Category Archives: Essay exhibition reviews

Position As Desired: Confronting Canadian Identities


(Fig. 1) Dawit L. Petros, Sign (2003) Image courtesy of Dr. Kenneth Montague/The Wedge Collection.

Position As Desired, on now at the Royal Ontario Museum until March 27, features eight emerging and established photo-based artists who explore African-Canadian identity. The exhibition is inserted into the permanent Canadian collection, providing an opportunity for critical dialogue on the complexities of multiculturalism and the creation of hybrid identities.

Dawit L. Petros’ Sign (2003) confronts viewers as they enter the gallery (fig,1). The young black male in the photograph holds a direct gaze. His presence forces visitors to acknowledge the prejudices he/she may hold when faced with this subject. What does this figure signify? For many, it might provoke (an unfounded) fear. American writer Hilton Als writes about his life as a black male as the “experience of being watched.”[1] For him, this constant observance is a metaphorical lynching.[2] He is the victim of the white world’s anxieties.  In Sign, Petros manipulates the signified by making direct reference to Albrecht Dürer’s Self Portrait at 28, created just over 500 years earlier. Instead of Dürer’s brown curls, Petros’ subject wears dreadlocks; instead of crimson robes, he is framed in a fur-trimmed black parka. The cropping and non-referential background of the two images is identical. Petros uses the ROM as “both a target and a weapon” for challenging viewers.[3] Art critic Hal Foster writes, “the artist becomes a manipulator of signs more than the producer of art objects.”[4] By reproducing a canon of Western art, Petros reveals how the image of a black male can transition instantly from unsafe to accepted.

Megan Morgan’s Re-Photographed is a series of framed photographic transfers on orange, yellow and white paper. The portraits depict people young, old, black and white. All of them are devoid of environmental context. What these images have in common is Morgan. They represent the components of her genealogical and constructed identity. As the boundaries of national identity melt into hybrid identities, Homi K. Bhabba explains that our selfhood is created in the “overlap and displacement of domains of difference.”[5] Morgan explores the how the dualities of her identity do not oppose but combine.

Position As Desired provides a breath of fresh air in a gallery otherwise filled with colonial furniture and paintings of Niagara Falls. Artists like Dawit L. Petros and Megan Morgan demand that the viewer questions how he/she reads black subjects. These artworks do not define what it is to be African Canadian. Rather, they provide a few voices on the experience of the multi-faceted Canadian identity that forms across borders and genealogy.


[1] Hilton Als, “GWTW,” in Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, by James Allen (Santa Fe: Twin Palms Publishers, 2000), page 39.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Hal Foster, “Subversive Signs” in Art in Theory 1900-2000, ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, 2nd ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 1038.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Homi K. Bhabha, “On ‘Hybridity’ and ‘Moving Beyond’” in Art in Theory 1900-2000, ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, 2nd ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 1111.

Bibliography

 

Als, Hilton. “GWTW.” In Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, by James Allen, 38-44. Santa Fe: Twin Palms Publishers, 2000.

Bhabha, Homi K. “On ‘hybridity’ and ‘moving beyond’.” In Art in Theory 1900-2000, edited by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, 1110-1116. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

Foster, Hal. “Subversive Signs.” In Art in Theory 1900-2000, edited by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, 1037-1038. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

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Re:Counting Coup – The Terrific Collision of Traditional and Technological

 

Re:Counting Coup, an exhibition at A Space in conjunction with the ImagineNative film and media arts festival, is a critical exploration of 21st century aboriginal subjecthood. Instead of an exhibition where one artist is asked to speak for all “Indianness”, Re:Counting Coup represents four artists from nations across Canada. The viewer is faced with his or her preconceptions and is engaged in a conversation about identity construction. These artists reject a singular or static identity and re-write the aboriginal subject as a media savant. Re: Counting Coup investigates the blending of material and theoretical past, present and future in contemporary aboriginal art.

