The Canadian Art Database

William Wood

Robert McNealy: Peripheral Drift
S. L. Simpson Gallery, Toronto, March 2 - March 30
John McEwen:
The Ydessa Gallery, Toronto, March 23 - April 20

C Magazine #6, Summer 1985.
[ 2,002 words ]

John McEwen and Robert McNealy pursue re-placements in these installations, constructing and placing objects in patterns that operate around geographical figures. Yet it is a peculiar geography they use, one which involves less of a sense of a distinct locale than a pursuit of the 'no-place' that is, literally, Utopia. McEwen's Palestine is one type of no-place, an artificially bordered domain, named by imperialists, maintained by nomads, claimed and reclaimed by waves of succeeding territorialists. McNealy's 'place' is also named in the title, as Peripheral Drift includes the spatial notion of periphery in a construction that readily accepts the narrowly geographical concept of continental drift. In terms of representation the Utopian nature of these zones puts them nearly beyond the pale. The 'Palestine' is an uncentred region without fixed points, known by foreign attributions, media tabulation and conflicting claims. The periphery is also uncentred, unbalanced, as it defines the edge so that the centre can assume coherent form. To enforce the notion of proper substitution which representation entails is virtually impossible in the light of such amorphous spatial coordinates.

Yet in rhetorical terms, the no-place is the perfect subject for installation. The entire mode is based in the act of siting which decentres the space the work occupies in the gallery. The installation breaks the decorum of the gallery, and many of the ideological conditions of artistic production (flaunting the multiple form, stressing the temporary nature of the work, refusing to be singular illusion or solitary statuary). Installation recommends itself as a process that dismantles the commodification of art objects and presents in its stead a valuation unfettered by objective concerns. It is a virtuoso turn, forgoing the masterpiece and the tradition of beaux-arts, heading towards the no-place that is made of conceptual strategies and collected items. It is the Utopia of the individual subject that is portrayed in the installation, the claim of the artist to precedence in the securing of an enduring, fraught position in the world. There is languor as well, in the discontinuous appearance of the artifacts presented, in the acknowledgement of the intrusion of the gallery box into the fabricated work. But this merely replicates the constraints of body and instrument found in the virtuoso performance, the constraints that create its tension and its allegorical presence as a battleground for the will.

Given this sub-text, the effectiveness of these installations is almost exclusively a function of the tension developed between the artists' self-presentation and the allegorical tendencies of their work. McEwen divides his Palestine into two parts, exhibiting scenes of a brazenly mythical quality. Palestine I is a site of epic wounding: a stag lies dying with a finely-wrought arrow in its side, watched by two of McEwen's kennel of German shepherds. All of the figures are flame-cut from steel slabs, the dogs being fleshed out by the inclusion of drawings incised on their flat sides. The drawings add an academic touch, being copies of schematic cave drawings of the catch, the inner organs of the dog, and the outline of a simple shed. The artist is here presented in his trademark figures, with strong ambivalent tendencies in the alternately violent and surveilling attitude they possess. Their presence is both domestic and ironic, because their waiting and watching is remote and rather comforting at once. In allegorical terms the ensemble works as a ponderous metaphor revealing an incomprehensible, continual suffering amid a gracious witnessing. It is a simple concept, presented in a thorough manner — even the corrosion of the steel and the figures' rough look contributes an elegiac note. The burning, the incising, the pathos of the stag's eye, each element speaks of violence in a removed and elegant manner, much like the body counts and editorials of the reporting media. This is no-place as pure Weltschmerz, as a hallowed ground of ritual killing that meets our deathly needs. That the killing is so clean — as the deer slayer must have it — and the witnessing so nonchalant, is a sign of what might be called an injured sense of piety.

The injury comes from the reduction required to mimic myth and achieve the exaggerated, 'meditative' appeal of the figures. The heat of true violence and the complicit paralysis of the witness is only hinted at, discounted in the name of scenic purity and resolved appearance. Such obsequious clarity continues in Palestine II where witnessing is addressed through another qualified triad. There is a clay head on the floor facing an electronic sign and a rake propped up against the wall. The sign flashes the title 'Palestine' in red letters, altering word frequency, letter size and travelling time across the display screen through a computerized sequence. In front of the sign is a pile of clay dust, raked by fingertips and pocked by dried drops. The tines of the rake are coated in clay deposits, the solidification being a crusting akin to the accumulations of effects in the repeated tide, suggesting endless repetition. The head itself is a semblance of McEwen, by way of an Orientalist appraisal of Assyrian figures, portrayed as the eternal spectator of a repetition as blithely incomprehensible as the wounding in Palestine I. After the myth of wounding comes the myth of the witness, caught in fascination by the bloody letters, immobile in the face of the 'timeless' spectacle. This is the position of the subject in modernity, alienated by both the action witnessed and fascinated by its representation. If the first piece was achingly pious, this one is ghastly and sentimental. The hoary concepts of the dried tears, of the Palestinian as a sandy fanner and the fixed head — there is a derision of involvement and a reified sensitivity at work in all this. But the stakes are higher; the production is too neatly presented for saving grace to be found in McEwen's withdrawal into myth. There is much to be offended at, in the reduction of suffering to a metaphorical package, in the adoption of a mythical role that tries to resolve dubious interests through quazi-primitive meanings. This installation is quietist, and represents a way of being politically no-place, by assuming the politically indentured forms of myth.

