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Terrence Heath

OverTakingOver (2002)
Recent Works by Colette Whiten and Paul Kipps

Southern Alberta Art Gallery, Lethbridge, 2002
[ 1,929 words ]


This is an exhibition of works by two of Canada's leading sculptors. It is an exhibition about generations, that is, the artists look ahead to the generation of their parents, now passing, and back to the generation of their children, now arriving. As they have to take over from the passing generation and watch the emerging generation beginning to take over from them, they see eerie consistencies and reflections, and, occasionally, tears in the veil of reality that we call everyday life.

Whiten and Kipps are husband and wife. Normally, it is unlikely this dimension of their work would be dwelt upon; each is an individual artist in her and his own right. But in this exhibition, in spite of the dramatically different nature of their works, there is a profound connection, a sort of meditative level of concurrence, that moves the viewer from one to the other and back, each time finding another layer of significance.

Colette Whiten's curtains of beads depict young women, in the largest piece, striding forward, while in the smaller piece they stand together whispering. Their energy and aggressiveness, their sheer immediacy, is set against their hidden lives, secretly, silently, perhaps even shyly, concealed. The pieces presented in this exhibition are the most recent in a series, in which the artist has dealt with both personal and public issues. They are remarkable in their construction and in the aesthetics of their viewing. Basing the works on photographs, Whiten has strung black, white and grey beads on weighted monofilaments to construct larger-than-life images. With thousands of hand-strung beads she has wedded the arduous, low-tech handwork to the instant, high-tech images that flit pass our vision every day. As the beads move and reflect light, they give substance to the world of ephemeral pixels we have come to accept as reflections of reality. But do the curtains give substance to the reality of the younger generation striding toward us, whispering their secrets? They seem to. They are tangible, immediate, but the images are aggressive and exclusory. The young women stride toward you; the young women whisper their secrets. And, always, you are the outsider, excluded. You go behind the curtains to see the other side, to see them from the back, to see if you can approach them from another angle. But the images are of course the same; they will always be the same. They have to be dealt with as they are depicted, as they are, in both their aggressivity and their exclusiveness.

Whiten's remarkable sculpture has been prominent in the Canadian art world for three decades now. Since the cast molds of 'crucified' men in the early 1970s, some of which can be seen in the permanent galleries of the National Gallery of Canada, she has produced series after series of powerful images. While other visual artists have flirted with French theory and postmodern prescriptions, Whiten has worked from a strong base of handwork and commitment to the materials of her artmaking.

In the mid 1980s she produced a series of works in which she re-presented, in needlepoint, photographic images of world events — the meeting of powerful world leaders who held the lives of millions of people in their hands, the anguished faces of women mourning the death of sons and husbands. She laboriously recreated the newspaper images with black, gray and white threads on a large white cloth. The images occupy only a small square in the middle of the cloth, as if everything, headlines, words, columns, has been wiped away in order to focus on these particular events, these pictures of power and vulnerability. She not only halts the stream of images that rushes by us everyday, images that report to us events that should forever be burned into our memory, but she also gives the images back their materiality, their presence in the real world. The loops of needlepoint take on something of the electronic pixels of the photographic images. She calls a halt to the incessant flow, forcing us to pay attention to them. She invests them with the labour of the real world, gives them an immediacy and domesticity that brings them back to our own physical experience of the world. In this exhibition, each piece of cloth was draped over a steel lectern-like structure and illuminated by a single, bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. The delicacy of the needlepoint contrasted with the steel and naked light bulb, just as the domesticity of the needlepoint contrasts with the images of world events.

There is a visual relationship between Whiten's works in OverTakingOver and the earlier needlepoint pieces. Once more, she has re-presented photographic images in their black, gray and white tones. This time, however, they are recreated many times the size of the originals and are constructed as bead 'curtains,' or 'tapestries'. By stringing thousands of black, white and gray beads on monofilaments, each filament weighted at the bottom, Whiten has recreated the images in the beaded curtain which are not only material recreations of the photographic shadows but also hanging dividers, separating and defining the spaces in the gallery or room. In effect, she has eliminated our relationship to the walls of the gallery, which would normally 'hold' the two-dimensional works and has established freestanding 'walls' in which the images are contained. The striding young women come out of their own space and there is no other space behind them as they stride forward just as surely from the other side of the curtain. Similarly, the whispering figures are enclosed in a space that is at once their own and unapproachable, no matter how it is viewed. She seems to be saying that although we think we have innumerable ties to a younger generation, we and they are, in a profound sense, isolated, encapsulated in the thin spaces of our own experience, our own time.

