October 14 2010 Categorized Under: Reviews
“Interactivity”, in art, is a common and misused term: but in Under Skirt : a peek at the institution of art, a wonderfully irreverent curatorial project by Jen Budney at the Mendel Art Gallery, this worn concept gets a makeover, in Heather Nicol’s Under My Skin: “come a little closer…inch towards the voice… bend down come closer much closer stretch your back and bow down….circle the object….depart….it is my pleasure to assist you in your art viewing experience…” I must say, it’s pretty forward: but I like that in a lady. Other artists in this exhibit, to quote Budney, also challenge and “[celebrate] the workings of the art institution, the power of art to engage and challenge, and art history’s capacity for re-examination”. That latter bit is somewhat of a sticking point, but I’ll revisit it.
The back gallery at the Mendel is dominated by two artists: Gary Neill Kennedy, often accused / congratulated as “Canada’s conceptual guru” for “his wry social commentary”, and Dagmara Genda, who has covered a massive chunk of two walls with orange cut vinyl which appears initially to be that “skin” you peel from paint when its imperfectly sealed, and forgotten. “Limp Landscape”, like many works in the show, can be read several ways: a commentary on 12 landscape works in the collection, it’s vast nature may deny the sarcasm inherent in Genda’s comment on the structured banality of SK landscape painting, like that joke about watching your dog run away for days. It is huge, however, and it both mocks the stagnation of institutionalized landscapes and in its sheer size, dares you to mock it.
Just as Genda’s work has oppositional readings, so do the Cedar Tavern Singers, who performed the night of the reception, with several songs written especially for the Mendel, about Fred Mendel, Dorothy Knowles, and several other gems that helped them get long listed for the national arts award, the Sobey. Their rendition of “Barnett Newman” made some of the opening night audience murmur, for its sometime irreverent take on that demagogue. But their classic (and my favourite) “This is how we talk about Art” made the night for me, with its pragmatic guide to how “when you’re faced with a canvas painted only blue, you don’t know what to do…. say it’s “iconoclastic” or “antagonistic”…impress your friends with heady phrases like “immateriality”…” This is art that actually helps you respond to bad art, but like many of their songs, the CTS straddle seemingly innocent positivity (ick, that word), and sharp-tongued guile – with a ukulele. In the interest of full disclosure, they dedicated “This is how we talk Art” to me, at said reception, and that was as good as the dirty looks I received.
Heather Nicol’s works are comedic, and a little saucy, as I’ve never flirted with an art object before (I think), and I suspect the title of the show is based on her aforementioned piece: another, mimicking an overstuffed chair, cackles loudly as you approach it, like a “comfortable” aunt who visits, drinking hard liquor while she mocks any notion of “propriety” or “decency”. Nicol comments this work is to break the “Modernist” notion of sculpture as a male perspective, citing Donald Judd specifically: and its easy to forget the insidious chauvinism of modernism, with its swagger and with Jackson Pollocks’ paintings that look like he pissed and came all over them, drunk and out of control, “like a man”, while Lee Krasner put her own promising career on hold to pull him out of a pool of his own vomit.
Nicole Cherubini’s works seem too static, too academic and too much like an “art history” lesson after the engaging Nicol and the CTS, which brings us back to Kennedy. He has taken as much space as Genda, and has produced a copy of the “famous” Perehudoff murals that you can read about in the Star Phoenix. But here’s where the divergent readings of Genda, Nicol and the CTS speak to what could be a less than “positive” take on what Kennedy has done. Let me explain.
The rest of the Mendel is filled with the karaoke modernism of William Perehudoff, and the Mendel has pulled out the stops – and the cash – to engineer a show that speaks of him as an “underrated” artist. Is Kennedy’s simulacrum of the murals a tribute, or a criticism? Kennedy is not just nationally, but world famous: and does he look at the regionalist pandering of the Perehudoff show as bullshit revisionist history (“It was here, it MUST be good”), or is he making a comment on how its unusual for such a minor artist to be so “respected” in terms of his murals at the packing plant, among non artists? Or is he celebrating the work of this man, as Kennedy believes it’s worthwhile?
Is Genda speaking well of our obsession with landscape or telling us to stop mimicking what has gone before? Is Nicol full of humour, or seriously angry at the chauvinism implicit in karaoke modernists? And are the CTS really sweet, or really sarcastic? Is Kennedy mocking the institution, or celebrating it?
Unlike art that proclaims its own importance, and is flat and meaningless, these works challenge you: Under Skirt: a peek at the institution of art runs until the new year, and this is a show that requires multiple viewings, as it has multiple layers.