The Canadian Art Database

Jennifer Oille

On various Toronto exhibitions: Elizabeth Willmott, David Barr, Ed Ruscha, Paul Hutner, Tony Urquhart and Greg Curnoe.
January-February 1975

Only Paper Today, Vol. 2 #6, March 1975.
[ 2,648 words ]

The late David Watson mucked up my dialectic because his modernism, part of the linear interpretation of art history, should endure, whereas the dialectical stance, the anti art / objects of Ann Whitlock (AGO), Lewis Alquist (Tbe Electric Gallery) and Chuck Stake (567 Gallery) should not but will.

As god Greenburg decreed, Watson used the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it, but to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence. For some years modernists have been exploring colour. Watson took off from Darby Bannard — geometric shapes within geometric shapes, the form deduced from colours' needs rather than structures' pastel colours equal in value and intensity. But since the precept of modernism is to take no achievement for granted but to isolate and test it and make it a matter of achievement and not assumption, Watson chose to animate colour by seiving flocking over the finished wet surface, carving it to reveal what lay beneath. So he obtained what few attain — the amplification of colour and the preservation of its property flatness, with a paradox. The overallness of the flocking imparted uniformity of surface, the diffuseness and differing densities of the flocking implied depth and this very ambiguity asserted the primacy of flat colour.

Ann Whitlock preceded Watson at the AGO with constructions presenting the process of presenting industrial materials — nylon tire cord, rubber latex, neoprine, polyetheline, pins. But she feels it's ridiculous to be making objects in an object-ridden world. So her work is anti art: art objects that will not last, like the planned obsolescence objects of our society, art objects made of the very substance of those objects. Rubber disintegrates. The National Gallery acquired a rubber latex triptych. Already its amber shade is darkening. Some day it will be black and crumpled on the floor.

Lewis Alquist negates the art object by making aestheticallv and ideologically obscene objects out of technological objects. Technology is functional. Non functional technology, ie. technology as art, is obscene in a technological society. And thus technological art must be obscene because it serves no function — either as art or technology. What are you doing in the basement. Alquist was building a wood and glass box which opens up to reveal all manner of electronic components - a machine that does nothing except open up to reveal its absurdity.

I had to consult Sol Littman, late of the Star, to find out who Don Maybie / Chuck Stake was / is. Don Maybie is / was an artist who made big pictures reminiscent of jig saw puzzle aerial landscapes. Then he got bored with art objects and founded Chuck Stake Enterprizes, a correspondence art company which sends out mailings of black and white texts torn out of context. To quote Littman: 'Basically anti establishment, mocking revered institutions, the correspondence artist reaches his audience without having to apply for permission to speak. No dealer or museum curator stands at the gate deciding who is fit and worthy.'

Watson stopped painting when a gallery owner rejected his work as not tough enough. Move on to the new, and novel, Watson. The 567 Gallery put Stake's mailings into cellophane packages and hung them on the wall. Which makes anti art into art. Once upon a time Yves Klein performed the ultimate denial of product by selling non existent portions of his Monochromes as Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility, the transaction completed upon destruction of payment and receipt of purchase. The Tate created the synthesis and finished the dialectic by framing what wasn't meant to be framed and hanging it; rematerializing the dematerialized in photographs of the sale of the Immaterial Zones. All of which makes mince meat out of the judgment of History — Linear or dialectic.

Take another example, Tissot, peripheral to the Impressionists, peripherally an Impressionist, like them influenced by the Japanese articulation of composition, like them interested in light — but as a factor in the solidity of substance as opposed to the fragmentation of subject. Marianne Friedland shows a series of the etchings and dry points he did in the 1880s and 90s — the comedy, of manners, Le Croquet, Entre les Deux mon Coeur balance; the comedv of morals, L'Ambitieuse, La Mysterieuse, Sans Dot, La Plus Jolie Femme de Paris or how to make it if you're poor but pretty; farce, Le Foyer de la Comèdie Francaise pendant le Seige de Paris. Tissot is in now, as are all French 19th century academics. Why? Because the dilemma of 20th century abstraction has questioned the relevance of Impressionism to 20th century art and has renewed an interest in Realism and its 19th century antecedent, the salon painting. And the audience can understand realism, new and old, whereas it cannot understand abstraction and impressionism. Because the market has escalated Impressionist prices beyond the reach of collector, public or private; because art scholarship has drained Impressionism and potential PhDs need new fields of research; because these scholars rely on slides which don't say anything about the sensual Impressionist experience but tell all you need to know about a salon picture; because art scholars have noted the existence of people and politics and salon paintings are iconographic, whereas Impressionist paintings are not. So back to peddling the periphery.

