The Canadian Art Database

Russell Keziere

Ann Mandlsohn & Basia Irland
Open Space Gallery, Victoria, January 8 - 29

Vanguard, Vol. 8 #2, March 1979.
[ 1,309 words ]

Ann Mandlsohn's art is based on the act of deciphering. In Grounded, a four-part installation at Open Space, Mandlsohn manifests a rather stylistic interpretation of conceptual sculpture traditions.

'Conceptual sculpture' in this instance means that form of sculpture that depends on a basic reference to a concept; this concept remains of prime importance while the visual cues are used to heighten the irony and emphasize the content. The sculptural aspects of the work are effective only insofar as the visual cues are effectively referents and subservient to the concept. The use of puns and visual word-games are a standard means to achieve this end. Bruce Nauman's From Hand to Mouth (1967) for which he cast his body in plaster from his mouth down to his right hand is a good example. While he maintains control of the physical medium, Nauman is obviously playing upon a cerebral order of involvement. What is significant is the fact that the image he employs works in perfect balance with the concept; the irony is taut and the work's obviousness is less offensive and in fact paradoxically effective.

The problem with Mandlsohn's deployment of this device is the ease with which we decipher her puzzles, their lack of integration with the visual expression of the concept, and an obvious dependence on illusiveness as a basic premise. She is neither too patent nor too obscure, with the result that we are left dissatisfied with the minimal level of involvement demanded of us. The art does not live up to its promises and pretensions.

In Female Friend Mapping Mandlsohn takes a map, places it under glass and coats the inside of the glass with white paint. It is completely opaque except for a few small circles where the map is exposed and the names of several cities are visible. One quickly presumes that these are places in which the artist has female friends.

Visually the work is exceedingly simple. If we are, therefore, to assimilate only the conceptual aspects of the work, and that is in fact what we are left with, then the balance between the two must be reassessed. It is the completely arbitrary, ad hoc and autonomous quality of conceptual activity that seems to liberate the artist from the paradoxes of material expression. Mandlsohn's notional output, informing us indirectly of the whereabouts of her friends, is not sufficiently ad hoc to maintain our interest.

In another work, a photograph entitled NNW Migration, a shadow of a figure is seen extending itself in a north-northwest direction over a mapped outline of Canada which is sketched on the surface of a sidewalk. In this photograph Mandlsohn would have us reduce the visual cues into the conceptual matrix — there can be no other reason for the composition and content established in the work. It doesn't take long to decipher NNW Migration. Although obtuseness and illusiveness are not exactly assets, if something is basically simple but relies on the conceptual involvement of the viewer to complement the art activity, then it might be more consistent if it were a bit more difficult. The consequence would be a greater reward.

The Constellation of Andromeda presents similar problems. A series of photographs of a chalked human silhouette are tacked to the wall in a constellation-like semi-circle. Each of the photographs of the figure reveals a number of dots (stars) that have been linked to make the outline. It would be in keeping with the artist's level of humour if she had actually sketched someone named Andromeda in the piece.

The profundity of this statement, however, is easily lost. The title is far too important; the entire piece is a mere working out of a visual pun that lacks the force of logic of, say, something by John Baldessari. Mandlsohn's work is at once too unassuming and too pretentious.

The feeling one gets from this exhibition is that the artist has much more to offer. A greater sculptural control is, for example, expressed in her Wood Translation and Wood Mapping in spite of their titles and underlying conceptual premises.

In Wood Mapping Mandlsohn glues sand to a black fabric and traces the impressions of wood laid into the sand. Again, the notion of 'mapping' is uppermost. But the result is of greater visual interest; we pay more attention to the object at hand than to its process of composition. This is just as well. Wood Translation consists of 21 small bowls made out of wheat, rice, corn flour and glue. They are painted a sky blue so that the final effect is that of a series of stellar chapatis. The artist is more relaxed in this work, less apologetic — it is a direction that needs nurturing.

Basia Irland is preoccupied with a self-constructed contemporary Canadian mythology based on an intermingling of academic and pioneer images. It is a venture that suffers from ill omens at the very outset. In her installation at Open Space Gallery she endorses the juxtaposition of ice, backpacks, sleeping bags, photographs, blackboard erasers, specimen tubes, exam questions and art answers, rocks and branches, and Canadian history.

One work consists of two small framed photographs with a title (written on the photograph) which reads like a high school Canadian History examination question: Trace Fraser's Route Using a Coloured Pen or Pencil. Irland dutifully depicts a blue pencil hanging by a string from an automobile bumper that also bears a sticker with 'A Proud Canadian' printed on it. Underneath this is another photograph with a similar arrangement repeated upside down. The artist has then drawn a blue line from one pencil point to another. One suspects that the lower photo is upside down because it facilitates linking the pencil points in an obvious and graphic way; she would not have to go around the automobile to make the link. This problem of composition is, however, not the only one behind the work. There is simply not enough humour to ground it; the hand-drawn blue line on the photograph does not hold the thing together.

Another line appears in Line Along the Edge to equal disadvantage. A more successful introduction to the academic perception of Canada's environment appears in Frozen Lesson (#1, #2 and #3). The lesson is an undecipherable message frozen in a block of ice, photographed in a suitably snowy setting. But by this time the theme has been well worn. It is worn even more in the three-version work, Tracing Fraser's Route.

In Tracing Fraser's Route #3 the artist affixes a sleeping bag to the wall so that it bends in a right angle at the floor. Several tubes containing what would appear to be specimens of rocks and other organic stuff are placed on the bag while a strip of contact photographs of assorted navels is pinned with garishly coloured pushpins to the upright portion of the sleeping bag. Tracing Fraser's Route #1 and #2 are along the same lines, incorporating backpacks full of blackboard erasers and more specimen tubes.

In the last analysis the collage of images that Irland concocts is in a sense predictable; the navels appear as an afterthought, an attempt to 'deepen' an essentially simple notion with a radical juxtaposition. The erasers and backpacks are obvious and boring and the use of navels and plastic have no bearing whatsoever. The Canadianism is suspect and, in this instance, very much of a red herring. The installation is repetitious and would have benefited from a greater clarity of definition.

Vanguard, Vol. 8 #2, March 1979.

Text: © Russell Keziere. All rights reserved.

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