KC Adams’s Cyborg Eggs (2006) is both futuristic and prehistoric (fig.1). The eggs are the hybridization of natural and technological, the past and the present, the optimistic and post-apocalyptic. The delicate grapefruit-sized objects are strewn on a bed of white sand where they emit a warm glow and a soft whirring noise. This is the scene after the hatching. The “New [Hybrid] Nation” has been born.[1] While postcolonial theorist Homi K. Bhabba says that all identity is a hybrid, Adams’s Métis identity is a hybrid by definition. For Bhabba, identities that attempt to restage the past “estrange any immediate access to an originary identity.”[2] Identity is instead constructed in “the sum of the ‘parts’ of difference.”[3] For Adams, technology adds yet another identity to the mix – that of the cyborg.


(Fig. 1) Cyborg Eggs, 2005.

Archer Pechawis reconciles tradition and technology in his “digital drum” performance, Memory V.2. In a short documentary, he asks two elders about their opinions on the role of art and the use of new media. They assure him that “traditional” is a process rather than a set of materials and techniques. Kutenai elder Bill Lightbown says, “We have a right to advance with civilization but to still retrain our own cultural being and beliefs. They aren’t in opposition to each other.”[4] Pechawis admits that creating the drum was a way to confront his fears of singing in the traditional style. The project is inspired by Pechawis’s discovery of a recording of his grandfather singing. The drum (which A Space visitors are invited to try) is composed of deer hide stretched over electronic sensors. When struck, these pads trigger a sound clip, which include samples of his grandfather’s voice, interview excerpts, and a few bars of Jimmi Hendrix. The drum is a mixing board for a seamless integration of custom and contemporary.

Canada is yet to be de-colonized. By endeavouring to take away land, culture and spirit, the Canadian government “war machine” fights by implementing a “depletion of the energies of a society.”[5] The artists in Re: Counting Coup prove that this war machine is losing ground. The exhibition breaks aboriginal arts out of a static identity and presents work that is critically engaging and multi-dimensional. Aboriginal arts are not mummified – they are alive and ever expanding.


[1] Cheryl L’Hirondelle, Re:Counting Coup (Toronto: A Space Gallery, 2010), 2.

[2] Bhabha, Homi K. “On ‘Hybridity’ and ‘Moving Beyond’” in Art in Theory 1900-2000, ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, 2nd ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 1111.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Archer Pechawis, Memory v2, 2010.

[5] Kroker, Arthur. “The Mohawk Refusal” in CRCP 4B04, 167.

Bibliography

 

Bhabha, Homi K. “On ‘hybridity’ and ‘moving beyond’.” In Art in Theory 1900-2000, edited by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, 1110-1116. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

Kroker, Arthur. “The Mohawk Refusal.” In CRCP 4B04. 165-168.

L’Hirondelle, Cheryl. Re:Counting Coup. Toronto: A Space Gallery, 2010.

Pechawis, Archer. Memory v2, 2010.

Watson, Scott. “Shapeshifter.” In Brian Jungen, 12-23. Vancouver: Contemporary Art Gallery, 2002.

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Shary Boyle: Re-Imagining Beauty

Shary Boyle’s solo show, Flesh and Blood, on now at the Art Gallery of Ontario until December 5, presents critical contemporary art and innovative curatorial practices. Boyle’s work plays with visual and mental perceptions of beauty, terror, gender and sexuality. The paintings, sculptures and projection-installations employ a complex concurrence of meticulous craftsmanship and jarring subject matter. Additionally, Flesh and Blood, responds to the museum’s adjacent exhibitions, creating unexpected and exciting dialogues with the AGO’s permanent collection.

Boyle knows that beauty is not dead, but recognizes that it requires critical investigation. Her art distorts the distinctions of what is attractive and what is abject. For Julia Kristeva, abjection is caused by the loss of distinction between the self and the body’s physicality (vomit, faeces, fingernails, etc). Kristeva writes about the “sacred power of horror” which reveals society’s unconscious desires.[1] Boyle’s art is a site for exploring the abject. Her painting Vanity (2009) depicts a greyscale female portrait against a flat, yellow background (fig 1). As the subject gazes downwards, her extremely long and thin eyelashes droop below her collarbones. A feature that would ordinarily connote beauty becomes unpleasant. The Letter (2009) reverses this formula (fig 2). This delicate sculpture portrays a peach male figure kneeling over a pink female form. From their tiny mouths spew strings of colourful glass beads that fall over their bodies and over the edge of the pedestal. Though the beads signify vomit, the sculpture is not disgusting. The Letter is the anti-abject – the repulsive becomes beautiful again. As artist Martin Kippenberger says about contemporary art-making, “You can’t simply be provocative, but you can’t simply do pretty stuff either.”[2] Boyle awakens us to the malleability of beauty.


