Rococo Tattoo (1998)
Rococo Tattoo: The Ornamental Impulse in Toronto Art, Toronto: The Power Plant, 1998. [Exhibition: 26 June - 7 September 1997]
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The Ornamental Impulse in Toronto Art
Stephen Andrews / Carlo Cesta / Fastwürms / Robert Flack / Robert Fones / General Idea / Barr Gilmore / Angela Leach / John Massey / Regan Morris / Lisa Neighbour / Louise Noguchi / Evan Penny / Judith Schwarz / Jeannie Thib / Douglas Walker
Rococo Tattoo is an exhibition that considers Toronto art from a particular perspective—the ornamental impulse in art. The intention is not to present a comprehensive view of the local scene but to take a somewhat oblique look at the art made here over the past ten years. Nor is the exhibition meant to be authoritative, as if this selection of work or this particular theme encapsulates the city’s dominant trends in contemporary art. The fact that no one has attempted to stage a large group exhibition dealing with Toronto art in ten years (aside from non-curated collective shows or The Power Plant’s own exhibitions of young artists) suggests the difficulty of encompassing the currents of contemporary art in one exhibition. Furthermore, many of the artists involved here would not think that their art responds exclusively to a single impetus.
Decoration, after all, is one of the debased elements of modernist art, and embracing it implies breaking a last taboo. Associated with gender—or, more recently, sexuality—it has been depreciated by its “low” sources in women’s crafts, popular art, or decor, in contrast to the “high” ideals of modernism, which maintained an austere separation of the arts. Decoration was anathema to the modernists: “Ornament is a crime,” said the modernist architect Adolph Loos at the turn of the century. Why, then, do we find a decorative basis in so much contemporary art across media, even, or especially, in modernist-derived contemporary abstract painting?
The title’s combination of the terms rococo and tattoo attempts to bring together some of the wide-ranging influences on the work of artists exhibiting here. Decoration and inscription were two concepts loosely used in the the consideration of types of works to include. As the name of one of the most elaborate of historical decorative styles, rococo stands for an inclusive ornamental mode that treats the smallest object and the room it inhabits in the same manner. Tattoo suggests not only the currency of that graphic style in contemporary street fashion but also the body-centredness of tattoo imagery and the means of its inscription. Although these terms suggest a look or a technique, what they refer to in an individual work—let’s be clear—may only be one element among many that enters into its making. What is essential to the works shown here under this theme is that some transformation of source or influence takes place through artistic process. Rococo Tattoo is not an exhibition about tattoos or decorative arts.
The presentation is organized around clusters of works that manifest particular tendencies. Something in each cluster—a technique, a material, or a process—links one set to the next, and so the exhibition has a path from beginning to end.
I take decoration to have its origins in the ornamentation of the body while inscription refers metaphorically to the practice of marking the body as well. The body is not the subject of this exhibition, but its presence is implicit in many of the works. Its full presence, therefore, is stated in the first piece of the exhibition, Evan Penny’s four-fifths-scale rendering of a man’s body, which, though it bears no ornamentation, has been tinted blue. The sculpture’s scale and realistic detail contribute to our fetishistic attraction to it. Penny’s skin drawings go in the other direction: he magnifies areas of his own skin, and transfers its pattern to a beeswax panel. Such archetypal markings suggest our skin as the fundamental ground of art’s inscription and so prepare us for the ensuing motifs of the exhibition.
In the next section, we are immediately confronted by the tattoo image as it is drawn or projected on representations of the body. Tattoos are signs of identity and forms of expression. (The use of the tattoo as a mark of individuality belies its collective origin, a situation that parallels the separation of decoration in art and architecture from its ancient communal social setting.) By adopting drawing styles (grafitti-like, decorative, emblem oriented) common to the popular-culture worlds of adolescence, white trash, or criminality, Doug Walker taps in to a particular psychology and identifies himself with those vernacular practitioners through his bad-boy aesthetics. John Massey’s computer-manipulated photographic prints employ the body as either the site for the external inscription of society’s imperatives or as the internal somatic symbols of an individual psyche. Whatever the source or transformation of one into the other, the evidence is a tattoo-like “hysterical” imprint.
