The Canadian Art Database

Peggy Gale

John Massey
Art Gallery of Hamilton, February 12 - April 24, 1994

from the catalogue
[ 4,072 words ]

Introduction by Ihor Holubizky, Curator of Contemporary Art

This exhibition bridges John Massey's work from its beginnings in the mid-1970s to the present. It is not, as might be expected, a conventional survey but a means to establish a position and explore some of the artist's concerns. Four pieces were selected because of their significance in revealing these concerns (but not to suggest that other work made in the intervals is any less important or to assume that a summary can be made through an inventory of objects).

Each of these works has a unique history. The untitled 1978 installation is shown publicly for the first time. As the Hammer Strikes (A Partial Illustration) was originally produced for the OKanada exhibition at Berlin's Akademie der Künste in 1982. The following year it was shown at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts but, although it has been in the collection of the National Gallery since 1986, it has not been seen since, mainly due to the somewhat complicated technology of the original 16-mm film installation. The work was reformatted this year for laser videodisc technology. Black and White, first exhibited in the inaugural show at the Power Plant in 1987, was reworked and rebuilt for the travelling exhibition. Passages de l'image, organized by the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. It is shown in Canada for the first time in its reconstituted state — in effect, a re-introduction. Finally, the 22 Jack Photographs that Massey has so far completed are included. The first six photographs from this series-in-progress were exhibited at the Olga Korper Gallery in 1992.

The role of galleries, to bring the unseen and unknown to the public eye — making them 'concrete,' as Peggy Gale evokes in the title of her essay — is always a given. As important, however, is the need to provide an assessment (the maintenance of an artwork's intellectual properties). This is especially true in the case of John Massey. In spite of his substantial exhibition history and strong critical acclaim, this is his first solo exhibition in a public gallery and the first publication dedicated to his work.

There is much more to Massey's history than the works in this exhibition. However, bringing together three rarely seen pieces with his current and continuing project provides an opportunity for reflection — a hyphen — an overture for what is to come.

* * *

Peggy Gale

To Put into Visible or Concrete Form

As he put it so succinctly in As the Hammer Strikes when asked what kind of
art he does, 'I'm interested in how my mind works.'

As he also mentioned in that context though, 'It's quite hard to explain.' John Massey pursues self-knowledge through a generation and investigation of resonant forms and images, a result of continuing reflection. His who am I? is a moral question for it also implies how?, why? and to what effect?

A generalized desire marks all of his work, a sense of yearning that is sensual and intellectual, physical and spiritual. But this desire is always masked and often conflicted. Essentially it is a search for further knowledge of both self and other. An intellectual eroticism.

I think that desire is a function of an identity in pursuit of communion of some kind. It's the initial circumstance of looking at a thing, to want to internalize that thing, to know it through internalizing. It's looking to be a part of something, it's looking to be a part of what you're looking at . . . For me to look at a thing and somehow see it in terms of what it is, is a kind of direct perception of form. (1)

John Massey is a private person for all that his work seeks out his innermost self, his anxiety, motivation and response. He is aware of the potential for neurosis and deflection. Working is a form of asking and works a form of answer.
To an important extent Massey has looked to the past — his past — and to its remains in the present as shreds of memory.

Consider the early work. The Embodiment, 1976, in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada, pairs a metal bed with blanket and pillow, all reduced slightly in scale, with a second, sculpted form — an oversize child's bed with tall, lobed corner posts, fashioned of aromatic beeswax. Or is it a child's bed alongside an adult one? The changes in scale create ambiguity. The play of light on those modelled surfaces and the constant smell of wax warmed in the heat lamp and other lights instantly suggest a dreaming, waiting state, a musing or remembering for the viewer. Space and volume become an equivalent for the physical body — of the artist, of the viewer.

