press release

How do words relate to pictures, and how much of looking at pictures involves words? How many words does it take to describe a picture, or how many pictures does it take to elucidate a word? In the 1960s, artists sought to usurp the place of the critic and, at the same time, put into question the idea that art was a purely optical experience, beyond the realm of language or linguistic apperception. Words became the material for visual art, to the point of artists abandoning visual representations altogether, or rather, making the written word itself into a carrier of visual meaning. At the same time, any form of visual representation came under scrutiny as a construction. The visual was seen as fully informed by language and concepts, instead of a matter of pure optics. Propelled by the revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s – feminism and gay liberation, anti-war protests and civil rights movements – artists put into question the ‘truth’ or ‘representational’ value of words and images, while drawing on their power to create new meanings and alternative ways of looking.

Signaling a new direction and to capture some of this important history, over the past few months the Hart House Art Committee has acquired works by artists who have contributed in important ways to the critical engagement with the power of language and pictures, including Toronto-based Ian Carr Harris and Montreal artist Lynne Cohen, as well as a group of younger artists such as Doug Walker, Micah Lexier, Nathalie Melikian, and Scott McFarland. These new acquisitions span the developments of several generations of artists who worked at the same time, or directly built on the achievements of such internationally renowned Canadian artists as Joyce Wieland, Greg Curnoe, and General Idea, whose work had entered the collection intermittently over the last forty years.

Micah Lexier (b. 1960) Time, 1995 Steel, cloth, embroidery Micah Lexier, who is represented in this exhibition with two different works, was born in Canada but is currently based in New York. Having graduated from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax – a hot bed for conceptual approaches to visual art – his work is often concerned with language, issues of identity, as well as systems of measurement. The word ‘time’ embroidered into cloth, reads quickly and its meaning seems understood at a glance. However, the sculptural part of the object – the steel frame denoting an embroidery ring and stitching hand – introduces a sense of duration and making. The work creates a juxtaposition between the time it takes to consume the word at a glance and the time it would take to produce the word in the slow form of needlepoint.

Ian Carr Harris (b. 1941) Tafel 15, 1990 Laminated pages, steel, light, wire Toronto-based artist Ian Carr Harris has long been interested in the way in which words and images construct truth and history. Often presenting juxtapositions of images or objects with texts, his works deliver the viewer to the paradoxical play of systems of representation. Here, the German word “Tafel” refers to three different meanings, including ‘table’ (as a furniture or surface to serve food or tabulated knowledge), ‘plate’ (as in a photographic representation in a catalogue), or ‘blackboard’ (as is commonly used in school to teach writing and illustrate lectures). The work itself plays with all three aspects of these meanings. Set up in the form of an illustration, the work gives us the definition of ‘Bug’ in a panoply of images of bugs, making one of them special through back-lit illumination. What kinds of identities are invoked by all these differences that nevertheless are given under apparently one simple heading? Ian Carr Harris sees his work as serving “our recognition that the histories and structure which we use to give definition to identity are themselves contingent and fluid, no less elusive than the identities we seek to secure.” The work can be seen to refer to an early 20th century work by the Belgium artist Rene Magritte, in which the painted image of a pipe is captioned by the sentence “This is not a pipe.” The artist invites us to consider that both, the picture and the sentence are true and false at once, thereby eclipsing all certainty about the tools we use to create, fix, and hold onto meaning.

Greg Curnoe (1936-1992) Calamity Corners, 1979/80 Oil on canvas Greg Curnoe lived and worked in London, Ontario, a city that appears in many of his often intensely autobiographical works in painting, drawing, assemblage, and mixed media. As an outspoken Canadian Nationalist and activist regionalist, Greg Curnoe helped to foster an art community and sense of identity for artists working outside and therefore in the shadow of prejudice of major centers, such as Paris, New York and Toronto. In the painting “Calamity Corners,” carefully stenciled words describe an intersection in London that had come to be known as Calamity Corners. The subtle white and beige on white work contrasts starkly with the effects of the words, which evoke the colourful intensity and local specificity of a traffic intersection in Curnoe’s home town. The power of the words to evoke the scene is tenuous, however, as we come to realize that the artist has left intact an apparent mistake: near the end of the canvas the artist inadvertently skipped a few words (undoubtedly copying from a sketch) and after noticing it, did not erase but leave apparent the odd jump and repetition in the text. The painting evokes a picture, but does so by letting the viewer know the peculiar materiality of words and sentences in the fabrication of otherwise seemingly transparent meaning. Curnoe died in a bicycle accident on a highway near London in 1992 at the age of 55.

