The Canadian Art Database

Michael Greenwood

Soto, Thépot, Calleja, & Hayden (1972)
[François Thépot, Jesus Rafael Soto, Joseph Calleja, and Michael Hayden]

artscanada #169/170/171, early autumn 1972
[ 2,326 words ]

When the major achievements of twentieth century art are finally assessed, the 'kinetic' revolution — so closely linked to the later machine, and early electronic age, as well as to the new cosmological horizons revealed by science — will, surely, be counted among the most important, the most historically relevant of all. This is the age in which the 'art object' has at last escaped from the physical immobility to which for centuries it was bound, and has come to share with us a place in the pulsating continuum of time and space that all life inhabits.

As history became ripe for the event, Cézanne replaced Albertian by relativistic perspective, but it is historically absurd to underestimate the importance of the Renaissance breakthrough as a liberating achievement. Com'e dolce, questa bella prospettiva!, expresses the heartfelt joy of an artist standing on the threshold of a new world, a world in which the symbolic, transcendental infinities of medieval art and the so-called 'integrity' of the picture plane are readily exchanged for an exhilarating new scientific power over the third dimension. The factor of 'illusion' per se is unimportant and overstressed in contemporary aesthetics. It is, after all, only an instrument, serving either vital or trivial ends. The vital ends were, at their purest, the creation of tangible spatial relations within a finite, physical universe. For Poussin, for example, the formal unity of the cosmos was revealed in the harmonious spatial concord of its parts. But to us those parts appear to be locked into the absolute immutability of their relationships, and it was Cézanne's mission to fuse both the parts and their relationships into one homogenous organism within which, as in solid state circuitry, there is a continuous spread of spatio-temporal activity. With the discovery by the Cubists and Futurists of the essentially kinetic interactions taking place within the confines of the 'object' itself, the inner dynamics of the latter are finally released, and the previously stable basis of structure is absorbed into the now fluid interplay of spatio-temporal relation-ships.

The next step as taken by the first kinetic artists following in the wake of Constructivism consists of extracting the simplest geometric elements of form and setting them in relational movement — either virtual or apparent — by mechanical, 'natural,' or illusional means. The early examples are elementary autonomous structures which in their movements reveal the dynamic nature of space / time itself. The systems thus created present fairly simple analogues of natural law, but with the development of more sophisticated means they become also more complex and subtle in their conceptual scope, allowing for a large degree of personal and expressive interpretation. Though both employ kinetic means, there is obviously a vast philosophic gulf between, for ex-ample, the subtle humor and pessimistic irony of Jean Tinguely's quasi-anthropomor-phic 'machines,' with their scatterbrain clumsiness and Chaplinesque pathos, squeak-ing and grinding towards inevitable disaster; and Nicolas Schoffer's confident, refined technological affirmations of faith in man's continuing progress towards mastery over both his natural environment and his own anarchic impulses.

The four artists under consideration occupy positions on a line joining these e-treme polarities, though grouped generally to the rational side of centre. Of the four, only François Thépot employs no virtual movement; but at the same time it is clear that concern for the harmonious interaction of structural and spatial relations is basic to his purpose. The latent kinesis in his work may be construed as a spiritual dimension, an interior energy generated by emotion submissive to the discipline of meditation. There is, indeed, a Pascalian quality in the paintings, a ruthless severity of self-examination that allows of no escape, no indulgences. Intensity of emotion is translated into a rarefied geometry of space that is all the more moving for being so absolutely rigorous in its honesty, and so totally imune from the widespread corruption of fashionable notions and meaningless facility that now more than ever pose a threat to the morale of art.