The presumption that I've always made in relation to my work is that I'm investigating my own body. In a sense the model works ask the viewer to cohabit my body. (2)

A Directed View (The First Two Rooms), 1979, first exhibited at Mercer Union in Toronto, is the best-known early installation work. In the second room thick perlite plasters the wall where an oval of light from the nearby follow-spot falls. Light captured and held. In the first room an outsize fedora hangs poised before a wall-size rear-projection image of a stairwell with a fancy iron grille; bright spotlights cast their stark opposing shadows of the hat on the gallery floor and wall. Again, the effect on the viewer is immediate though still mysterious. This is not an image of (the hat of) a father or a reference to the past, exactly. But one has a sense of recollection and reverie at work — a reference to something (or someone) important but not there. There is an air of expectancy. Though the silence is unbroken an invitation of a certain sort seems to remain.

I see the hat as an object of desire . . . I wish it to remain as one . . . This is the condition of its being.(3)

A Directed View (The Third Room): Some Other Union, 1980, specifies these sensations. The work is a perfect small model of Massey's own studio where at that time he had been living and working for seven years. There is a full-size speaker installed in a side wall of the model and accompanying audio playback that is activated by a viewer's approach; it was first exhibited in Hier et Apres at Montreal's Museum of Fine Arts and at the 'Biennale des Jeunes' in Paris.

Even without knowing the identity or provenance of the space represented, the precision of detail, the choice of scale and the nature and volume of the audio component combine to striking effect. The experience of seeing this work is physical, a eureka reaction coming directly from the artist's concentration of energy and intention there. This representation is another embodiment, an evocation of perception and emotion in concrete form. As Massey put it in a letter of 1985,

There was a recognition that the scale model felt like a conceptual interior that was equivalent to or could be employed to create a sense of interior spiritual or body space. Whatever passed through these interiors would be similar to the passage or registration of imagery through or in the body. Suddenly I had a very clear vehicle. If I characterized the model space I could create a sense of a body changing. I could create a sense of history by projecting consecutive images. I was truly excited by the discovery that I could modulate space and that the looking into the models felt like experiencing the conditions of my own interior. Here was the possibility for a truly metaphysical theatre. (4)

or elsewhere, earlier,

I made the model primarily for a film which I have been working on for about one year. Initially I wanted to create a way of looking through a camera which was more equivalent with how the eye sees. In other words, any view through a camera is a partial view. Now, when I stand in front of the model, I can see more than if I were in the actual space. Perhaps this is a peculiar function of all models. Aside from the distance they create between you and what they seek to represent, good models seem to project a reality of their own. (5)

Room 202 (A Model for Johnny), 1980, made for P.S.I in New York, is another meticulous scale-model, this time of the schoolroom where it was installed. Johnny in this case may be seen as all the schoolboys who have filed through that ragged classroom and also, perhaps, the John Massey who has remade the space for its visitors, its art-tourists, now.

Above all there was a desire to investigate what constituted being in space. (6)

Fee Fie Foe Fumm, 1981, in the collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario, is a representation through scale-models of the four corners of a massive exhibition hall in the museum, each corner constructed in a different scale and sub-titled with one word from the refrain of the threatening giant in the classic fairytales Jack and the Beanstalk and Jack the Giant Killer. John Massey, of course, is another Jack and the artist-as-model-human or self-as-Everyman are reasonable subtexts. The model corners re-present their own environments of the moment but with slides overlaid, projections of lips or graduated colour changes and soundtracks referring to other lives elsewhere: a world of pornographic film, of machinery, of tap-dancing, of lists and history. This giant gallery space has become a microcosm, a set of open references that remains a zone of concentration — and perhaps danger: a danger undisclosed but brought to mind by the giant of the installation's title. See the space you stand in. See yourself more clearly in your world.

Fee Fie Foe Fumm offers screens of memory and information-through-clues. They are almost a form of Freudian slip that attempt to break through the evidence of outward appearance to find an inner essence, a route to conscious understanding.