Shaw Rimmington showed the soft sex of Ken Mayhew, pre- and post-coital penmanship on Persian carpets. Good Times 1 and 2, Toss and Turn. Le Cadré carried Le Foll and never in my life have I seen so many vaginas dressed up in the fauna and flora of an Erté stage design. Owners Bob and Jerry Bader tried to buy into Yorkville but every time they matched the agent's offer he raised the price, that's why they're located way West on King. In the Sunrise is the commercial front for the non commercial work of commercial artists Sam Murata, Wayne Lum and Howard Alstad, responsible for the respective self images of Chivas Regal and Esso, Ontario Hydro and Amtrak, City TV and the Boulanger Restaurants, the Stratford Film Festival and the Bank of Commerce. 'United Airlines proudly presents the Summer of '72', but Sam Murata wants to illustrate childrens' books.

Elizabeth Willmott and David Barr at Marianne Friedland Gallery

The structurist reliefs of Willmott and Barr belong to the non-objective tradition but they do not extend it. This is not to their discredit for the tradition was defined in the 1920s and never have perimeters been so rigidly prescribed. One can only work within what has already been said and done. But neither do they define it — rather they dilute the premises.

The Non Objective World is the Visual parallel of intellectual utopia. It takes many forms, each seeking a universally accessible and comprehensible language, a common functional scheme for a series of realisation processes. It is Malevich and Suprematism: 'The non objective world is proposed as the world of pure intellect against the world of nature and realism.' It concentrates itself into three essentials: the Square, the Cross, and the Circle, infinitely extending into planimetric space. It is Mondrian, de Stijl and Neoplasticism: 'A work can only consist of verticals and horizontals, which will unveil the spirituality in the shortest time and in the most direct way.' It eliminates accident and reduces terms to the crucial minimum, the primaries, red, blue and yellow; the non colours, black, grey and white; the structural matrix, the right angle. It is Constructivism: 'New forms are found in the inventions of our industrial machine age. Mathematical clarity, geometric exactitude, utilitarian organisation, strictest economy and precise construction.' The non objective world dissolves objects into elements of expression and dissolves objectivity as the only pictorial content.

Willmott and Barr three dimensionalize the non objective world in wood reliefs. Verticals and horizontals and diagonals emerge from and recede into a backboard — planimetric space — with precision and economy of construction. But instead of reducing colour to the crucial minimum, they increase them to the superfluous maximum. Mauves and ochres and assorted browns and vivid limes.

And I am reminded that in 1920 Sergei Eisenstein went to Vitebsk and saw the Suprematist brush of Kasimir Malevich on the walls — yellow circles, red squares, green trapeziums in white space. From there he proceeded to the Civil War front and saw again coloured circles and squares, but now the circle had a moustache and beneath it was a text — a political poster.

The revolutionary left and the last grimaces of the aesthetic left. And there is an unbridgeable gap between them. There: Suprematist confetti spread out on the streets of the amazed town, here: geometry as the penetrating call of a purposeful expression.

Ed Ruscha and Paul Hutner at Jared Sable Gallery

Time magazine calls the Los Angeles school limp and indulgent kitsch, Joi Goode's work among the emptiest to travel east of the Rockies, Ruscha's cute. Others call it a dynamic interface between man and milieu, technique and technology. Faceoff mavbe? Los Angeles is new, historyless and it makes historyless art. It is populated by public people, hedonists, eccentrics who advertently or inadvertently live in glass houses. Robert Graham and Anthony Berlant make glass boxes filled with people.

Los Angeles is missile aircraft technology and Hollywood studio technique, ease and expertise and a product to be made. So Bengston and McCracken put technique to work on technology — fibreglass, acrylics, polyester resin, plexiglass. And Los Angeles is landscape, planes, crystalline light or refracting fog and smog, transitions of sky and water. Valentine, Bell and Irwin in play with the light in hovering work, unfixed in space. Goode's colour fields read plane or sky or sea. And the Los Angeles substrata supplies pseudo ceramicists. Ken Price makes cups, geometric and minimal, three dimensional colour juxtapositions. I made the mistake of asking if one could use the cups, put things in them. No. Additions would make them into something else.

Los Angeles is also neon nebulae (Fresca frescoes), food / fruit faddists and backlot boudoirs. Ed Ruscha takes words from the first, extracts from the second and material from the third and gives us Various Cruelties, blueberrv extract on red rayon crêpe; Murder, spinach on paper; Baby Cakes, blueberry extract on moiré; Metal Shavings, egg yolk on satin; Do You Think She Has It, equalized egg yolk on moiré; Powders and Flakes, rhubarb on red moiré; Very True, egg yolk on moiré.