Joyce Wieland (1931-1998) O Canada, 1970 Lithograph on silk, ed. 7/10 A fearless feminist and outspoken nationalist, Joyce Wieland (1931 - 1998 ) stood up to contest prejudice and environmental exploitation through her many-faceted works in painting, films, political cartoons and experimental films. “O Canada” was produced in the print workshop at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design – one of the most important art schools in the world at the time, renowned for its emphasis on conceptual and video art of the international avant-garde. Joyce Wieland’s print gives evidence of her feminist and nationalist convictions as well as her humour. Instead of making a print by drawing or scratching a printer’s plate, she used her lips to ‘kiss’ the plate and, spelling the opening words of the Canadian National Anthem, leaving the words in the form of lipstick prints behind. The resulting work thereby makes a poetic link between the artist’s mouth (the organ that makes speech possible), feminine materials (lipstick and silk), and her love of Canada (told in so many sexy kisses). Looking at the print, we need to read her lips, and thereby are perhaps reminded how in the 1960s and 1970s women artists everywhere fought against the idea of being the object of the look and instead to be recognized as contenders in the realm of language, representation, culture, and politics. Joyce Wieland was the first female artist in Canada to be granted a retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery in Ottawa, which took place in 1971, just a year after which she made this print.

Douglas Walker (b. 1958) Delta Series, Untitled, 1986 Photography, ed. 13/25 Douglas Walker layers photography with graphic and gestural interventions that call the indexical nature of photography into question while emphasizing the artist’s presence in its production. Walker works with and transforms various types of photographic images through different photographic processes, including layers of airbrushed spots or rough sketches. Delta is a series of photographs Walker took of industrial sites. After developing the photos he layered them with hand airbrushed acetate and then re-photographed the compositions. The artist had seen distressed photographs that had been exposed to nuclear radiation in Hiroshima or extreme heat from the volcanic eruption of Mount St. Helens (Washington State, USA). He is also interested in the imperfections of early daguerreotypes. Walker used the look of distressed photographs as inspiration in the transformation of industrial sites into whimsical scenes with otherworldly qualities, at once playful and decorative as they are ominous and foreboding.

Lynne Cohen (b. 1944) Spa, 2003 Dye Coupler print Lynne Cohen is an internationally renowned Montreal-based artist whose work is deeply founded in Conceptualism and the history of art. Cohen’s photographs present us with disconcerting absences. She photographs spaces created by people (living rooms, testing laboratories, offices and so on) but always captures these environments devoid of inhabitants thus exposing their sculptural qualities, the eccentricity of individual taste or institutional vision, and the disturbing likeness between facilities with contrasting purposes like luxury spas and psychiatric treatment centres. Gazing into Spa is not a wholly unfamiliar experience. The space is identifiable as a shower room or bath house but the lack of explanation as to the treatments provided and the unnerving lack of human presence is uncanny. The space feels claustrophobic and the shower itself evokes a sense of unease at the thought of what might rain down from it. Through the seemingly neutral format of photographic representation, Lynne Cohen's work allows us to see the built environment in new ways, not only dissociated but truly estranged from utilitarian purpose.

Scott McFarland (b. 1975) Reverse Horse: Victoria Moes Practices with Oscar, 2004 Digital C-print, ed. 5/7 Scott McFarland is an artist emerging from the tradition of Vancouver photography, established by artists such as Jeff Wall, Christos Dikeakos, Ian Wallace and NE Thing Co. Working through the traditions of representation (painting, documentary photography and the critical investigations of conceptual art concerned with amateur-style, serial photographic images), the Vancouver school forged new possibilities for the role of the picture in contemporary culture. McFarland’s work exposes photography’s ability to construct and distort elements of temporality. He produces images that on first glance seem to capture a single moment but on further examination reveal themselves as seamlessly crafted compilations. Reverse Horse, Victoria Moes Practices with Oscar, for instance, seems to capture a single moment in a private garden. In fact, it is composed of a number of photographs that are digitally reconfigured to present the horse in an impossible pose. In the 19th century, Edweard Muybridge’s photographic locomotion studies captured the “true” sequence of animal and human motion to cement faith in photographic truth against the powers of the human eye. McFarland calls attentions to the construction of representation, highlighting its ability to produce artifice in ways even greater than painting, and even more powerful a tool by which nature can be made to yield to the desires of the human eye.

Micah Lexier (b. 1960) Two Pairs and a Palindrome, 2005 C-print Micah Lexier, who is represented in this exhibition with two different works, has long been interested in issues of identity – ranging from the personal all the way to the more analytical appearance of identity through language. Working in diverse media – from sculpture to installation and photography -- Lexier often incorporates graphic elements such as numbers, letters, and other visual signs. “Palindrome”, which denotes something that reads the same forwards as it does backwards, such as the numbers 9779, plays out a visual paradox. One thing seems to be the same as another, but is not therefore identical. For instance, an upside down parking stub imprinted with the number 0690, reads that same way when read right side up. In their identity, the artist nevertheless draws attention to their different meaning through the index of the date stamp, making us aware that we are looking at two different numbers. The numbers when looked at visually and in terms of their conventional meaning seem to shuttle from identity to difference and back again – like a temporal palindrome and not only a visual one.