The House That Jack Built, published in 1981 in an exhibition catalogue (with Fee Fie Foe Fumm, as part of Hurlbut Martin Massey Singleton at the Art Gallery of Ontario); republished in 1982 as a separate slim book; and finally exhibited in 1992 as a suite of photographs, presents another Jack and another rhyme. Photographs telling the story of Jack and 'the maiden, all forlorn, that milked the cow with the crumpled horn' are projected onto screens and windows in the studio model ( The Third Room above), the 'house' in which this Jack then lived.

All of these works reference childhood, a private world of senses and memories, early unvoiced (possibly not understood) inklings and perceptions. In the way that fairytales and nursery rhymes refigure information for and from an adult consciousness, these works give a set of rules or circumstances as grand metaphor from Massey's interior life.

I think one of the undercurrents of everything I've done is this sense of simply trying to look at things, of wanting to look at things in the clearest possible way. Often between me and what I want to look at there seem to be innumerable screens; these screens often embody a sense of my own myopia, of not being able to see at all. The appearance of a thing becomes a screen and in order to establish any kind of real relationship with that thing the appearance has to be broken down or internalized or destroyed. The appearance has to be actualized. In some sense this does have sexual overtones, but I don't really think of it this way other than in terms of attractions and repulsions. For me to be looking at a thing in its most absolute sense implies a desire to embody that thing. This means internalizing it completely. (7)

I wrote in 1981 that Massey's model works were 'directive statements, evocations of perceptual states' (8) that were whole environments but without direct access. Some kept viewers outside the space literally; others rendered one self-conscious and fenced-in while within the space by the sheer force or presence of the whole. One remained a spectator, though an exquisitely self-aware and conscious one, invited to share the artist's perceptions and sensations.

Fee Fie Foe Fumm marked an end of sorts; Massey's focus shifted from the sculptural (and architectural) to the photographic. After Body and Soul, 1983, which combined a model with a series of photographs, Massey photographed models for works (such as Twilight's Last Gleaming and From the Dawn's Early Light Until Twilight's Last Gleaming, both 1988) but never again exhibited the models themselves. Body and Soul was followed by a number of silkscreen prints and lithographs and two series of framed, over-folding photographs (1983/86), further playing on self-portraiture and historical motifs. The linking work is the three-screen film project, As the Hammer Strikes, already being planned in 1979.

As the Hammer Strikes, in its original incarnation (for the OKanada exhibition at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin, 1982), was three synchronized 16mm films projected onto free-standing screens in a gallery interior. For the first time in Massey's work the viewer became audience rather than participant, held well back from the work both physically and psychologically. While the exhibition context remained a museum gallery, the precision and clarity of the sculptural works and the literary and historical allusions of the photo, text and audio pieces were put aside. In their place a home-movie ambience was established by the central faded-colour film with its single long take.

A driver (Massey) picks up a hitchhiker on the road from Owen Sound to Toronto and they talk about their work, about striptease and about a popular television program, That's Incredible. The hitchhiker seems a friendly sort though his intelligence appears to be limited and a speech impediment makes him difficult to follow. The film was grainy, the soundtrack muffled, the viewer left to stand rather awkwardly in the gallery space for the 30-minute duration of the piece. At any moment breakdown seemed imminent — through failure of equipment (the three noisy machines on their stands in the gallery, aimed at the semicircle of screens, looked so vulnerable) — or a rupture of communication between driver and passenger on-screen. There was always the easy option of moving on to the rest of the exhibition, abandoning the clumsy conversation as inconclusive. The two black-and-white films flanking the central screen were more obviously constructed, acting as alternate point-of-view and as commentary on the two characters' dialogue. But overall the viewer's sensation of precision, concentration, inferiority and personal revelation, which underlay the earlier work, seemed to have vanished.

In actual fact, there was nothing arbitrary about the construction of As the Hammer Strikes.

