John Armstrong

Carmelo Arnoldin and Judith Schwarz

The Koffler Gallery, North York

The two-person exhibition is one of the most fraught of curatorial enterprises — linking artists in a teeter-totter relationship. If successful, such exhibitions reveal unexpected interpretive avenues for understanding of both. More often, they result in either a reductive contrast or a distorted amplification of similarities in form, process or materials. Two-person exhibitions don't offer the latitude of loose interconnectiveness and productive play possible in larger configurations: there should be a more immediate and sensible set of reasons for putting two artists together. Curator Carolyn Bell Farrell’s pairing of veteran Toronto artists Judith Schwarz and Carmelo Arnoldin (in a Koffler Gallery exhibition titled “Portal”) seemed at first an unlikely proposition, which, as it turns out, is a good indication of the combination's potential for success.

Schwarz and Arnoldin attended graduate school together at York University in the mid 1970s, and early in their careers, both worked in an extended minimalist idiom, building wooden architectural structures that went to some lengths to challenge a viewer's sense of location. Even though the formal congruity in their artwork was soon eclipsed by their individual evolution, the exhibition reaffirms their early shared interest in skewed architecture. Schwarz had kept outright narrative in check, preserving the hesitation some artists felt at the end of the 70s when leaving trenchant abstraction for qualified representations of a known world. In the installation of her artwork, she created careful mise-en-scènes that appeared inseparable from their gallery settings: at times, her sculptures might suggestively gesture proscenium arches or theatre flats. By contrast, Arnoldin's dedication to (often personal) narrative has been unflagging, and the results have been artworks that first strive to depict a remembered or psychological reality rather than a relationship with the exhibition space. His expressionistic paintings and sculptures of the early and mid 1980s have treated public celebrations from the northern Italian town of his childhood with Ensor-like vitality. He has also depicted highly theatrical renditions of alienated sexuality. On the face of it, these two artists would not invite easy comparison.

Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, Schwarz's sculptural tableaux confidently celebrated industrially finished materials and a guarded mimesis. Her Shadow Plates of the ‘80s (of which her work in the current exhibition is a recent, although considerably evolved, manifestation) are organically symmetrical forms flame-cut out of thick plate-steel. These suggestive, but abstracted shapes allude to a range of organic forms: the human body, a galaxy, a salamander, a plant or a wreath. As in Eclipse (1989), Schwarz based her shapes on small gestural sketches, which she would project to scale and adjust. The quirkiness of her initial sketches is never evident in her finished artwork. In her installations and sculptures, the assured contours of the oiled-steel forms echo the pristine surfaces of the other elements she employs, which are (often) beautifully finished, geometrical wooden constructions. Her dedication to surface finish goes some distance towards de-emphasizing the weight and materiality of her objects. And, by means of hidden brackets, the weighty steel Shadow Plates paradoxically float on the gallery walls, as shadows cast by absent figures. More recently, Schwarz has configured her Shadow Plates as a series of wall-mounted shapes based on Xs and 0s, each variously stretched, repeated or rendered in a perspectival projection. Her process of manufacture continues to be precise and industrial, encompassing a range of materials associated with design and architecture: plate steel, glass, MDF board, plywood, slate and so on.

If Schwarz toes a careful line between figuration and seemingly generic design, Arnoldin recreates no-holds-barred art-historical precedents, whether sculpture-in-the-round or gigantic baroque architectural niches. Arnoldin's work celebrates the bravura with which it is made: the sculptures retain an expressionistic surface of chisel marks and the architectural fragments are intricate assemblages of shaped coves and mouldings. He moves through classical mythology and Western sacred architecture to explore themes of transformation and the possibility of creating interdenominational sacred architecture. His 1983/84 sculpture, Apollo and Daphne, presents two naturalistically rendered figures, a young, vigorous male chasing a more mature female. Daphne’s wish for escape is fulfilled as she begins to transform into a laurel tree. This metaphor for the episodic and unpredictable nature of life (from youth to maturity through to new life) is a well-traveled narrative structure — intersected here by specific and obviously contemporary portraiture. From 1987 to the present day, Arnoldin has constructed over-sized fragments for an unrealized ecumenical church. This includes doors (those in the present exhibition are his second, vastly pared-down offering), altarpieces, sculptures and various models for the entire architecture. Often the monumental architectural fragment is presented in a theatrical and unexpected way: lying on its back like a beached whale or precariously tipped forward.

