written notation that extends into the empty space beside it: 'GROUND UP MUMMIES.' Seven pigments in the list have similar notations highlighting their main ingredient or personal association for Curnoe. The macabre image of the living dead conjured up by Mummy is echoed again in the notation written over Bremen Blue, 'NOSFERATU DISEMBARKS.'

Bremen is the main setting used by E. W. Murnaau for his 1922 silent film, Nosferatu. The ship carrying Nosferatu carries physical content — Nosferatu and his dirt-filled coffins, as well as metaphysical content — vampirism and the Plague. Nosferatu and Bremen Blue are both poisonous. As well, Nosferatu disembarks without being seen by any of the residents of Bremen, an event paralleled by the unwitnessed spattering of blue marks across the surface of Before Marks and commemorated in its title. Curnoe reminds us that the city of Bremen and his own artwork both have a real existence in time, separate from their function as 'settings' for literary or artistic content.

The origin of pigments is examined again in Organic Pigments, (Origins & Applications). Curnoe cites two 'pigments' — urine and excrement — which are, like Mummy, derived from the human body. He gives two examples of applications of excrement and lists urine (its use revealed by the slightly smeared ink of the stamped letters) as one of the ingredients used in this work. The common link between children drawing with their shit, an Irishman painting his cell with it and a cow 'LEFT WITHOUT WATER TO THE POINT OF TORTURE' is that each case represents a moral wrong. Indeed, the production of Indian Yellow ceased in 1921 because of objections to the suffering of the animals that produced the urine used in its manufacture.

The idea of pigment that is physically and morally offensive obviously intrigues Curnoe, whose textural and figurative content has occasionally provoked outrage and censorship. The offensive content in this work can be seen as physical (the smell of shit and urine), moral (the application of shit to the walls of a cell, the torture of an animal) and aesthetic (Curnoe's text.) Just as Duchamp did with his urinal in the 1917 Society of Independent Artists exhibition, Curnoe presents artistically questionable substances and morally provocative acts as aesthetic subject matter. By citing examples of activities that mimic the art-making process, Curnoe encourages us to question the nature of that process and what constitutes content in the finished product.

The nature of content is also questioned in Ingredients. In this work Curnoe presents a list of the materials and tools used in its fabrication and, at the end of the list, asks rhetorically, 'IS THIS CONTENT?' The content of Ingredients is not the set of materials alone; another artist might have made a very different work of art with the same selection of materials. Within the conventional definition of content, the content is the list itself and the question Curnoe asks at the end of the list, not the tools used to make this work of art. The list implies a series of actions that has resulted in the work of art — a process that can be reconstructed to a certain extent through the list of materials. The bottom left hand corner of the paper for example, shows a fourteen-inch section cut by pinking shears, which are included in the list. This same feature appears on a number of other works indicating that it was part of Curnoe's general procedure. The notation about a 'dropped N' in Organic Pigments, (Origins & Applications), reveals that this work was stamped in a horizontal position, unlike Curnoe's View of Victoria Hospital, First Series No. 1-6, which were stamped in a vertical position. The procedural context of Ingredients is not spelled out as the materials are; it must be extrapolated from the list and the evidence revealed through the work itself.

Curnoe has framed some of the works in the Wynick/Tuck exhibition with used plastic which occasionally bears faint, incised lines of letters apparently cut for other signs by the company who sold Curnoe the plastic. Is this content? Since Curnoe deliberately chose to use this used material, it must be considered as part of the work. Curnoe's repeated references to what happens in his work — the notation about a dropped 'N' in Organic Pigments, (Origins & Applications), the blue paint marks in Before Marks, the implied process of fabrication in Ingredients, even random scratches on the re-cycled plastic — underlies his conception of the completed artwork as a visible record of many unseen actions. In this sense, Curnoe's work has a great deal in common with film, which presents an edited construction of events excerpted from an imagined time continuum.

Curnoe's affinity with film directors, particularly those who work in the film noir genre (several of whom are included in A List of Directors & Dubs, another work from the spring of 1987) is revealed by the rhetorical question that appears at the end of a text in two works in the exhibition. While Curnoe has questioned the viewer in previous work ('ARE YOU READING OR JUST LOOKING?' View of Victoria Hospital, First Series: No. 2, (August 1968 - January 1969), in these recent works the question has an element of uncertainty and seems directed at himself as much as the viewer. When he states 'MY EARS ARE RINGING. CONCEAL? REVEAL?' he seems to acknowledge that what is presented as content is the result of a subjective screening process that rejects as much as it selects.


M5V #1, 1991 [Impulse, Vol. 16 #2].

Text: © Robert Fones. All rights reserved.

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