Paul Kipps's strange garden of sound brings fragments of a mother's telephone calls to her son as she struggles with her dementia. Sixteen wooden cones, like the horns on early phonographs, sit about the room with no discernible order or placement. In each cone a microphone is connected to a tuner that sends fragments of the mother's telephone calls randomly to each cone. As we walk amongst the pieces, the voice comes first from this cone and then from another. As the mother begs for help and tries to explain her situation to her son, her disorientation and confusion become our's, and the unreality she describes and the repetitiveness of her words enmesh us in the long perspectives of her love, longing and the fear of abandonment.

Much of Kipps's work has had to do with disjunctures. Not the disjunctures of the political or economic world — war, depression, famine — but the disjunctures in the immediate world of relationships, family interactions, and the social settings we move in. He makes us aware of the small fissures in the apparently seamless, abstract language of our daily intercourse, the signals of underlying disaffections and approaching ruptures. A recent exhibition, for example, consisted of five foot by three foot sculptures in the shape of photo frames, the kind of display units one associates with the 1940s and 50s — the size of a snapshot, standing on a table by means of a prop that folds out from the frame, usually holding photos of children, family gatherings and graduation pictures. Unlike the oversized sculptures of Oldenburg, which are basically celebratory of common objects of everyday life, Kipps's oversized, empty photo frames suggest loss: there is no photograph encased in the frame and the form itself is nostalgic of an earlier time when the family home and its memorabilia were central in his/our lives. The disjuncture in size is also a disjuncture of age and change.

About ten years ago Kipps began experimenting in the use of natural materials — rocks, reflecting pools, tree branches — in his work. He cut and polished rocks and then inscribed texts, sometimes backwards, onto them, so that they could be read right way around only in the pool of water in which they were reflected. These visual disjunctures led to his investigating the use of sound in his work. One piece, entitled 'Rock Garden' was shown in both Canada and Europe. It is a large room-sized installation work consisting of a number of rocks that have been cut and polished, with a hole drilled into each for a microphone. As in his piece in OverTakingOver, the microphones are attached to a tuner that randomly sends out fragments of speech to the rocks. As we walk amongst them the voice of a woman is heard close by and then farther away. The fragments of what she is saying are unconnected except by the fact that each one suggests the beginning of an argument, a statement of displeasure, an impending tenseness in a conversation. Kipps presents only the fragment that signals the approaching unpleasant exchange. The argument, an expression of displeasure, the tense conversation never materializes. There is something in the stability of the rocks that suggests that the fragments are not as fleeting as the random messages suggest. They seem to be witness to disjunctures in every relationship, to the unavoidable fact that conflict is a part of being human.

In OverTakingOver, the disjuncture is the gulf that lies between generations. Close as we may think we are to our parents, they are separated from us by profoundly different experiences and different hopes and dreams. At many stages of our lives we may be able to discount or minimalize this disjuncture of generations, but as a parent moves into that final part of his or her life, the disjuncture becomes increasingly the very reality of the relationship. In his installation Kipps recreates the experience of what it means to experience a mother's separation not only from her son's world but from her own everyday world of order and sequence. This is a garden of loss, but also a garden that encourages the acceptance of the disjunctures of our lives as a part of birth, growth and final decay.

The silence of Whiten's curtains and the fragmented voice of Kipps's scattered cones of sound are worlds, literally generations, apart, but each re-enforces the other, touching the things we hold closest — love, family, companionship, belonging, caring. Although the work of each artist is in itself integral and complete, together they demand a linkage, a connection. The linkage is us. We are not only visitors to the exhibition but become, upon entrance, a necessary part of the exhibition itself. As viewers/auditors, we are an integral part of the exhibition of the work. We link the young women, striding toward us or whispering what we are not meant to hear, to the confused pleadings of the older woman, calling interminably to her son for help and support. We look back and see the younger generation taking over what we thought was ours and we look ahead and see that we must take over the care of the generation of our parents as they struggle with what we can only imagine. But more than that there is, in seeing the younger generation assuming control, an onrush of memories and, perhaps, regrets, a reviewing and assessing of our own lives. And there is, in hearing the older generation asking for help, a frisson of our own mortality, an opportunity to recognize and, perhaps, celebrate the now of our lives. Without there is an unbridgeable gap between the overtaking and the taking over.

Text: © Terrence Heath. All rights reserved.

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