General Idea (est. in 1969; disb. 1994) AIDS, 1989 Silkscreen on paper, ed. General Idea was a collaborative group that consisted of A.A. Bronson (1946), Felix Partz (1945-1994), and Jorge Zontal (1944-1994). The group came together in 1968 and formally took on the title of General Idea in 1970, staying together until Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal died of AIDS-related causes in 1994. From the outset of their career General Idea was interested in the interruption and intervention of current systems of art production and distribution, and of inhabiting forms derived from contemporary media culture. An early example of General Idea's parasitic relationship to mainstream culture is FILE magazine. Modeled on the American LIFE magazine, by which General Idea was sued for copyright infringement, FILE was conceived as a ‘transnational’ art organ to promote and develop contemporary artist's networks. By the late 1980s General Idea also became an important force in calling attention to the AIDS crisis. At a time when the magnitude of the virus and its destructive force was only beginning to be understood, General Idea produced a massive poster campaign modeled on the iconic art work that had come to symbolize the 1960s era of love, the American Pop artist Robert Indiana's “Love” painting of 1965. The AIDS poster takes Indiana's logo, and reformulates it to strike the viewer with a symbol for the 1980s when gay love and sexuality was marked as death. The logo was put into circulation in the form of thousands of posters for streets, subways, buses and trams in cities around the world (New York, Amsterdam, Toronto, San Francisco, Seattle), and was freely licensed to AIDS foundations, lotteries, medical journals, and many other vehicles of public awareness campaigns to counter the death sentence that silence imposed on those infected with the disease.

Nathalie Melikian (b. 1966) Science Fiction, 2007 Video, ed.1/3, 1 AP First presented in the recent “Projections” exhibition at the JMB Gallery, “Science Fiction” consists of a sixteen-minute sequence of short sentences lighting up the cinematic (and in this exhibition television) screen. Presented in alphabetic order, and accompanied by sampled soundtrack culled from actual science fiction films, each offers a short-hand description of aspects of the genre to evoke its standard features through both transcription and analysis. Sometimes the words describe technical aspects, types of camera shots and edits; at other times they offer deadpan snippets of absurd and war-mongering scenarios common to the genre. If the sentences distance us from the immediate sensation of images, Melikian’s work activates the viewer’s own cultural archive, making it flash before the eyes as if they were film clips themselves. Language and soundtrack here collude to mine the viewer’s personal memory -- images from Star Wars, Matrix, 2001 and others come to mind – to highlight the way in which the mind is populated and crowded by the imprints of film.

Doug Walker (b. 1958) Boy Series, Untitled, 1986 Photodrawings, ed.24/25 The 'Boy' series of photographs was inspired by Douglas Walker's interest in 'outsider art.' He sites underground comics, prison art, and binder doodling as inspiration. He wanted to make images with the emotional immediacy of 'outsider art' but recognized that this was impossible after years of training at an art school. In order to address the consciousness of his position in relation to his drawings, he chose a method of sketching mediated by photography and thereby introduced distance into the process. Scratching into ink-covered sheets of acetate on a light table, Walker then used the scratched plates to expose photo paper in a process called cliche verre. The resulting pictures possess a sense of horror vacui, as every inch of the images is full of swirling lines or paisley shapes surrounding intense characters that have grown out of mind of an adolescent male. They evoke a dark imagination, playing with Goth and Biker imagery both in their tattoo-like characters and in the amateur drawing style visible in the glossy photo paper that they are printed on.

Janieta Eyre (b. 1966) Making Babies, 2000 Photographic print In “Making Babies”, Toronto-based artist Janieta Eyre has constructed a highly ambivalent representation of motherhood. In the past, Eyre has often used photography to produce strange characters, doubling their presence through photographic process. This work also highlights the artist’s ability to conjure artifice and imaginative scenarios, but specifically upsets a certain stereotyped role of women. Standing in a strange sort of kitchen, a young woman hovers at an electric range, cooking with what appear to be the ingredients for making babies – on the shelves and in the cupboard we find jars with eggs, blood, milk and semen. The artist has intervened in the photograph, defacing the woman by drawing on her cheek the pattern of the kitchen tiles, making her eyes into black holes, and dividing her body by a long line into what might suggest the idea of a split self. Eyre’s picture refuses the idea of infinite joy and happiness by whic media images and advertising generally portray and promote motherhood. Whether the picture suggests that making babies locks the woman into the kitchen and drains her life, or promotes the idea of women’s power to ‘make’ babies as an intentional act according to recipe, Janieta Eyre’s manipulated photograph is unsettling, raising more questions than answers around issues of women’s choices.

Curated by: Aileen Burns & Barbara Fischer

WORDS AND PICTURES: Recent Acquisitions in Context
Kuratoren: Aileen Burns & Barbara Fischer

Künstler: Micah Lexier, Ian Carr-Harris, Greg Curnoe, Joyce Wieland, Douglas Walker, Lynne Cohen, Scott McFarland, Micah Lexier, General Idea , Nathalie Melikian, Doug Walker, Janieta Eyre