Thépot has no doubt had his quota of the alienation and nausée that afflicts this century, but his personal odyssey through the 'heart of darkness' has left no unheal-able wounds but rather a quiet and patient resolve to find illumination within the solid tradition of humanism. His idealism is tempered by a sense of the concrete, and conversely, the lucid structures by which his thought is defined reflect a wisdom unencumbered by willful aesthetic categories. Darkness itself acquires a serene and luminous radiance in his work, and light the dazzling purity of a vision only given to one who has walked in the shadows. However, so much serious virtue would be intimidating if it comprised the whole picture. But there is another, unseen presence in Thépot's work: one is always aware of the sensuous douceur and gentle tranquility of those compact, fertile meadows that have lain for centuries shielded and tended behind the grim, rocky fortress of the Finis-terre headlands, and of the ancient Celtic people — his people — who still live there with their history and their stubborn faith.  (1)

Jesus Rafael Soto also takes idealist geometry as a point of departure, but with his Latin vivacity and cheerful disdain of portentous systems bends it, literally and metaphorically, to his will. For Soto, the constructive process cannot be confined within the terms of 'concrete' art, since the element he works with is, as he puts it, 'a secondary factor which I use to communicate my idea of relations.' Those 'relations' do not exclude illusory or even ironic elements. His works, though extremely serious, are less for silent contemplation than for our active participation in the experience of space and time which they encapsulate. Movement, then, is a question of fluid rela-tions rather than simply one of objects that move within a pre-ordained and regulated scheme. Although the device of optical illusion is employed for its kinetic effect, it is not intended to produce a vertiginous and therefore emotionally disturbing impact upon the viewer, but to create structural transformations and to reveal the relational movement and interpenetration of volumes in space. Such a combination of formal logic and perceptual ambiguity contains the dialectic of that experience of form which aestheticians have termed 'plasticity,' and which is one factor at least that significant works of visual art appear to have in com-mon. 'Plasticity' infers a state of continuing, and therefore involves the dimension of time. Soto devises a theatre of multiple relations: those kinetic energies inherent in the object itself; those actuated by the viewer's relation to the object, or voluntarily set in motion by him in touching the suspended elements; and, finally, the interrelation in time of all these factors in combination. Soto's perceptual ironies involve first the object's fragmentation and absorption into circumambient space, then its 'reconstruction' in a continuous process of fluctuation from stability to motion and vice versa. The artist may not expect more of his objects than to intimate the music of time and space, but he has nonetheless made sure that their perceptual subtleties are combined with an innate structural integrity and superb refinement of proportion.

Joseph Calleja, a kinetic sculptor working in Toronto, has devoted the past few years to a thorough exploration of the kinds of movement and spatial energies that can be generated by the axial rotation of linear elements in a variety of mutual relationships. The basic operative principle is classically simple, but the possible rhythmic and dynamic variations are endless: from the balanced counterpoint produced by the con-trary movement of apparently ascending and descending spirals to the more complex arabesques produced by the interaction of two or more vertical elements rotating at slightly different speeds. Calleja's pieces are elegant, formal structures, scrupulously precise in craftsmanship; the kind of objet d'art that it is currently modish to decry — urbane, civilized objects, eminently suitable to enhance the pleasures of domestic life. Their lyricism, though intense, is Mozartian in its restraint; far from the homespun, bucolic kind of naturalism now in critical favor, which, for all its ecological piety and neo-Bergsonian folklore cannot be plugged in to the nearest hydro outlet. Nevertheless, Calleja derives his elements from organic forms and well understands the intimate relation between nature and mathematics: 'The first idea I had was from a tendril of a plant, and I took it and developed it until it ended up as these elongated spirals.' The correspondence that exists between the volute of a snail's shell and the develo-mental relations of the Golden Section is at the heart of Calleja's concerns. Nature is translated into the formal analogues of mathematical movement but at the same time is restored to the environment through the spatial dimensions given by the reflection of light from concave polished surfaces, and by the simultaneous interaction of form, light and space in the viewers' perceptual responses. Polished steel elements in motion become the rippling waves that move across a windblown cornfield, the curling leap of a flame in sunlight, the rhythmic interchange of movement in a pas de deux. This sense of transparency, of the envelopment and interpenetration of form and space Calleja shares with the Constructivist tradition, together with its concern for the expression of nature's constructive principles in terms of contemporary materials and technology. Calleja's work, intelligent, sensitive, compact and lucid, upholds the best aspects of a tradition that is still vital and developing.