(Fig. 1) Vanity, 2009.                                             (Fig. 2) The Letter, 2009.

The exhibition title Flesh and Blood connotes womanhood. The female body is both an absence and an excess of flesh, and a site of perpetual bleeding. Laura Mulvey explains that these physical attributes create male anxiety. She applies psychoanalysis to film theory in order to describe the male gaze. Phallocentrism “depends on the image of the castrated woman to give order and meaning to its world.”[3] The woman “symbolizes the castration threat by her real absence of a penis” and by her possession of “the bleeding wound.”[4] Shary Boyle’s artworks disrupt gender roles and deny the viewer’s comfortable male gaze. No body part (male or female) is censored or glamorized. The convention of the woman as the “bearer of meaning, not [the] maker of meaning,” is interrupted.[5] The sculpture-installation White Light (2010) is both intensely horrifying and tremendously beautiful. The form of this almost-human creature disorients the viewer with its subtlety-elongated features. It is impossible to tell if this jet-black figure is caught in or in command of her surrounding web. Her back is arched seductively and her facial features glow softly. With her gaze focused into the gallery, is she guarding the exhibition, anticipating a lover, or waiting for the predator to return? She is also the subject of a peep show. In the opposing wall there is a discreet porthole from which unsuspecting AGO visitors in the Dutch still-lifes gallery can peep at the figure. The female figure in White Light is both the receiver and initiator of the gaze.

 

Flesh and Blood does not sit quietly in the massive rooms of the AGO’s contemporary galleries. Instead, it invades the main floor Thompson Collection of European Art. The resulting connections are surprising and not at all contrived. Boyle’s work is bookended on one side with a more archaeological display (dimly lit, encased in glass) of small religious items. On the other side, her art mingles with Dutch oil paintings that depict, among other things, a pale children with rose lips, a devilish sprite seducing a woman, and a couple butchering wild game. The juxtaposition suggests Boyle’s artworks fitting into a great continuation and critiquing of art history. The artworks are alive and wish to create dialogue.

Flesh and Blood demonstrates how a museum’s tired permanent collection can be revitalized through contemporary art. In this case, both exhibits benefit from the unexpected union because they are prompted to discuss the changing and continuous depictions of beauty and femininity. Shary Boyle re-examines beauty and the female body by reclaiming the gaze and by mixing power dynamics. Her work demonstrates the re-emerging discourse on beauty as a “valid exercise.”[6] She smashes the pre-modernist view of “the beautiful as the sole, undisputed, and universal bearer of a better society” and shows us how beauty can be manipulated and re-imagined.[7]

 

 

 


[1] Kristeva, Julia. “Powers of Horror” in Art in Theory 1900-2000, ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, 2nd ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 1138.

[2] Kippenberger, Marin. “B: interview with Jutta Koether” in in Art in Theory 1900-2000, ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, 2nd ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 1103.

[3] Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in Art in Theory 1900-2000, ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, 2nd ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 983.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Alberro, Alexander. “Beauty Knows No Pain” in Art Journal (Summer 2004). 37.

[7] Ibid, 39.

Bibliography

Alberro, Alexander. “Beauty Knows No Pain.” In Art Journal, 37-43. Summer 2004.

Kippenberger, Marin. “B: interview with Jutta Koether.” In Art in Theory 1900-2000, edited by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, 1102-1105. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

Kristeva, Julia. “Powers of Horror.” In Art in Theory 1900-2000, edited by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, 1137-1139. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” In Art in Theory 1900-2000, edited by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, 982-989. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

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