Massey had been working for some time on film-related ideas and had also become interested in found dialogue. What actually constitutes real conversation and a normal exchange of ideas? He had been carrying a tape recorder around for sampling and researching possibilities when a lucky combination presented itself in the person of this talkative fellow picked up on the road who was interested in some of the things Massey had himself been pursuing at the time. The natural beginning and end of the conversation, determined by the duration of the man's ride in the van between Flesherton and Orangeville, was a further bit of good fortune. Here was the perfect found dialogue. But now he needed an image.

He began by transcribing the 30-minute audiotape: no easy matter, given the garbled speech of the rider and the noise of the moving vehicle. Then he met Tony Sloane, a recent film graduate from York University, who agreed to play the part of the hitchhiker. Learning the dialogue with its clumsy stammers was not simple but Massey and Sloane were eventually able to record the whole exchange in a sound studio, producing a high-quality soundtrack on magnetic tape. Then the two men worked on location without a camera, driving back and forth on the right stretch of Highway 10 practising lip-synching techniques to match their movements and actions with the taped dialogue. Next in order was the filming via single-take fixed camera for the central screen and then came the second-camera collection of alternate viewpoints of the speakers and passing scenery along with additional footage relevant to people and places mentioned in the dialogue. Then the assembly of images into three synchronized films and the agonizing business of the film projectors with their tendency to slide out of synch and to break down over long-term play. The work was shown at OKanada for two months as planned in 1982-83 and later at the Museum of Fine Arts in Montreal.

Ten years later, in May/June 1993, the 16mm film was transferred to videotape, then to laser videodisc. The effect on the work is interesting. Instead of the somehow murky sound and image of the film — so appropriate to the dialogue and the bland passing landscape — and the veiled, distanced sense of events, the new format has sharpened and made immediate the information aspect of the piece. The viewer seems to take up a position inside the van's cab, no longer at arm's length. With the change of scale and the physical qualities of video, attention is more focused and the commentary of the two side-images assumes the character of an amused sequence of whispered asides, as though there were yet another companion in the cab. The clearer sound and the new precision of computer-controlled synchronized playback lend a quiet confidence to the presentation while the more intimate television screens renew a viewer's sense of participation in unfolding events. As an illustration of a normal, chance conversation — but one amplified by different points of view and annotated memory flashes — As the Hammer Strikes speaks to an unconscious known that normally passes us right by. Its highly orchestrated construction is invisible to the viewer. Noting language and the business of (unclear, difficult) communication, holding them up for scrutiny, makes simple human perception and interaction a remarkable, novel fact. As the Hammer Strikes is a Joycean Odyssey in miniature, a forging of the self in relation to other people (the hammer, the tempering).

A somewhat related interest in everyday media and popular concerns and conceptions underlies Black and White, a slide/sound installation piece that followed in 1987. Physically, the work comprises an authentic (8 1/2 x 11 inch) peep-show shutter that opens when a button is pressed to reveal a free-standing, white vacuum-formed mask-like face, 22 inches high — an accurate (though simplified) portrait of Massey himself. The face, however, is ambiguous as is its location in space relative to both viewer and sliding shutter. Insubstantial as a hologram, it hovers, seeming life size. But one is uncertain even whether the mask is concave or convex. The slides, projected from behind (some fitting the features, some not) add to this confusion. One is already unsettled, then, as the programme starts. The opening of the shutter initiates a 12-minute audiotape and programmed slide-dissolve sequence; as a male voice recounts the part played (and manner of death) for one of eight characters in the movie Platoon, black-and-white slides are projected through the plastic face as a changing play of personality, light and shadow, jungle foliage. Black and White was first exhibited at the Power Plant (Toronto) in 1987, then was reworked for Passages de l'image at Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, 1990, and toured internationally in 1991 and 1992.

As is customary in current war movies the stories of life and death are both violent and banal, with these usual types falling rather short of suggesting an Everyman under scrutiny. Even in Vietnam, apparently, events are humdrum — though deadly. Right and wrong are as simple as black and white.