The notion of art as process is as old as romanticism but currently subject to a great deal of intensive and often exasperating intellectual scrutiny. The potential danger here is that one aspect of reality may be given disproportionate emphasis at the ex-pense of the sum total and regarded as co-prising the whole of reality. This is, of course, characteristic of a culture that loses sight of positive goals and surrenders itself fatalistically to a passive acceptance of intel-lectual and creative fragmentation, with ever-increasing withdrawal from the com-mon realities and values of existence.

Michael Hayden has always ensured that the conceptual element in his work would be fully assimilated to its functional purpose, even when the latter's raison d'etre is dependent upon third party participation. A recent taped interview between the artist and Joe Bodolai of the Electric Gallery makes this clear. Referring to an earlier work Head Machine (Coll: The National Gallery of Canada), Hayden says, 'My interest wasn't so much in making environ-mental art, but making sculpture or art that would respond to, and because of, people being there.' In other words, unlike the Baroque artist, he is not attempting to influence people emotionally, but simply to engage their intelligence and sensitivity to the functional aspects of his work, i.e., the interplay of form and space, etc., just as Soto does in his Penetrables, by compelling their physical participation. The interaction of the work and the participant generates an experience of physical pleasure and interest that may yield a heightened awareness of reality. This is the natural and fruitful response of one kind of organism to another, and, taken for what it is, a simple and uncomplicated experience.

In his recent work Self-Portrait: Homage to Colonel Sanders, Hayden seems to extend the participatory experience beyond the physical to the conceptual. It involves the identification of the viewer with the artist as an image or icon within the context of existing technology. Hayden performs a hand trick on the roof of the Toronto Do-minion Centre, witnessed via a simultaneous tripartite projection of slides, film and video TV, a schoolyard trick with which his u-seen audience (which could run to millions) can easily identify and attempt to emulate. The icon (Hayden's identification image = Colonel Sanders) is suprapersonal; and in the process of identification with it, so Hayden argues, we, the participants, recognize and affirm our contemporary presence in time and space by means of the 'mirror image' of our culture — its electronic tech-nology. Hayden underlines this point by reference to our video experience of the moon landings:

'All we were doing is verifying who we are and where we are. It wasn't just those few astronauts, it was all of us human beings. This is where we have come; this is what we have done. This is us, there. This is us reflecting back on ourselves. This is our song — you know, like a bird . . . .'

Clearly Hayden is enunciating a fundamental and familiar historical truism. Every society has identified itself by such means, but the process has hitherto remained tacit, unquestioned. The world-picture of a culture is determined by its technology, defined by its iconography. This is agreed. But now, it seems, we require a simple, even trite, fact to be made explicit, to become a selfconscious didactic function of the art work. Why is it that the most commonplace assumptions have to be examined, explored and explained, ad nauseam? Is it because Hayden suspects, on the evidence, that modern western man is supinely acquiescent in his own exploitation by the mass media; that he is becoming culturally and morally bankrupt; that his gods, made in his own image, have shrunk to the paltry dimensions of a smirking, paunchy character with a white beard (a suburban St Nicholas) and an offering of mass-produced pap? A depressing facet of western man's commercialized decadence is seen in the mirror of a technology that also, paradoxically, allows us to 'conquer the stars.'

Fortunately, the artist's wit, intelligence and imagination hold the concept in the steady focus of reality, and redeem it, but only just, from the intellectual pretentiousness and tediousness that makes so much conceptual art a bore.

artscanada #169/170/171, early autumn 1972

Text: © Michael Greenwood. All rights reserved.

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