Is Paul Hutner's work tough enough ie. is it sufficiently aggressive on the middle class market. He used to do big pictures which overwhelmed by the square foot. His was a very controlled chaos of colour and shape held together by a soft geometry — round edged. He swooped the colours — Howard Johnson hues — with a paint roller. In between impasto. His shapes, colours and composition implied depth and tension but there was no depth. And there was no tension either — between shape, colour, the canvas and canvas edge. Well he must be tough enough because he's still around with the World Series. But they're little oil pastels on paper so he can't even overwhelm by the square foot.

Tony Urquhart at Nancy Poole's Studio

With reference and thanks to Helen Vastokas and her interpretation of structures with apertures (see artscanada, May 1973) which was partially derived from Eliade, who I had used many years ago to explain garden grottoes constructed in Italy (during the Mannerist period and which were also structures with apertures. And for some time I have been fighting an obsession to compare Urquhart's cosmological boxes to Mannerist grottoes.

Structures with apertures in them signify
1. Temples in which the shaman or seer broke through space time barriers to commune with the spirit world through apertures in wall, ceiling or floor.
2. The Womb, ie. birth or regencration.
3. The grave, ie. death or regeneration.

An artist or architect who creates structures symbolic of life and death, cosmological landscapes, signifies
1. God

And on the 6th day Tony Urquhart created four boxes and on the 7th day he took them to Nancy Poole's Studio.

In Admiration of Bosch — a box of black wood open work and two doors open and as each is opened an organic / inorganic shape is raised / lowered on a pulley. Animate / inanimate, life / death, womb / grave.

Historie de Marville — the door opens and the inside of the door is one swelling embryonic shape, while the interior of the box reveals a wall made of skulls representing the wall in the French town of Marville, in which the skulls of the dead are placed after their lease expires on their graveyard plot (rentable for seven, 14 or an infinite number of years).

Indian Summer — the grains of autumn harvest yield to the seeds of spring planting.

Project for a Monument — the embryo / earth dangles over a plot of flowers suspended from the roof of, lo and behold, a variant of a Mannerist grotto.

Well, after all, the premises are the same — periods of intense disequilibrium (16th Century Europe, 20th Centurv world) in which the artist / shaman sought regeneration in private landscapes, structures fusing life and death, space and time. Of course the grotto at the Villa Medici at Castello, a pumice and mother of pearl rendition of the Oracle at Delphi, could have been simply a stunning set piece. So might be Project for a Monument.

A young Chilean girl also made boxes. One was black and square to represent Allende and his ministers, apparent squares in black neckties. An aperture revealed a mirror reflecting a multicoloured forest, the reflection of the people's will, a red paradise. After the fall of Allende she made concentrated images of clay, feather and shell; portable, to travel with her; to illustrate their socialist character; precarious - hopefully like the present state of Chile.

Greg Curnoe at The Isaacs Gallery

Art has always been objects but the 20th century has made objects into art. Duchamp introduced the readymade, the machine made, the idea of mental selection over manual ability, to question the inherited definitions, the tastefulness, the religious solemnity of art. Pop then attacked (or acculturated) the supermarket / billboard banalities of bourgeois culture.

Others make the everyday into the precious, not by isolation or inscription, not as potshot or parody, but through the polish of perfection. Greg Curnoe's watercolours are like Englishman Clive Barker's bronzes, artistic renditions of personal, particular predilections. Barker had worked at Vauxhall on trim and those big crates of 60,000 gleaming door handles blew his mind. Hence the medium. He likes old fashioned roller skates and the Rolls Royce, the twentieth century chariot with Boadicea on the front. So he put the Rolls Royce lady on Roller Skates. For 80 years we've been buzzin' around in our chariots and 80 percent of the Chariots buzz on Michelin. So the tire man becomes the Charioteer of 1974.

Curnoe wishes we hadn't been buzzing around in our chariots for 80 years so he makes anti pollutant devices: bicycles; pink-purple, orange olive, maroon mauve Mariposa 10 Speeds and CCM Prolite Fliers set in time (done between March 25 and April 25, 1975), set in space (written details of frame specifications, accessories - cranks, pedals, handles, saddles, rear sprockets, and wheels - spokes and nipples, hubs and rims). If Curnoe doesn't like cars he might like Barker's Gasmasks, done when he went home and saw a WWII mask and remembered his wartime childhood. And Curoe's bicycles peddle politics 'Close the 49th Parallel', Fermez le 49 Parallele'. So he might like Barker's War Lord, a skull riding a tank. Because Barker went to Germany and saw a shipment of tanks and he could see how it happened and how it could happen again.

Only Paper Today, Vol. 2 #6, March 1975.

Text: © Jennifer Oille. All rights reserved.

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