The Canadian Art Database

Russell Keziere

Ray Arnatt
Helen Pitt Gallery, Vancouver, March 17 - 29

Vanguard, Vol. 9 #4, May 1980
[ 756 words ]

Ray Arnatt, a London-based artist teaching in Vancouver, advocates something which he calls 'Totalism' and, in this exhibition titled The Great Debate, seeks to give concrete examples of his aesthetic manifesto. The predominant element in the exhibition is painting, in spite of certain sculptural references. There are over two dozen half inch thick, two foot square, boards covered in gesso and rabbit skin glue which is variously molded and scraped but which is invariably related to an underlying grid. About half of the paintings are attached to easels, including one work, Manifesto, in which nine biped easels support nine panels. The rest of the works are hung directly on the wall. There is one triptych, Conflux; one four foot square work mounted on an easel, The New Order; and two additional free standing easel works.

The paradox of paintings trying to be sculpture is one which Arnatt can readily accommodate in his theory of totalism. He can also accommodate the seeming polarity between the rational grid, with its historical references to systemic painting and serialist art, and an alternately gestural and post-minimal treatment of surface.

But what can be accommodated in theory is sometimes difficult to accommodate in practice. Arnatt believes that his 'totalism' is the answer to the excesses of modernist and reductivist painting. It is, in effect, a pluralism characteristic of much of postmodern art. The paintings, by virtue of their relief, refer to sculpture and the sculpture, by virtue of its use of easels, refers to painting.

Arnatt believes he is free from the dictates of modernist theory; he is prepared to encourage contradictions because they will spawn a new synthesis. While one is happy for him, it does not necessarily follow that his forms are innovative. The exhibition, in fact, is somewhat conservatively postmodern. It has syncretised and not synthesised its seemingly antithetical styles. One can readily agree that the reductivist insistence on art as a self-contained entity, with its emphasis on self-referentiality, is a difficult pill to swallow; but it is more difficult to see Arnatt's self-proclaimed solution to be an efficacious one.

There is, in short, no alchemical transcendence of the reductivist bind, no sudden sublimation out of the modernist dilemma. Too much is made of past historical trends and the antithetical posturing perpetuates rather than destroys a tautology. The 'great debate' is in fact an unnecessary argument.

This response is borne out by an analysis of the work. The repeated contexts (the two foot squares) and the grid system within the frames, are varied only cosmetically. But it is apparent that they are meant to be principles of individuation. The artist states that the 'structural fields support the gessoed surface' like some form of DNA which can create 'unequivocally unique' identities. Arnatt, however, has not given us a common denominator, he has given us a common numerator; repetition is more obvious than is individuation. The 'structural fields' of the grids and standard format are the end points and not the starting points for the works.

One questions, for example, the repetition of ideas within a series that is itself based on repetition. Process Rewind #2 is a part of the nine panel work Manifesto; Process Rewind #1 is virtually the same idea, on its side, and hung independently. One can almost pass over the repetition, but the nominal variation of putting it on its side begs the question. Similarly, the left panel of the triptych Conflux recycles Primary Sequence, another panel in Manifesto. It is difficult to accept the artist's insistence that these are 'holons', a term used by Koestler to define 'an element which has a recognized identity as a whole as well as a part.' The result is an ambiguous typically random until the eye moves to the upper half of the work where the grid appears underneath the marks, as if to clearly indicate the contradiction of 'chance' and 'order'.

In spite of what the artist's intentions may be, the antithesis of chance and order do not meld in this work into a new synthesis. They meld, instead, into a patterned and nicely graphic treatment of white gesso and a geometric grid. The Great Debate does not offer a coincidentia oppositorum so much as a mere coincidentia.

Vanguard, Vol. 9 #4, May 1980.

Text: © Russell Keziere. All rights reserved.

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