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Charlotte Townsend-Gault

Actual Size: The Seventh Dalhousie Drawing Exhibition
Dalhousie Art Gallery, Halifax, March 1 - April 8

Vanguard, Vol 13 #4, May 1984.
[ 1,327 words ]


The Dalhousie Drawing Exhibition is now a biennial event, resulting from an open invitation to an artist to act as curator and interpret 'drawing' as he or she will. What has emerged over the years has not been a series of definitions or re-definitions. As Robert Berlind, this year's curator, put it 'we have heard more than enough about re-defining and extending boundaries.' What appears in retrospect to have given the shows their value, and certainly is the case this year, has been the symbiotic relationship between the work of the curator / artists and the work of those they have chosen to join them. From the evidence of the catalogues most of the curators declined to express their criteria for selection in words, and yet it is apparent from the selections that Carol Fraser and Greg Curnoe assumed a conventional definition of drawing and drew, respectively, on Nova Scotia and London to demonstrate it, that for Tim Whiten an immanent one, that for Snow it was line and for Whittome gesture, and that for Bolduc drawing could usefully be seen as incident in Toronto formalist painting.

In a sense Berlind has broken with tradition in presenting a well-argued case for his selection according to a recognized principle — Actual Size. He has broken with it more disappointingly in excluding his own work. The reason he gives is that he has 'not done drawings' that share the impulse toward actual size found in his nocturnal landscapes and which informs the entire exhibition. Such reasoning has not deterred some of his predecessors, nor did it deter Berlind, from including works by Paterson Ewen and John McEwen which are not 'drawings' in any simple sense. Berlind admitted, good-humouredly, that his definition was in a way 'outrageous', so his self-exclusion seems finally a matter of becoming, if inappropriate, modesty.

In locating 'actual size' as a focus for this exhibition Berlind does not claim to have done more than to settle on one of the dominant features of the correspondence between art and its subject in the modern period. One might wonder how helpful such a generalization can be; why not just call the enterprise a group show and leave it at that? The answer lies in the integrity and persuasiveness of Berlind's catalogue essay. It is a rare feat to be able to outline a theory which is convincing enough to be illuminating and, simultaneously, to leave the works untrammeled by theorising. Thus it is that although the closeness of the correspondence between the art object and its subject provides a common denominator for Berlind's selection its main characteristic is that it has none, serving simply to illustrate the very different ways in which works of art can represent, literally, that with which they are dealing. In this way Berlind has located the Seventh firmly within the tradition established by the previous six Dalhousie Drawing Exhibitions — leaving the art, drawings or not, to speak for itself.

In recent, and local, art historical terms this show is of some significance, all of the artists and the curator having had, to a greater or lesser extent, some connection with NSCAD, as faculty (Berlind, Fischl, Jarden, Schor, Tucker), as students (Jarden, MacPhee), or as visiting artist (Ewen and McEwen). It should be intriguing and useful for Halifax to be brought up to date on the work of those who have played leading roles in the progress of that aesthetic which has sometimes also been an ethic.

Richard Jarden's latest work is a natural development of the credo of process as content, within which he has laboured more obsessively and more consistently than most. Given the aridity of this dogma as it was once preached, it is ironical to behold the passion of the process revealed in such sensuously beautiful objects. Here, as acceptable as TV has made them, are the vibrant, un-true colours, flaming peach, aqua, maroon and the rest, the buckling waves and distorting fuzz. All this is achieved through a painstaking technique which involves the colouring and alignments of strips of wax no more that 1/32 of an inch thick. It is as though Jarden has laboured to personalize the TV image, making the remote and indifferent- seeming accessible, as can only be done by one who has, all his life, had 'an intimate relationship with technology.' Strange that a McLuhanesque relationship should produce offspring as knowing and sensuously appealing as those which resulted from similarly loving scrutiny of the details of a dark domestic interior, or the light in the trees along the Seine, in the works of artists far removed in place and time.

The materials-based strategy that long characterized the NSCAD aesthetic persists in the enactment of Eric Fischl's private dramas. These dramas hold the attention because they depend on relationships and not on draughtsmanship: the arrangement of the glassine sheets, interesting in itself, is largely what determines the relationships. The same strategy is apparent in the reference-laden presences of what Mira Schor refers to as 'icons'. They have, like the empty garment on which they are, in part, modelled, all the poignancy of the presence that bespeaks absence, the icon which was once meaningful. These bundles of materials stand as shadowy, subtle witnesses to the poignant inevitability that shadowy, subtle references can only, ever, be partial presences.

The works in this show do not impinge on one another but there is some unavoidable cross-referencing of the kind that occurs between Schor and Medrie MacPhee. The latter has written of the deeply-felt 'absence' experienced in the ceaseless, alienating motion of the urban environment. In these segments of the built environment (in oil on large sheets of paper, the smallest of which measures 182.9 x 134.6) the customary motion of elevators, revolving doors and train stations is stilled and depopulated. An atmosphere of disquiet and uncertainty is established, but only to be interfered with by Macphee's technical uncertainties. Like Fischl's scenarios, one wants them to work; if they are not working then they are failing on an ambitious scale.

John McEwen's two part flame-cut steel work Teko (With Broken Base) sets a standard of assurance, and of actual size, the size of a wolf, in the present company. Actual size is also what distinguishes this wolf, with its deeply engraved life line, from the silhouette, and sometimes X-ray, treatment of animals found in Inuit art. It is an evocation from which this creature, heading into some vast distance, gains considerable resonance.

Far removed from the actual size of a wolf or TV image, and more problematic with relation to the concept, are Paterson Ewen's vital renderings of meteorological and astronomical phenomena. Berlind's argument is that the plywood sheets, the gouging and routing marks on their painted or cemented surfaces, the nails and other bricolage, establish their own self-referential scale. This seems indisputable; but since the scale of the heavens must always be relative to anyone looking from earth, merely a visual approximation, the scale of a work like Ewen's Constellation Piece, or van Gogh's Starry Night, is probably better described as metaphorical rather than actual.

William Tucker's piece presents no problems either as to its status as a drawing or as to its actual size. It is a full scale working drawing, made in 1979, for Tucker's sculpture Rim, which was constructed in 1981, and is thus part of the working habit that he developed while teaching at NSCAD.

It has a persuasive, autonomous presence, if only because of its size, but as the precursor of a three dimensional idea it suffers from the lack of that third dimension, to judge from a photograph of the sculpture. If the idea of the Dalhousie Drawing Exhibition continues to result in shows as interesting as this one then the charges that it has been irresponsible in the matter of defining drawing can probably be overlooked.


Vanguard, Vol 13 #4, May 1984.


Text: © Charlotte Townsend-Gault. All rights reserved.

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