McNealy works in a different way, perhaps most notable in his avoidance of the scenic approach. His figures do not relate as frozen actors or as metaphors for agents with standing in the world. Rather their presence is qualified by an emphasized institutional staging. Peripheral Drift uses a number of devices to foreground this staging procedure. Walls are employed for drawing, for hanging canvas, for leaning objects against, and this usage produces an illusionistic interference pattern in the gallery. Surveying the periphery, a frieze of males stare out in a gestural wall drawing. This frieze projects an arc of vision gazing out of an invisible centre, an arc occluded at its furthest penetration by a painting hung over the figures. Framing the canvas are four objects; to the left is a cone, and a series of three models are off to the right. Against the opposing wall are corresponding models on a larger scale, related conceptually and formally to the smaller series. The plaster cone is matched by a flattened cone drawn on the wall; a classically derived roof is expanded into a wooden shed / arcade structure; a stone arrow is met by an esoteric wheel; a carved tree from the Lebanese flag is paired to a totemic warhead formed round a pentagonal void. Relations of form, direction and historical determination are cited in these objects — the classic giving way to the industrial, the directional sign of the arrow to a vehicle, a national symbol to an icon of its violent history. Also, an overlaying series of arcs are intimated, proceeding from the projected gaze of the radiating frieze. No dramatic site is privileged in this arrangement, no place offered as an authorized topos. McNealy chooses to work on the no-place as a space cleared by the metonymic displacement of objects in a collection, as an allegory for the subjective displacing of the modern subject, for its ungrounding and uncoordinated consciousness of being pushed to the edge drifting in illusion.

This sense of drift is apparent in the painting. It is a washed-out rendition of a detail from a sculpted relief on the doors of the Milan cathedral showing an epiphany scene from the life of Christ. However, unlike most appropriated religious imagery, this quotation is consciously anachronistic. The relief itself is of late standing, produced from academic models at the turn of the twentieth century as a mimicry of Renaissance versions. It is already adrift in the placelessness of historicism and McNealy further reduces its fetish quality by replacing the slim space of the relief with the illusory space of painting. And, just as the Epiphany is an allegory of the revelation of the immanent God, so Peripheral Drift is an investigation of the immanence of the fetish-process in collecting and structuring, in the peripheral nature of the symbolic in relation to the real.

The disjointed relations posed in this work, between the relief and its rendering, between the flat wall drawing and its projected arc of vision, between the differentially scaled objects opposed, each plays on the metonymy which is the fetish's process for veiling a primary lack. This process is summarized by Freud: is not a substitute for any chance penis, but for a particular and quite special penis that had been extremely important in early childhood but had later been lost...To put it more plainly: the fetish is a substitute for the woman's (the mother's) penis that the little boy once believed in — and for reasons familiar to us — does not want to give up.

— Sigmund Freud, 'Fetishism', in On Sexuality (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977): 352.

The relief-painting showing the Virgin uncovering the Christ-child presents the paradigm of mother and child encountering the primary difference, and, as such, recounts the cultural veiling of symbolic lack This is the process which produces objects and subjects in a zone which is peripheral to the real and perpetually, utopically ungrounded. The fetish becomes the ground which re-places the lack and which becomes the centre of patriarchal culture.

Even with this programmatic content, McNealy's installation draws strength from the consistency of play inherent in the portrayal of displacement and veiling. The rendering and construction of the components link the subjective investments complicit in artistic practice with the overall veiling of patriarchal culture. As artifacts the objects recall the historical investments of that culture in its ideal representations. The geometry of the cone is an ideal solid brought into corrupt material; the models of buildings, instruments and signs extend into their realization in urbanity, industrialism and culture. The decline of these institutions is visited as well, for McNealy stands away from the post-industrial to bring up the anachronistic, ruinous and conservative quality of the collection. The selection has the appearance of being cast away, out-of-date; relics dispersed into a temporary grouping which will not consolidate their significance into metaphor or narrative. Whatever elements of fetishism are inherent in installation activity, the displacement does not disguise the involvement, and it is not converted into symbolic, mythological utterance. This is where these two installations differ most completely, for where McEwen's melancholy regard leaves off is where McNealy's males begin their gazing beyond the mythic region of the central speaking role. It is a difference of specifying the location of the subject in history and in artistic production — one places these aspects outside looking in, while the other demonstrates a complicity and an awareness of the active nature of any positioning.

C Magazine #6, Summer 1985.


John McEwen
Letter to the Editor
And William Wood's Response
C Magazine #8, Winter 1985.

