I don’t know for certain if I’ve ever been this close to something that costs $160,000. But Cal Lane‘s Gutter Snipes is a pretty gosh darn impressive drainpipe. It’s part of the show Ammunition that was at Art Mûr earlier this month. Given that it was part of the show I initially thought that it was a Quonset hut that had been cut up, but according to the wall tag, she used a drain pipe. It appeared that all the rest of the pieces in her show had some connection to the military. Consisting of ammunition boxes that had been ajoured. Beyond being very pretty and making some awesome shadows, the pieces and the show raise a whole whack of interesting questions.
Back when I was a child, I used to haunt Army/Navy surplus stores. They always had ammunition boxes for sale. Since I was so young, and as a consequence hadn’t accumulated an awful lot of stuff, I never could quite figure out what to do with an old ammunition box from World War 2 or the Korean War. Now I wish I had bought a bunch. I have more junk and crap in my place that would be so much better served by being in a box or something than just being piled on my floor. But I digress…
Since war is fought very differently these days in comparison to 65 years ago, I strongly doubt that contemporary ammunition boxes look at all like the ones in the exhibition. Without doing any research, I kind of figure plastic and either much smaller, for the reduction in size of projectiles or larger, for the increase in size of the projectiles. But to be absolutely honest, now-a-days I do my darndest to stay as far away as possible from anything and everything that might possibly be connect to any military. So I honestly have no clue a to what a contemporary ammunition box looks like. But, I’m quite familiar with the old ones.
Basically two feet by three feet by four feet (or something like that) and made out of metal, they make for a fairly stable and regular object to have bits cut out by a welding torch – that’s the difference, filigree is made by twisting threads together, lace and hemstitch are done similarly – with ajoure you cut the bits out.
There are all sorts of things you can read into the use of ajoure on old ammunition boxes. If you need some help, a traditionally female type of work being used on a traditionally male piece of equipment. Military vs. Domestic, you get the idea. Let your imagination run wild. Then the final kick at the can, it wasn’t until I actually went to callane.com that I discovered in fact that Ms. Lane is in fact a Ms. Thereby adding even more fuel for the fire of your imagination.
The one thing I was particularly impressed with through, beyond the juxtapositioning of two seemingly incongruous ideas was her use of shadows and negative space. There was nothing particularly special about the lighting per se, but the shadows thrown off the objects were riveting. To the extent that it was extremely difficult to concentrate on the rather rough cut outs on the boxes. I’m fairly certain that if I had one of the boxes hanging across from my desk or bed or something, where I would have multiple opportunities to study it for an extended period of time I’d be able to create some sort of story or understand the things Ms. Lane has cut out in the boxes. As it is, the shadows function kind of like a veil, obscuring things just enough to make it extremely alluring.
As I mentioned at the beginning, I thought Gutter Snipes was a Quonset hut. I’m a tad disappointed that it wasn’t. Because it would have been in keeping with the whole whole military theme. But as an object, it is something spectacular. Unlike the other pieces, it’s lit from within, so the shadows fall out side of it on the wall and floor. While they do make pretty patterns they don’t interfere with the metalwork which enables you to actually see and concentrate on some of the motifs and patterns. In some ways this is a good thing, and in other ways it isn’t suck a good thing.
It’s not good, because you get to see up close how rough Ms. Lane’s work is. Not that there is anything wrong with rough work, it’s just that when your work gets compared to lace and filigree in an age when there is a techniques known as laser cutting and waterjet cutting. It becomes a case of not quite living up to expectations, especially when your eye switches from the ammunition boxes veiled in shadows. Then secondarily, I didn’t quite appreciate seeing that the individual parts were held together by wrapped wire. It gave a little bit too much of an air of being jury-rigged together or slapdash, and not well thought out.
On the other hand it is a good thing, because by being able to see what she has cut out, you can start to make up stories about what everyone is doing, and making up stories is a very very good thing. When I was there, I couldn’t make up my mind if the whole thing was supposed to be read left-to-right, top-to-bottom or right-to-left. I guess it kind of depends on what god you believe in. Going left-to-right there seem to be a bunch of angels, some with mohawks, along with industrial landscapes, some other animals and a lot of the pretty shapes she uses to keep everything attached. If you read top-to-bottom, there seem to be a a bunch of devas or dharmapalas, some with mohawks, along with industrial landscapes, some other animals and a lot of the pretty shapes she uses to keep everything attached. If you read right-to-left there seem to be a bunch of Garuda or malaikah, some with mohawks, along with industrial landscapes, some other animals and a lot of the pretty shapes she uses to keep everything attached. I wish I had the time to go over it more closely, and actually try to give you some idea of the story I would make up about what was happening, but unfortunately, as you can see, I’m desperately behind the times and as the show closed two weeks ago, it’s not exactly easy to go back and spend a day-and-a-half looking at. With a little luck Rhéal Olivier & François were able to sell it to someone or something that will allow it to be viewed by the public and you can see it and make up your own.
