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Ihor Holubizky

Wendy Coburn
at YYZ, Toronto

C Magazine #28, Winter 1991
[ 676 words ]


Magazines entered a golden age with the advent and spread of photojournalism. Time and Life claimed broad territories in recording and commenting on the human experience, from achievement, tragedy and horror, to personal drama — with an ever-changing cast of characters including the famous, the infamous and the momentary celebrity. Photographers were sent out as the new explorers to capture these moments and gestures and to 'bring 'em back alive.' Periodicals defined the iconographic images of our times. Images become substitutes for or displace critical written analysis and understanding of the events themselves. More so than with film, this documentary function became largely redundant with the appearance of television and the thirty-minute news digest offered every evening, free of charge and unburdened by the interruption of text.

Publishing has adapted, as have other industries, by catering to specialized audiences and interests. Demographics and target markets service economies of desire, vanity and consumption. It is easy to forget how prolific this industry is, given the regular pronouncements of the death of the print medium. But, one need look no farther than the local convenience store to find a display of this month's offerings. If one were to subscribe to even half of what is available, the local postal carrier would quickly become an adversary.

Wendy Coburn fires directly into the heart of this vortex of lifestyle advocacy, its absurdity and contradictions, in a manner that is self-descriptive but topologically complex. She has indexed her installation, in magazine terms, as a Field (of perception) and Stream (of consciousness). Coburn has constructed six frames which each display, in a five by eight grid, forty magazines. These are not grouped by theme or content, in some archival-museological manner, but according to their predominant cover colour, further emphasized by a corresponding colour for each frame — black, white, grey, red, yellow, blue and pink (some titles appear more than once). The magazine pages have been sealed, so that our only 'reading' is the cover, a reversal of the old saying, 'you can't judge a book by its cover.'

By all accounts, this device alone should be visually numbing, but she has introduced another layer of information by cutting a silhouette of an isolated photographic image through each of these magazines. The back of each frame, a flat black, is visible through the cutout. As a result, the silhouettes resonate between a graphic presence on the surface and a sense of real depth. Clearly, these silhouettes are jumbled and do not correspond to the content of the respective magazines. Coburn has avoided any studied aestheticisation, forced irony or obvious strategy of deliberately pairing images. Rather than creating a formalized unity, Coburn creates a visual phase cancellation of this assemblage of covers, between their inherent passive nature and the assertive function of the silhouettes.

The cutouts also function as a sign of their photographic source and a catalogue of everything from sexual positions and staged photojournalism to expressions of drama, sentiment and humour. We are left to construct individual associations and symbolic meanings. The cutout in the cover of the 'hunkish' Mandate (the title says it all) is that of a father and son fishing, or so we assume. The cover of C magazine has an astronaut, or is it a space cadet? Maclean's has a cutout of a couple engaged in sexual gymnastics.

The exhibition title, Subscribe, has more than one connotation. Do we really consent to these fractured, secret pleasures of personal and intellectual vanity? Are there really that many lifestyles to address? (We ignore most of these glossy 'buy me' covers to consider only those magazines of specific interest to us.)

The obvious question is the possibility of these devices collapsing into a one-liner. Coburn avoids cheap moralizing or holding these publications and their readers up to ridicule. If her attention to detailing is disarming, it is also reassuring in its completeness.

C Magazine #28, Winter 1991

Text: © Ihor Holubizky. All rights reserved.

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