Dear Editor,

It was with some pleasure that I began to read William Wood's review of my work in the latest issue of C Magazine (#6, Summer 1985). It was interesting to see a critic attempt to develop a thesis arising out of a work of mine, much more interesting to read a discussion of strategy, than, for example, the knee-jerk blustering of Toronto Star critic Christopher Hume attempting to be controversial.

However as Wood's language became more insulting, with specific facts fabricated, and the overall picture more slanted, I began to suspect that it was not the heart beat of an ideologue that was causing Wood's vigorous walk through the landscape of my work, but rather something more ordinary, the invidious comparison, that is the manipulation of the house writer writing about house art.

Such was the projection of Wood's poetic license that common red L.E.D.s, (the same red light emitting diodes found on the T.T.C. subway platforms), became 'bloody letters', rather than an analogy for the ephemerality of language under the duress of sophistry and rhetoric; similarly an ordinary rake became an artifact of 'the Palestinian as a sandy farmer', rather than the ordinary garden rake of the viewer, my own rake, the rake of the Israeli settler in the upper Galilee or the rake of the Palestinian employed on the concrete box high rises on the West Bank — the ones — built for the clean air and the view.

Through Wood's eyes, components and materials were mysteriously transformed, sand became clay dust, cement became clay deposits. Where he saw dried tears is a mystery to me, for there are none. Tears, however, are a neat way to lead in to adjectives like 'ghastly' and 'sentimental' before one introduces one's own value judgment. Yet it is not the value judgment that offends me but the double standard involved, the preference for the 'programmatic' over the 'academic' all the while offering a slanted reading of the one over a careful reading of the other. Since it is hardly possible, given our brief correspondence, that Wood was burdened by my intent, the only possible reason for the blatant misreading seems to be for the purpose of this invidious comparison.

It is this kind of comparison that affirms for me my preference for my own 'wounded piety', my 'indentured forms', my attempt to come to terms with my work and its uses in the world, in short, my experience over theory bent by opportunism and disguised as discourse.

I should add that the summary experience of my trip to Israel was the recognition of the extreme difficulty of representing anything but oneself under the complexity of those discouraging circumstances.

Yours sincerely, John McEwen
Hillsdale, Ontario

William Wood responds:

If I had words enough and time, it would be instructive to analyse Mr. McEwen's vision of me as the sordid intriguer of a rival 'house' devoted to besmirch his righteous labour. I am struck above all by his self-representation as a pure soul afflicted by ideologues and opportunists, given to the belief that his work is incomparable and explicable only in relation to his experience. Unfortunately, the link between experience and art needs to be presented in the work to be worth mentioning, and McEwen in no way presented a travelogue of West Bank settlements. Unfortunately, as well, his bitter tone and condescending language shows him to be as blustering and slanted as any one of us miscreant knaves.

Fortunately, there is time to respond to a few points:

— With due respect I apologize for misconstruing certain materials in the installation. As there was no labelling to indicate materials, I took a guess based on the composition of the clay head, and assumed a unity that was absent. As for those bloody letters, I suggest that anyone who reads TTC signs or reads about the Middle East will surmise that not only is blood recorded in the ephemeralities of language, but that is repetition is more than rhetorical in substance. I credited McEwen with too much — I assumed he cared to deal with the blood spilled and the passions involved. By explicitly relating his piece to a concrete historical situation, McEwen engages the problems of representation beyond his own experience, and his refusal of this responsibility is far more opportunistic than the commentary on his installation. I do not know if it is an issue of McEwen's inability to grasp the problematics of representing real history as if it were myth, or a case of a sculptor with no vision of the world beyond the touristic slouch through Bethlehem.

— In expressing contempt for my comparison McEwen belies the manner in which art is exhibited and encountered. For a week the installations I wrote about were showing on the same street several blocks apart, and I went to both consecutively with little difficulty. The comparison was based on what was available for public view, with two current examples of a general practice and with the specifics of actual works. There was no further motive than to proceed as any concerted spectator would in elucidating the strategies employed and the effects resulting from different methods of presentation. I will note that the word 'invidious' has its root in the Latin in vidia which, as Lacan discusses, is generally translated as envy, specifically the envy of the child who sees his sibling sucking at the mother's breast. There is good mythical speech, illustrating McEwen's dislike of the comparative method and his inflamed disapproval of my review.

— Which brings me to my most important point. The comment regarding 'house' art is most unbecoming an artist of stature when it has impact upon another artist's work. The inference that attention toward Robert McNealy's work is the product of influence and bias is inconsiderate and unfair. As for house writers, at the same time this exhibit was running, McEwen was featured on the cover of Canadian Art as subject of a laudatory article by Gary Michael Dault, a Contributing Editor of that magazine. Are we to take that as an indication of house influence and ingenuous machinations, or as recognition of McEwen's artistic achievements?

Finally, I will recall to McEwen the publicist's credo that any mention is good mention. Since he is not interested in contending the argument, only in upbraiding my impudence in questioning a poor example of his work. I will take that as the motive behind his letter.

C Magazine #6, Summer 1985.

Text: © William Wood and John McEwen. All rights reserved.

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