John Armstrong

Jennifer Angus and John Hitchock
Open Studio

Diagnosis of a knot, a lump, an itch and scratch is an ongoing collaboration in print and installation between two artists who teach print media at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. John Hitchcock teaches print in the university fine arts program in a facility very much like Open Studio’s: his students work in a range of media including ink-based screenprinting, the technique used in this collaboration. Jennifer Angus teaches screenprinting as well, but in a very different facility in the university’s textile design program. Angus’s dye- or pigment-based printing facility resembles Toronto’s newly opened artist-run Contemporary Textile Studio Co-operative, just down the hall from Open Studio here in the 401 Richmond building. The just-down-hall question can be a pernickety one: all too often fine arts and craft/design arts programs in post-secondary educational settings define themselves as being trenchantly antithetical to one another. It can be a very long way down the hall. There is something exceptional about these artists’ hands-across-the-water gesture; but more importantly Angus and Hitchcock are modelling behaviour. As educators, they both must each ponder what it is that contemporary print media should be doing; what are the possibilities? On the evidence of this exhibition, a retrenchment into isolated camps defined by a response to a specific vocational categories is not on offer. But something is bothering them, something about a knot, a lump, and so on.

If we look at these artists’ recent individual work, critique is not far below the surface. Angus was raised in Toronto and moved to Wisconsin in 2001. Her 2006 exhibition, A Terrible Beauty, Chapter 2: Compulsion and Repulsion at Traverse City, Michigan’s Dennos Museum presented over 10,000 preserved beetles, cicadas and grasshoppers carefully pinned to the wall in a recreation of a Victorian parlour wall. This exhibition offered a mordant response to an historical preoccupation with collecting and classifying bits of the natural world: A Terrible Beauty… wittily modelled itself in part after the collection of Toronto Tribal art dealer Bill Jamieson. Hitchcock, a Native American artist, grew up in Lawton, Oklahoma on Tribal Land beside the United States military Base Fort Sill, a large field artillery training camp. Over the past several years, he installed a series of aluminium signs along the boundary of Base Fort Sill as well as at the edge of a US military base in Darmstadt, Germany. The signs contain some imagery that Hitchcock uses again in this collaborative work: simplified profile outlines of animals raised for human consumption (a pig, a cow, a chicken) superimposed on red targets. Interestingly, Hitchcock has appropriated these motifs from the helpfully language-free labelling on canned food distributed in the 1960s by the United States Department of Agriculture to Indigenous Peoples, welfare recipients and the third-world countries. As in Angus’s artwork, Hitchcock points to the manner in which the natural world has been cheerily and euphemistically represented and demarcated to mask darker realities.

Diagnosis of a knot, a lump… an ink-and-pigment screenprint on two great lengths of paper, recalls wallpaper, a quintessential domestic reference. In our homes, we might find — the artists suggest — a number of things. The print’s repeat motifs, in cozy violets and siennas, depict silhouettes of chickens (taken from decorative Chinese paper cut-outs), the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or mad cow disease virus, the avian flu virus, and three varieties of house flies — insects known to spread all manner of contagion. Our front doors are permeable boundaries, as are international borders.

In the 1980s, BSE appeared first in the United Kingdom and then spread to Europe and North America, and in 2003 the avian flu emerged in Asia: the spread of both viruses, born by livestock or (in part) poultry resulted in human illness and death. Our industrial food chain is not safe either. The artwork’s tone-on-tone harmonies are not so cozy after all. Each print includes a decorative border of a child kicking a ball, a chicken and a pig, all in a pied-piper march to who knows what impending epidemic. Motifs spill out of the prints into independent circles and florals pinned to the walls; and the flies are screened directly onto the gallery’s architecture, even over the windows. Angus and Hitchcock obviously do have an agreed-upon program for contemporary print practices, and not surprisingly their answer works through the metaphoric possibilities that print offers — the repeated, ‘insistent’ image, conventional textiles and interior fabrics’ cloak of familiarity, the iconic and reassuring simplicity of the graphic signs — to engage, with a measure of humour and grace, a dire reality we too often choose to ignore.

Jennifer Angus and John Hitchock: Diagnosis of a knot, a lump, an itch and a scratch. Toronto: Open Studio, 2007.