In one sense this is Massey's attempt to get inside the mind of today's soldier; at the same time, it's a depiction of a particularly modern form of pornography: the ubiquity and obscenity of murder and death. While striptease (an important subject in As the Hammer Strikes) is pleasurable and life-affirming, war neither supports nor uplifts; death is the constant resolution in Black and White. With the shifting projections of monochrome slides the face seems to change its shape and expression, its history and personality. One cannot avoid noticing, however, that it is Massey's uninflected voice that recounts these vicious stories and that each image is projected onto Massey's face. Does he see himself as just another character in life's absurd theatre? Just another pornographer? As each character's death is reached, and before the peep-show shutter closes, the mask receives its original, familiar, 'natural' slide portrait of the artist, projected correctly on himself; the death of each of the eight characters coincides with Massey's reappearance, his resumption of centrality or subjecthood and the lowering of the blind or shutter. At the same time it is the viewer who must press the button again to activate the programme and raise the shutter; out of duty or curiosity (s)he must take action to find out what happens next. The viewer becomes accomplice in a violent, circular, pointless and remorseless story.

With The Jack Photographs we are once again sneaking a look at private events, actions and responses. The Jack Photographs suggest psychology and physiology, a poor little Pinocchio that is also a draughtsman's model, a figure from an old-fashioned drawing class. In this case the Jack model bears (bares) an enormous erection and a single staring eye that views the world in seeming alarm. The first six photographs of the series were exhibited at the Olga Korper Gallery (Toronto) in 1992; the progression continues, with 22 completed by spring 1993.

With Jack we return to the body, a literal and visible body that reiterates, in effect, Massey's earlier admission of its centrality. This body is unclothed, generic, but with Massey's own cyclopean and all-seeing eye. The folding-frame photos of 1986 had used portions of Massey's anatomy (a hand, a bare chest, a profile, a mouth and chin) that, though charged by the simplicity of close-up and the stark lighting, were somehow modest, reserved. They used the artist's available body but had the air of evidence or demonstration. The Jack Photographs, on the other hand, imply a certain prurience. The peep show of Black and White is literalized in a new way.

We see a naked, wooden, one-eyed Jack as he wakes, stands, is startled, feels, looks, touches, glances, looks ahead. This Jack suggests a puppet, a penis, a single finger (crooked or extended), an isolated consciousness, an epitome of anxiety and raw physical desire. As we watch him, he stares out (or in) at us. He exists in an undifferentiated blackness, his smooth, polished woodgrain warm and inviting touch. His eye remains vulnerable, an oasis of human flesh. The boundary between us is ambivalent; the round hole of the circular mat enclosing the image could as easily imply body orifice as keyhole; either way the metaphor is sexual and either way one of us is outside, one inside.

As Massey has reiterated, all of his work is about the subjective state. These images are, in effect, self-portraits made simultaneously from inside and outside himself and his situation. He is the subject studying the subject, assessing the nature of being. He seeks to understand the nature of the self, the constructing subject, the perceiver. Bluntly, perhaps, what is touching (feeling), perceiving?

John Massey has applied a literal and logical analysis to an amorphous, intuitive state, working step by step; The Jack Photographs are one record of his research. Similarly, they offer a parallel to each of the works discussed herein: the present exhibition's untitled work, the models, As the Hammer Strikes, Black and White. Untitled, 1978, is the earliest piece included here; simplicity itself, it comprises two theatrical spotlights set 50 feet apart, their trajectory of illumination reiterated by a wall surface built up with plaster. Its apparent abstraction is more properly understood as a materialization of light itself, a physicalization or enactment of a state both perceptual and spiritual.

Massey is as clear and literal as possible.

So with Jack. So with Black and White and As the Hammer Strikes. He has hit the nail on the head, sighted narrowly along the bead, lined up the cross-hairs.

He is being as direct and clear as he knows.

from the catalogue John Massey

Text: © Peggy Gale. All rights reserved.

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