In various works in the next section (which we could call “digital skins”), the image of the face is composed by techniques that have their origins in age-old crafts. Barr Gilmore’s closer eXamination relates to Massey’s Compound Eye, both being depictions of the artists’ own eyes, but Gilmore’s image is created from about 2,000 buttons that are strung together in a weave so as to appear to be digital. (Here the eye is not receptive, as in the case of Massey’s work, but observant.) Stephen Andrews's series of Fingerprints are digital in the original sense, being derived from his fingerprints, which he then embellishes into a portrait. These modest elegies to anonymous persons merge Andrews's individuality (his unique fingerprint) with another’s depiction. Similarly, Louise Noguchi’s Compilation Portraits combine two photographs of different persons. Starting from a photograph of either a murderer or a victim, she poses herself in the same position for her portrait. The two cut-up photographs are then woven together into a composite image. Such works as Andrews's and Noguchi’s show decorative devices to be intertwined with the deepest humanist sympathies.
In the paintings and prints of Regan Morris and Jeannie Thib, familiar decorative motifs, reminiscent of fabric design, prevail, but in their cases the appeal of ornamentation is allied to the frailty of the human body. The decorative elements in their works are not so much laid on a surface as integrated into the process of fabrication, so that figure and ground become one body. In Morris’s paintings, such as India, based on a fabric patch that the artist found in India, the design is embedded in skin-like distressed surfaces so that the painting appears to have aged, a metaphor for our accumulation of experience and remembrance over time. Decorated cloth has always been used for bodily cover or domestic habitation, and clothing is a common metaphor for the body. So Thib’s Blueprint, even though it is presented as a clothing display, is a natural stand-in for the body. The combination is even more apparent in her multi-part linocut, Glyph, a series of body fragments—leg, arm, hand, torso, foot—which are each covered with textile patterns or other markings derived from their use in history.
Many decorative motifs are traditionally derived or stylistically refined, even to the point of abstraction, from the organic world. In Angela Leach’s paintings, the influence comes from textile design. Their similarity to the digital image can be traced back to the weaving loom and the grid formed by the warp and weft of cloth. But in the examples shown here, the meandering motifs of her paintings have an abstracted linearity. The line’s discursive emphasis leads us to the laser-cut steel reliefs of Judith Schwarz. Whereas in the preceding works images were constituted on surfaces, or figure and ground were melded together, Schwarz’s linear swirls separate figure from ground so that the wall itself becomes the background for the free-floating image. The graphic energy of these vortex images defies gravity’s shackles. Schwarz’s “clean-grafitti” look is carried over to Robert Fones’s photo-sculpture and paintings of ornate nineteenth-century typographic forms derived from sign paintings. Just as typographic form has been divorced from its sign function, so these emblematic “tags” stand against the background of the wall. Fones’s Egyptian Expanded g/Lion’s Mane joins a typeface (the Egyptian Expanded g) to a decorative detail from a photograph of the Chinese stone lions that stand outside the Royal Ontario Museum.
This hiatus of more formalized constructions—where the decorative component becomes separate—is interrupted by a wall of works by Carlo Cesta. Alhough typographically related to work such as Fones’s, now with the admixture of vernacular vocabularies Cesta’s installation leads to the next section of the exhibition. In his work, the decorative components are derived from culturally specific, commonplace materials such as the wrought-iron work typical of Toronto’s immigrant neighbourhoods. In other pieces by Cesta, utilitarian materials such as manifold gaskets and muffler tape associated with guy car culture are transformed into ornate abstract hieroglyphs.
The next section of the exhibition is conceived somewhat differently in its “scenographic” treatment of space. Here walls are painted or wallpapered to produce a total environment for the artists’ statements. General Idea and Fastwürms have created new installations using the walls and space of the gallery as decorative frames in which to incorporate past works and to contextualize new ones. Such a device binds together diverse works within each group’s ongoing individual iconography, Fastwürms being the “hillbilly cousins” to General Idea’s sophisticated media savants. This stage setting in works by both, however, does not function merely as background but as an integral element of the design. Particular motifs mirror each other in different scales and media.
The exhibition starts with the body, and when the viewer has ascended to the second floor of The Power Plant, it ends in a decorative ambience of light. This “spiritualization” begins in the fifteen photographs from Robert Flack’s Empowerment series. Against gaseous coloured backgrounds, photographs of the chakra sites of the body are overlaid with graphic images of swords, jewels, or ornate filigree. From this work, it is only a short step to light itself. The final piece in the exhibition is Lisa Neighbour’s Super Power, an installation comprising dozens of thrift-store lamp bases and their intertwined electrical cords. Just as Flack’s Empowerment implies the transfiguration of material into a more speculative dimension, Neighbour’s kitsch lamps with their flashing coloured lights substantially transform the space they occupy.
NOTE: This text may not correspond exactly to its published form.