Oliver Girling (1984)

“Oliver Girling,” Vanguard, 13:5/6 (Summer 1984), pp. 41-42.

Oliver Girling
Grunwald Gallery, Toronto
April 16 to May 2

Oliver Girling’s first exhibition in a commercial gallery uses painting to interrogate everything but itself. By exempting its own images from criticism, it blinds itself to its role in the circulation of these images, which its function in this social setting serves. “Let the images flow faster than money does,” writes Godard about film in a statement that could apply to any image practice in capitalist society that is an exchange—an exchange of looks, of images, of money.

Painting is privileged here. It is a space, place or surface for constructing a conflict of codes from different practices—those of film, photography, painting, advertising and the media. These codes, with their reproductive technologies that mediate even the image of painting itself, are brought together in a painting practice that inhabits the codes (the practices and conventions) of the art gallery. These materially different practices and operations are translated into that one medium of painting, as if montage could work within an image and not just between temporally spaced or spatially juxtaposed images. The images reconstructed from these codes, images that are already secondary, are meant to be read, to be dissolved back into their different codes and regathered in the literal and fictive spaces of the art gallery. That is, the paintings are not intended to be presented as whole images with discernible content: they are to be read as a construction of codes. Whether in painting this construction is not immediately a confusion can be questioned. Do we have a construction of codes here (codes which presume a common knowledge on the part of the sender and receiver), or rather references to the images associated with those coded practices? Translated into painting, they are no longer the same images or codes without their attendant operations. But first there is the construction of these particular paintings.

All these paintings are similarly made, but five of the eight share the same dominant construction. They are painted on seamed tarpaulin, a background that cues the rather theatrical tonality of the paintings and establishes that it is not to be taken as a transparent ground. This potential space is further denied by a rendition of abstract Hans Hartung gestures that cross all the canvases as a thematic motif. What originates on the surface is here a disruptive background. This then is “cut” by a grid that has been masked on the raw tarpaulin. The grid accommodates itself to different architectural features or spaces in each of the paintings. It is both the transparent grid of Renaissance painting that constructs a perspectival space for its actors, and the material surface grid of a minimalist painting. Instead of creating a space back in the canvas, it sits on the canvas and virtually tilts into the space of the viewer. Finally on top of this device the artist places his figures that seem modelled from photographs and based in some cases on movie stills.

These scenes are reworked by more than the substitution of the protagonists by the artist’s friends. They begin to work in different ways by being adapted to art historical precedents. For instance, in Steal this Exhibition (1983), a scene from a Belmondo movie is composed of multiple, although not immediately clear, allusions to Manet’s Olympia. The artist now stands in for the maid in that painting. But instead of presenting flowers, he holds a paper on which a Hans Hoffman-like image has been painted. The artist presents “painting” in the manner of a medieval donor indicating a scene. The layering of flat abstraction on a figure renders both figure and abstraction icons in representational codes; it signals a historical discourse of Manet as a source of modernist flatness; and it equates a series of names with “copyrighted” styles: “Manet”, “Hartung”, “Hoffman”, names equivalent to styles, the signs they have become due to incessant reproduction.

The passive “reception” of the spectator’s view by the painting the figure presents is countered by the “projection” of the flashlight the Belmondo character holds. All the canvases function this way in their construction, aggressively pushing their way into the space of the viewer while at the same time flatly receiving his or her gaze. This mix of literal and fictive space is exemplified by Good-bye Hans (1984). Here a nude pregnant woman paints the Hartung strokes we see in the background of the other paintings. This internal “painting” is indistinguishable from the space she is standing in, a space which her modelling creates, which is the flat surface of the canvas we see.

This figure indicates the levels of representation in the other paintings, and also stands in for the spectator. These paintings are part of the space and situation of the spectator. However, the artist demands a lot of the viewer: a consciousness of the levels of literal and figurative representations; a knowledge of art historical allusions; a knowledge of mass culture images as a source of the codes and operations that are transformed in paint and “synthesized” in paintings. Beyond this acute visual literacy, Girling expects a reading and attributing of critical effects to painting’s constructions. His expectations of the audience’s competency or desires perhaps is greater than the audience’s expectations for painting. In spite of the artist’s intentions, these paintings do present themselves as images to which the audience may try to attribute a content. This as well would shift judgement to the quality of painting and composition which these paintings could not sustain.

Montage does not work here because the “codes” cannot be adequately signalled by painting. This failure of painting to signal its critical context for these images means that the artist has to take responsibility for a complicity in their exchange. This means he is responsible for the representation of nude women and women in violent acts and pornographic poses. This is the case even when the images are at a second remove, as in the re-representation of pornography in Blond Devours Abstract Painting (Saint Theresa in Ecstasy — for Luis Buñuel), 1983.

Girling has not accounted for his own complicity in this circulation and exchange of images because of the uncritical privilege he gives to painting which is presumed to be critical. Just as he exempts his painting, so the space of the gallery remains as strangely formal as the representational codes he investigates. For all his concern for the codes which construct painting, he neglects the exchanges that support painting’s appearance in that space.