It was at this point that I was going to try and write about how Gutter Snipes also was some kind of half pipe and tie it into skater culture and then finish up with a paragraph or two on recycling and reusing. But the more I think about it, neither one really applies. While there are lots of similarities that can be made between Gutter Snipes and The Pipe specifically in the shape and the ornamentation, the more I think about it, the less it seems natural and organic. And yes, I could jam them together no matter what anyone else thinks, but if I had to add another 1,200 words to this, I’m not certain it would be the best use of my time (can you tell that I’m getting anxious about all the backlogged stuff I’ve got?) And then while the recycle and reuse is a much more graceful thing to posit (and probably would only require about 500 words) I find it equally awkward when the ammunition boxes are most likely from Army Surplus stores and were never intended to be thrown away.
But the whole Women’s art thing really can’t be avoided. Ms. Lane leans heavily on what has traditionally been the only type of art that the y-chromosome challenged folk have been allowed to do for something like the last couple of millennia, while at the same time using as her base material and (for lack of a better word) “brushes” things that are most typically associated with the more aggressive of the sexes. Kind of like flipping everything on its head, or at least twisting standard issue artistic practices inside out. This is a good thing. While, personally, I would prefer to call Ms. Lane “Caledonia” (if in fact that is her name) rather than the gender bending diminutive “Cal,” more, because I really don’t like surprises, and then secondarily, it makes that whole “in fact that Ms. Lane is in fact a Ms.” redundant and superfluous, which is what gender in art should be. It doesn’t matter whether it is made by a guy or a girl. Yes it is unfortunate and bad that the art world has been one of the more sexist and misogynistic places for thousands of years. but here in Quebec, despite a lapse for 1,032 days starting in 2006, things for the most part are better than equal.
But it’s beginning to look like I am foaming at the mouth here. In short, no matter how hard you try to avoid it, it’s impossible to avoid gender issues in this exhibit by Ms. Lane. This is a good thing. Her art is also a good thing. And finally it’s a very good thing I got to see it. Next time you have a chance you should too.
So do you know what a retable is? As a good Jew and a card carrying squarehead and bloke, I had no freaking clue what so ever. But after seeing the exhibit by Claude Tousignant at Art Mûr and then looking the words up on Wikipedia, Google and a couple of other places just to make sure, it all made sense. I could kind of muddle through “périphériques.” Ditch the accents, modify the “ques” to an “als” and even the most stubborn monolingual Francophobe can get an idea of what Claude Tousignant meant, but the second part of the title is a little bit more obscure, Especially if you were born after the Quiet Revolution. Although to be honest, the paintings look to me, more along the lines of Devices and Altarpieces and not quite Periphials and Retables, slightly less precise terms leave a lot more room for interpretation of the art.
If you weren’t aware, Claude Tousignant is one of the heavy hitters of contemporary Quebecois art. He is, along with Françoise Sullivan, Armand Vaillancourt, Fernand Leduc, Jacques Hurtubise and Marcel Barbeau kind of like the really, really old guard. Still working away and making things (although I am not certain if M. Leduc is still making things, and I wonder why M. Barbeau hasn’t received a prix Borduas yet, but I digress…). The people who signed manifestos and who actually caused change here. Although I have never met him, I imagine he is a very nice person. Or at least one of his daughters is. I got to know Isa Tousignant via her sweetie and the local across the street from Zeke’s Gallery where a bunch of us would have a glass or two of beer after work.
