John Armstrong

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The irony of (really) big expectations


Saturday, July 3, 2004 - Page R14

The ironies pile up fast in the ambitious touring exhibition called The Ironic Turn, now coming finally to rest as one of the last exhibitions of the Museum of Canadian Contemporary Art (MOCCA) at its North York site at the Toronto Centre for the Arts.(It moves this autumn into its cozy new location in the golden art-mile that is Queen Street West).

Although The Ironic Turn is made up of the work of nine Canadian artists from British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Ontario and Quebec, it was curated by Lelah Ferguson and Ruediger Bender for the Kunsthalle Erfurt, in Erfurt, Germany (the capital city of the state of Thuringia), where it opened last summer. Although it wears its conceptual weightiness with flair and humour, The Ironic Turn is powered by some big expectations: Its artists have been expected to provide "the east German imagination" with "new perspectives on the European iconological and narrative heritage," all the while assisting their (East) German audience, write the curators, "in becoming aware of how deeply European (art) history and cultural theory have influenced artistic practices abroad" that is to say, our artistic practices.

"The key criterion for selecting the participating artists," write Ferguson and Bender, "was their potential to reach an (east) German (art) audience" (the curators are very big on parentheses). And to reach them in order to critique "the preconceptions that in Germany tend to exclude lighthearted humour from 'serious' (i.e. 'high') art. Indeed, some of the artwork will intrigue a European audience precisely because it seems to enjoy 'sawing off' the (traditional) 'branch' on which it sits."

In truth, the works comprising The Ironic Turn are sufficiently engaging, so it's hard to imagine their not cheerfully reaching any audience, (East) German or otherwise.

But you can see (sort of) what Ferguson and Bender mean. Take the work of Toronto-based artist John Armstrong, for example. His handsome 20 Glasses of Water offers 20 cast-bronze urns - roughly cast, with the wayward bits of cast-off casting metal still clinging to them - each bearing on its swelling flank, an enamel painting of a glass of water. The urn upon which Armstrong based his castings resides in Toronto's Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art. The glasses of water are, by contrast, all glasses the artist actually had in his studio. The urns sit on shiny porcelain table tops, creamy with the colour of German Meissen porcelain itself. The urns are rough and raw, a hoarse, whispered recollection of high German culture. The paintings on their sides are rapid and casual (or, as Armstrong says, "partial"), a claiming or inhabiting or infiltration, by North American modernism, of old-world elegance and grace (even now only "approximated" by the awkward casting). Similarly, Armstrong's photo-bookwork, Jim, with Paris-based Canadian artist Paul Collins, is a hands-across-the water enterprise whereby a photo taken by Armstrong here in Toronto - say of a "phone" or "flower" (or one of their other 49 subjects) - is teamed with a photo of the same subject as chosen by Collins in Paris. Is it their two sensibilities that differ? Or is it the cultural differences fuelling the experiences of the two trans-Atlantic friends that generate the amusing dislocations of approach?

Similarly, Max Streicher's vast billowy Endgame - two gigantic, inflated clown heads lightly lying together on the gallery floor - seems to possess all the tragi-comic poignancy of the European clown, the sad circus performers of Picasso, the amiable grotesques of Fellini, the existentially marooned protagonists of Samuel Beckett. Even the pumped air that keeps the clown heads big and round seems overly desperate as a source of gaiety.

Vancouver painter Lucy Hogg riffs directly upon the magisterial achievements of European classicism and decorous restraint in her big, beautifully painted monochromatic recreations of Watteau's famous pensive pierrot (Gilles,1721), whose historic uniqueness, already glossed once by Monet, is now questioned by the irritating insistence of North American painterly "processing."

Halifax-based high-conceptualist Garry Neill Kennedy's architecturally expansive Otto Gold is the result of Kennedy's choosing, from the Erfurt phone book, a personage with a name that was also a colour. The 77-year-old Herr Gold now lives within his big, cleanly ruled, immaculately executed, gold-painted name, with his Erfurt phone number, on the gallery wall. Is this work an homage to Otto Gold? No, Herr Gold has been a chromatic convenience. Is it disrespectful of him? No, but it's not heroizing, either.

Equally handsome (for the Garry Neill Kennedy is almost indecently handsome), despite its conceptual aloofness, is another chunk of the great, visionary, non-denominational cathedral being built single-handedly and with breathtaking single-mindedness by Italian-born, Toronto-based sculptor Carmelo Arnoldin. Arnoldin's cathedral, known as Mille (one suspects it was supposed to be ready for the Millennium), represents Arnoldin's life work. He is actually planning a Chartres-sized cathedral, which he intends to build all by himself. He works at it slowly and fastidiously, fabricating pieces of the church one at a time: a pillar here, a section of frieze there, great wooden doors with bronze handles after that. For The Ironic Turn, the inexhaustible Arnoldin is offering further piece of Mille called Colostrum (First Milk), a decorative wood and aluminum column resting lightly and gracefully on a logarithmic spiralled base, which is a prodigious work of craftsmanship.

Aside from a two-monitor video work by Toronto-based video artist Yvonne Singer, a work that is so alternately dull and then, in the end, so disgracefully silly it's hard to pay attention to the fact that it's apparently about language troubles and translation difficulties, there remains fairly heavy representation by the work of two more painters, Janet Jones and Brigitte Radecki. The work of both painters seems insufficiently integrated into the proceedings.

Jones paints sleek, horizontal, luridly techno-paintings which, I was told (otherwise there'd be no finding out), address issues of surveillance and other modes of urban discomfiture. They seem bright with a neon-like glare, raked with the comfortless, relentless illumination of public spaces, punctuated by dehumanized signs of featureless anxiety (direction indicators, cross-hair target-like configurations) and imbued with emotiveless colour and antiseptic paint-handling. Their use as touchstones, with which to probe the theatres of neo-European space (France has its Alphavilles, Germany its Autobahn, etc.), seems somehow almost condescending. Similarly, the large, bright, rather formally eccentric paintings of Radecki are so self-involved (they seem to be about the sad re-presentation of rhymes and fables by - again, I was told this - writers silenced by repression), they take pretty pop-art approaches to picture-making (like rhythmically repeated motifs of hotly coloured animals, decapitated bodies etc.) and use them to undermine the elegiac feel locked within the very texts the paintings appear to want to honour. This, too, is a kind of Ironic Turn, I supposed, but a strangely disquieting one.

Until July 11. MOCCA, The Toronto Centre for the Arts, 5040 Yonge St. 416-395-7430.