Pluralities: Experiment or Excuse (1980)

“Pluralities: Experiment or Excuse,” Parachute, no. 20 (Autumn 1980), pp. 48-49.

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Pluralities: Experiment or Excuse?
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
5 July - 7 September

The National Gallery of Canada, in its roundup of twenty-one contemporary artists from Halifax to Victoria, allows that: “An eclecticism, not only of method and material, but of ideology, characterizes this exhibition. If pluralism has for the present become a sort of vessel for the isms of the past, as well as those to come, it is because the rules for making art have not simply changed, but have perhaps been temporarily suspended.”

The National Gallery announced its abdication from responsibility with a disclaimer, linking critical lapse to eclectic and stylish pluralism. We expect more from that at one time leading and respected institution. Any exhibition there is not only a display of contemporary art, but an indication of the Gallery’s position and policies. That is, the Gallery connotes the exhibition, in the practical politics of its commitment to contemporary art, not as an ideological agent. And it is not the politics of who was or was not included, but what was avoided through critical apathy and inhibition.

Despite the eclectic ideologies apparently manifested, at least half of the choices are conventionally post-minimalist. Most of the works are either installations or free-standing sculpture. The installations are site-specific or independent constructions; and the sculptures are mainly isolated artistic phenomena.

Mowry Baden’s Ottawa Room is determined by its site. His tilted ramp, zig-zagging 3.7 meters high, establishes both a new relation to the two-storey space of the gallery in which it is located, and heightens awareness of the participating spectator’s body through the crippling isolation of that body in difficulty and under threat. Yet how far does this art succeed past its own theatricality and phenomenological dumbness”? The same applies to Max Dean’s “threatening” installation of moving cars, which at least has the redeeming relief of humour and a more complex dialogue between inside and outside the gallery.

Other artists cue their contribution to a metaphorical reading of the context. General Idea, appropriating the whole of the National Gallery as the “Miss General Idea Pavilion”, has dispersed three telephone booths—like tape-recorded guided tours—throughout the Gallery. The main staircase as Miss General Idea’s “Staircase of Honour”; the cafeteria as “Colour Bar Lounge”; and even Claes Oldenburg’s Bedroom Ensemble as Miss General Idea’s private bedroom serve these gestures of “inhabitation”. By turning the National Gallery into a beauty pageant, this group has created a clever advertisement for itself. But that gesture of inhabitation is only another recycling of General Idea’s latest model, turning fashionable theory into style and content. As in the recent video tape, Test Tube, the metadidactic content only ex-plains; the work does not inhabit, nor effect its prescription. Theory functions as a sign, not intensive content.

In another imperialistic gesture, Gary Kennedy proposed to adjust all the landscape paintings in the permanent collection, so that horizon lines matched his eye level. When told that this space was not “allocated” to the exhibition, he requested his piece be all the space in the exhibition not given to other artists. Generous to an insult, the Gallery responded with a whole room. The invisibility of Kennedy’s original proposal and the empty and petulant gesture of the result supposedly reveal the invisible (i.e., ideological) determining role of the art gallery and perceptual conventions. Do we acknowledge this once more for what we already know? To linger in that analysis is to fall into another academic formalism—a type of work we recognize as a style: a tired critical “terrorism”.

In the space between site-determined installations and free-standing formal sculpture, we can locate a type of installation that arranges objects in space: Stephen Cruise and John McEwen at the National Gallery. McEwen groups iron objects, dependent on placement not site. The origin and orientation of these objects are open, since these concrete images are neither signs nor symbols, and depend largely, and problematically, on the rightness of placement, metaphorical simplicity, and technical reference to recent sculptural solutions. Cruise’s pseudo-mystical One Chance to Lie Between occupies the non-site of dream space, but its dream logic is not evident. Its “private symbolism” too narrowly ties itself to the artificial context of theatrical lighting (therefore representational) and beauty of material.

The word “passage” in Betty Goodwin’s title, Passage in a Red Field—suggesting a gesture in a painting, a building tunnel, or a physical motion—condenses potential meanings, just as her installation bridges categories. This walk-in installation, with its narrow and alternately dark and bright tunnels, ambivalently blends sculptural depth with painterly light and colour: its three-dimensional suffusion seems closer to rich and sensuous painting than to sculpture. The same inquisitive attentiveness, but now to the nuances of sight in sense and cognition, directs the viewer to the variations in regularity in Roland Poulin’s low concrete enclosures.

Generally, the sculptures in the exhibition make so many preliminary demands just to be taken formally, whether they are Claude Mongrain’s concrete sculptures of formal oppositions and balanced masses, or Mia Westerlund’s sculpture of effects which simply maps drawing onto sculptural form.

Painting is not as absent as we would initially presume. It lingers from Kennedy’s original proposal; and is present in Goodwin’s installation; it is weakly investigated in lain Baxter’s hand-coloured photograph “paintings”; and performs the representational background for Jeff Wall’s photographic focus on the structure of desire in looking at an image. The life-size figures in Wall’s Manet-based Picture for Women—transparent cibachrome photograph back-lit like billboard advertisements—stage a play of glances, and return our gaze and that of the camera, itself recording and captured.

How representative is the exhibition in its actual absences? The National Gallery excused video by sending it to the Venice Biennale; but video is important enough to present to a national audience within Canada. Textworks and performance are combined in one artist alone—Rober Racine—absurdly out of proportion to the reorientation of the artistic field that language and performance have produced. Racine’s labourious reworking and overworking of Flaubert’s writing serve as a pretext for the construction of a stage: a staircase for the performance of language as a material field. After Racine has reconstructed Flaubert’s act of writing as a “value-work”, the number of words, sentences, and paragraphs for every chapter from the hand-transcribed novels determine the size of a staircase built for the reading of each novel. With the mutilated and multiplying texts covering the walls of one room, Racine at one point performed Flaubert’s Salammbo, reading one chapter from each step ascending the staircase. But with its sources in the obsessive countings and “writings” of Hanne Darboven (and LeWitt’s systemic and irrational machines); the endurance performances of Beuys and Robert Wilson; the French theory of écriture; and the utterances of Artaud; is this remarkable and fascinating work too neat a theoretical construction for the content it may declaim?

The “temporary suspension” of rules in this exhibition only disguises the suspension of critical judgement at the National Gallery. By delegating responsibility to four guest curators, the Gallery declined consistent investigation and statement. Assembling the exhibition as an old-style biennale of nineteen one-man shows could not but lead to eclecticism. The gallery further enforced this eclecticism in the catalogue, alphabetically ordering the entries on artists and refusing either the grouping of the curators’ choices or introductory critical statements. The tactic to circumvent loss of their curators covertly realizes the National Museums’ policy of decentralization, and effectively undermines the Gallery as a singular force in Canadian art (if we recognize that need, or want it). The National Gallery’s “experiment” with guest curators was not successful, as it led to the conventional choices of Willard Holmes and Allan MacKay, and the misplaced regional hobbyhorse of Philip Fry. Still without a permanent curator of contemporary art, the National Gallery’s commitment to contemporary art may not have been temporarily suspended as much as irrevocably damaged.