One of the things that caught my eye, was how Art Mûr did not print any prices on the wall tags. Normally, when something like that happens, it is the super-secret-art-world-insider-code for “too rich for your type.” But in this case I am not so certain, because upstairs they were exhibiting a sculpture with a price tag of $160,000 clearly marked. And despite how many times I buy a 6/49 ticket, $160K is too rich for my type. Maybe M. Tousignant is not only a very nice guy, but a private one as well, and isn’t quite comfortable with something potentially as crass as cash money. I don’t think I have ever seen a painting of his go up for auction, and if my memory is correct the prints of his that I’ve seen have gone for something like a couple of thousand dollars. So it is quite possible that the Périphériques and Retables weren’t outrageously expensive, merely a lot of money. If anybody knows what the prices were don’t hesitate to pipe up.
But enough about the background, what about the paintings themselves? They are variations on a theme. The two Retables are each three canvases attached side to side to side, with the middle canvas being slightly higher than the ones on the sides. Number One uses canvases 4′ 2″ square, Number Two has two canvases of 5′ square and one of 5′ 2″ square. For lack of a Pantone chart, Number One consists of a white, a blue and an red canvas, while Number Two’s canvases are green, purple and orange. I presume that the date and M. Tousignant’s signature is on the back. Overall they are quite stately and imposing. I preferred Number Two, although that might just be because it was the first one I saw and has a much more significant placement within the gallery. Now I could go completely off on abstract painting, post-painterly abstraction, color fields and minimalism, but I won’t. I’m fairly certain that if you want to, you can find someone or someplace that will expound upon them to your heart’s content.
Obviously made to be hung in the front of a church, I’m not entirely certain what denomination of Catholicism would be appropriate. Despite the fact that I refuse to use a flash, it’s still possible to tell from the crappy pictures I took that Number Two is the three secondary colors. The closest I can get to figuring out the color theory behind Number One is that M. Tousignant took the Russian flag and turned it on its side. The Périphériques are where the fun kicks in. There are four of them exhibited, but as the largest number in the titles is thirteen (they are all part of a series, which I presume is numbered consecutively), there are at least nine others kicking around someplace. All marked as “variable dimensions,” that incredibly useful phrase to hide (or ignore) all sorts of details. Each consists of a collection of smallish square canvases painted one color. These canvases are then arrayed on the wall in a way that on first glance looks like some sort of cubic solar system or a three dimensional still from one of those trippy-dippy animated films that the NFB made in the sixties.
With the Périphériques, the big deal is how M. Tousignant uses the wall as part of the installation. His instructions for installing them are shown in the inside front page of the magazine that Art Mûr publishes, and I was very surprised to see that the dimensions are in inches (and in certain cases sixteenths of an inch) nor does it appear that there is any theory behind how they are hung. It’d be kind of neat to see what M. Tousignant could do if he got rid of the canvases and started painting directly on the wall. Not quite Sol Lewitt, but kind of. I’m certain that if I studied each one close enough, I could possibly knock together some kind of color/size theory on how they were created. But I instead, decided just to try and get a sense of what M. Tousignant was getting at. Trying to get into his frame of mind by proxy if you will. Where the Retables come across as heavy and domineering, like one of those chords on an organ, the Périphériques are much more recorder like, similar to one of those renaissance songs with the typos and the musicians in all sorts of puffy clothing.
It’s extremely heartening to see an artist of M. Tousignant’s caliber exhibiting in a gallery such as Art Mûr, it obviously speaks highly of Rhéal Olivier Lanthier and François St-Jacques, the two guys who run it. The one slight negative thing I would have to say, is just I wish that they were capable of getting M. Tousignant’s work noticed on an international level. There is not a single museum outside of Canada listed on his CV in the Art Mûr magazine. Which is a glaring hole, but to be expected with how Quebecois Art is viewed (or not viewed) in the rest of the world.
If I had any theories about Contemporary Abstract Art made in Quebec, this would be the place to state them. But I don’t, I just kind of look at it, wonder why it doesn’t get better recognition in the rest of the world and then go look at it some more, M. Tousignant’s work to my mind, is on a par, if not better than any other living artist in the world today (including such folks as Gerhard Richter, Peter Doig and David Hockney) if Art Mûr is in fact charging millions of dollars for M. Tousignant’s work, then I am completely and utterly astonished and will gladly take back everything I have ever said about Contemporary Quebecois Art not getting the fiscal respect (and all other types of respect that go along with it) that it deserves. Baring that, M. Tousigant’s work makes me hope that I can make as effective, entertaining, interesting and kick-ass work when I am 80 years-old.
