Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Difference and Repetition Art Exhibit reviewed by Jessica Ziakin

The curatorial concept of Difference and Repetition, in which a broad array of artists were invited to create a new work in response to a unifying source image (Gerhard Richter’s Abstract painting (1985) 587-5), is an effective and exciting way to generate a sampling of works and personalities. It throws into relief the usual process of curating, which involves studio visits and cherry picking of works that support some curatorial premise. I have never thought this process disingenuous, but Quiroz’s approach raises the question: is there a categorical disconnect between the implicit expectations of the viewing public and a curator’s agenda? That is, might it be true that while the public expects a documentary or taxonomic sampling of work, curators are preoccupied with constructing a narrative or supporting a thesis? Put more provocatively, one might ask, “is a carefully curated show not a misrepresentation of some sort?“ Granted, ‘the public’ is an impossibly broad term, and does not distinguish between the Sunday tourists that visit museums and galleries as curiosities of conspicuous consumption and supposed personal edification, and those that attend small local openings to which they are connected though their participation and specific interest in the arts. Suffice it to say that in my opening, rather abstract questions I am imagining the former, while I believe Difference and Repetition, along with most if not all of the shows at VISA’s Slide Room Gallery are attended by the latter.

In the show, over thirty paintings circle the room and are ordered by a loose logic of degrees of visual resemblance to the Richter. The main wall of the gallery features works that visually resemble the source image. The opposing walls are hung with those works that exhibit the most divergence. While some artists take a fairly direct route using Richter’s colour and composition as a starting point for their own processes, others appear to have disregarded the instructions entirely, eschewing even the 30”x30” format. Some take an oblique approach: there are two portraits of Richter, rendered in their artist’s signature styles, and three photo-collages, alluding to Richter’s decades-long practice of collecting and painting from photos.

Those that follow the source fit together like experimental results in which only one variable is manipulated. Together, they offer a satisfying sampling of local artists’ styles and approaches. Their similar palettes and compositions, rather than being monotonous, highlight distinguishing features of paint handling and materials. For those of us who love systems and order, the works that flout the conventions established by the source are irritants. They break the controls of the exercise, are easily dismissed as outliers, and fall into the cliché of the rebel artist. One wonders if these artists did not trust their presence would be robust enough to withstand a modicum of conformity. This may be an unfair assessment, however, as many of the works that stick close to the source took an equally safe albeit opposite route in their literal approach to Quiroz’s challenge, and may represent practices that are more amenable to the project in the first place. Between the two extremes, the question emerges: What is the more interesting response? Or, even, which response is less interesting?

An anonymous comment in the gallery’s guest book rankles at the show’s “naïvely curated…uninteresting results,” stating that “In most cases the ‘difference’ is merely that of the different artists, who repeat their own work without having engaged in a transformative way with the Richter piece.” While I disagree with the whole-hearted negative review, the commenter articulates the key to those works that are the most successful: they engage with the source. They treat the source as more than just scaffolding for their usual tricks, and refrain from dodging the assignment though clever but transparent stubbornness.

Victoria Edgarr’s work Repeat after Me illustrates the situation well. A grey grid divided into four quadrants is filled with a childish, scratchy scrawl, each box reading, “John Paul likes me,” “Susan G likes me,” “Lynn B likes me” and so on. Each quadrant also contains a small print relating to the Richter: colour studies in red and blue, a black and white sketch, and a repeating motif of it’s underlying structure.

An empty grid distinguishes the first quadrant, in which we find a small reproduction of the source image. The repeated affirmations that provide the dominant motif of the work are absent. The psychological impact of the blank space resembles fear. The project carries with it an unutterable risk, and the mantra catches in the throat. The artist’s security and sense of self is threatened. The artist, like our eye, retreats to the more familiar areas of work. In the other quadrants, we see Edgarr experimenting with how to access Richter’s work. It is dealt with in manageable and presumably familiar ways, reinforced by an incessant affirming mantra.

In the second quadrant, the one containing the color studies, the writing is small and constricted. The artist’s self-esteem is contracted as she wades into the fray via the most obvious route: color. The writing expands and becomes more exuberant as the project proceeds through the other quadrants and the artist finds her voice again and is able to engage the Richter on subtler terms, moving from appropriation to integration. In this way the empty spaces of the first quadrant might be understood as the mind blinking blankly as she accepts a project that invites her to start work in an entirely new way, or stunned silent by the oddity of the commission, and prestige of the source material. Edgarr’s work is an example of what I feel are the most successful responses to Quiroz’s call: works that are somewhere between the visually similar and irritatingly rebellious. These works display an earnest struggle to create room for the source material and the artists’ own voice and process.

To return to the matter of the curatorial concept behind the show: Does a curator have a responsibility to represent a given art scene or trend in a non-biased way? I believe it is at least interesting to attempt to do so, and in Quiroz’s case, is consistent with his faithful and undiscriminating relationship to Victoria’s visual arts scene. His efforts to document, and in doing so, advocate for the visual arts in Victoria betray an implicit hope, shared, I think, by VISA, that more might be drawn from the curious public into the engaged art community. The reason I like this approach to curating is that it presents to the public (first definition) a straightforward, unpretentious and not-too-polysyllabic sampling of what’s going on the visual arts. I also think it challenges the participating community to hone their opinions regarding what is interesting and what is not, and provides ample material for comparison and, if one is inclined, competition. Indeed, the show in its execution and results resembles an art-school assignment, at the end of which students display their work for comparison and evaluation. What is often obvious but rarely discussed in the classroom is who was listening, who didn’t take the assignment seriously, and who’s work demonstrates the robust courage and capacity to benefit from the exercise.

Victoria Edgarr

Difference and Repetition Art Exhibit
Nov. 1 to Dec. 2, 2013
The Slice Room Gallery
2456 Quadra St.

No comments:

Post a Comment