I don’t think I particularly noticed when he got a show at the Musee d’art de Joliette (and shouldn’t an artist with a career that’s going places first have a show in Joliette and then in Montreal? And not the other way around?) nor was I expecting to see his work when I went to Art Mûr – I had trucked up there ostensibly to see something else, more on that later. Anyhows, I was quite impressed.
One of the sensations I kind of remember from his show in 2004 was some kind of meditative spin on things, him trying to paint (I think they were paintings) the space in between dozing off and a full sleep. That kind of trance you can end up in if you repeat the same word, gesture or action over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over (ain’t copy/paste grand?!). As far as I can tell there are lots of people out there who believe that those trances are good. I’m not one of them, which is why I probably lumped him in the same space as Boom Desjardins.
This time however I was very impressed at the shininess of his current work. Where the work of his in my memory was kind of flat with a subtle texture (again, I think) from the brush. Which kind of aided to at least understand the Zen-like sensations I felt I was supposed to feel. These photographs are shiny to the point where if they were laid on the floor, you could almost dive right in. All of them are photographs roughly two feet by three feet that are mounted underneath a very thick piece of plexiglass.
I accidentally forgot my measuring tape in my other pants when I visited Art Mûr so I can’t tell you if it’s ¼” or ½” or something even thicker. But great gosh-a’mighty that plexiglass made them shiny as all get go. Now I kind of have this hate/hate relationship with shiny contemporary art. I tend to look at it as a extremely facile and simplistic method to make otherwise unremarkable art extremely sellable. Normally it’s done with multiple layers of varnish which requires some (not much) skill – as an aside it’s because of the varnishing that here in Quebec we call an art opening a Vernissage. Back in the good old days, once a painter finished some paintings for a an exhibition, he’d invite his friends over to help him varnish them so that they would be suitable for display. Since varnishing a painting is a fairly tedious job, he’d (back in the good old days 99% of your professional artists were men) have to bribe them with bottles of wine to keep them happy. As a consequence, these varnishing parties could get quite boisterous, and it was only a matter of time before a vernissage became synonymous with the opening of an exhibit. But I digress…
M. Venne’s work in this show is eight nearly monochromatic, nearly featureless, photographs (there are only seven pieces of art, because one of the pieces, I’ll Keep You There… So Long is a diptych). As simple as rain on a window, the most prevalent feature of these photographs is the color. They are for the most part gradients of primary color (gradiented primary color? Primary color gradients?) – there is one that is orange – and look pretty much like what I would imagine the world looks like if you were severely myopic.
Extremely simple in concept and form, it’s the sort of thing which makes me gnash my teeth. Instead of using new and improved tools to make new and improved art. M. Venne uses new and improved tools (in this case a fancy-ass digital camera, and fancy-ass digital printer, and a fancy-ass laminator) to make the same old, same old. While I probably should applaud him for being consistent with his art, I can’t help but feel a little bit cheated, because the picture itself is meaningless. Without a title and the title of the show itself all they are are shiny contemporary versions of medium sized colorfields. They aren’t breaking any new ground nor they aren’t earth-shattering, and while all art doesn’t have to be ground-breaking or earth-shattering, when you are using current technologies it helps, a lot. Because if your art isn’t ground-breaking and earth-shattering then it runs the risk of being mundane. Being mundane isn’t a good thing.
It’s the kind of work that I am used to seeing from artists at Galerie de Bellefeuille or Simon Blais. While I am not against the commercialization of art, there are certain times when it hits me that something “art-like” is much closer to being a commodity, and this is one of those times, right down to the fact that he does not bother to mention to size of the print run for each of the pictures.
Despite the bafflegab and gobbledy-gook in Art Mûr’s magazine about pensiveness, and reflection, to me M. Venne’s work is all about sellability. There are some times when shopping can cause a sensation of bliss, or at least that’s what I’ve been told. So I really shouldn’t be raining on anyone’s parade. Especially, since I think that M. Venne’s work is incredibly sellable. They’re priced appropriately, in that region that will make the buyer instantaneously recognize that the work is serious, while at the same time not being outrageous. Or if you prefer, about 57¢/cm2 a pop or $3.59/in2. (66¢/cm2 with taxes. If you’re buying Quebecois art, you can save some serious change by having it shipped either out of province or out of the country).
At that price, don’t forget that it probably would help immensely to bring both a swatch from your couch and a paint chip from your wall color so as to make sure that they match the picture.
Henri Venne: Somewhere in Between was exhibited at Art Mûr from April 26 until June 16, 2012