If there is anything linking the apparently disparate productions of these two artists it is their interest in their artwork's structural underpinnings. These structures may be buried or even deprived of their usual relationship to gravity and support, but the use to which they are put nevertheless carries a good portion of their meaning. Western art has often called into service formula intended to guarantee formal order. This tendency underlies the generative ideal of classical art and architecture — mathematically parsed, compositional analyses have buttressed various neo-classicisms through the centuries. Both Schwarz and Arnoldin go to great lengths to establish structural schema for their work before production, and having created feats of rigorous engineering and formal beauty, they both go on to purposely frustrate their sculptures’ anticipated use-value. At the Koffler Gallery, we have an oculus window that looks out onto its own shadow (Schwarz) and a monumental set of doors that are forever shut (Arnoldin).

“Portal” opens with an installation by each artist in the gallery vestibule’s wall-mounted showcases. Here, Arnoldin presents a number of working drawings for his monumental doors: many are highly technical, and several give us an indication of his sources and motivation for making such an epic structure. The earliest drawings depict what might be a Gothic cathedral’s portal, framed by multiple columns supporting archivolts (arched mouldings) above the door. Traditionally, in a Gothic cathedral, the main portal marks the passage from the world of humanity into the city of God. The archivolts depict a heavenly-earthly dialogue by connecting the labours of the months (sowing, harvesting, animal husbandry and slaughter, and so on) with the zodiac’s signs of the heavens. Beneath the archivolts in the tympanum or semi-circular space immediately above the door, sits a representation of Christ as judge. In passing through the portal, the worshipper is meant to take stock of her or his conduct and position in a divinely ordered universe. In Arnoldin’s drawings, the archivolts are filled with the word “home” rendered in many languages. Arnoldin proposes a portal that seems to offer a reconciliation of Babel where humanity might, in walking through it, pass into a kinship of a near utopian understanding of linguistic difference.

In her untitled installation in the showcases (1999), Schwarz offers us a more spare presentation with three back-lit panes of translucent glass each presenting a mandala-like form (produced by black adhesive vinyl applied to the back of the glass). Like the petals of a daisy, these forms surround an open centre in a radially symmetrical manner. The illusion of petals arises from the interweaving of three or four concentric rings. Like Arnoldin, Schwarz references Western sacred architecture: one might see her radial motifs as the very rose windows found above the gothic portals Arnoldin cites in his drawings — as in, for example, such Ile-de-France cathedrals as Chartres, Notre-Dame de Paris or Reims. Given the medieval preoccupation with finding the macrocosm in the microcosm, the rose window might well have been seen as a symbolic representation of the universe. The widely accepted medieval astronomical system was the Ptolemaic universe that held the earth at the centre, surrounded by concentric rings indicating the movements of other celestial bodies. Medieval theologians linked the perfect form of the rose window (and its ability to cast perfect light) to the purity and perfection of the Virgin Mary; the wheel of fortune or wheel of life were also suggested as metaphorical connections. The meanings attached to medieval iconography are various, contested and flexible but — as the largest opening in a Gothic cathedral — the rose window is significant, and by contemplating the perfectly formed light it gave entrance to, worshippers might arrive at a higher plane of thought.

The gallery’s press release for “Portal” suggests that Schwarz’s and Arnoldin’s artworks are concerned with “ushering in the new millennium,” and “anticipate the entrance to a new era.” (This is no doubt what a great many press releases have said about recent exhibitions.) Given the weight of art-historical reference present in these artworks, the artists appear to be more preoccupied with the last millennium. While Schwarz’s past work does not expressly make such connections, Arnoldin’s certainly does. In fact, a turning point for Arnoldin in his conception of what it might be possible to do as an artist came during a 1988 visit to Chartres. He subsequently wrote a poetic (and unpublished) essay recounting his trip to the cathedral, outlining his understanding of the role geometry played in medieval art.

For this exhibition, the Koffler’s main gallery was divided into two discrete rooms, each with its own entrance. Schwarz’s room involved a modification of the gallery’s rear curved wall. A new wall was built to square off the space and to provide a surface into which Crossover (1998) was set. Crossover’s flame-cut plate-steel floats effortlessly in an opening in this wall. The curved wall behind is visible through the grillwork of the sculpture and, at its deepest point, sits back one foot. Unlike the simple radial motifs in Schwarz’s translucent glass works, Crossover presents a complex imbrication of circles, squares, and ovals. The ovals, configured along vertical, horizontal and diagonal axes, read as ellipses, a bit like the orbits of electrons in an atom. The combination of the foreshortened ellipses with the flat circles and squares creates spatial flips between a 2-D and 3-D reading of the work’s designs. A soft-edged shadow cast by Crossover onto the wall behind further increases the dimensional effect.

Crossover is an ambiguous reference to a medieval rose window. The sculpture is clearly not a window, and is obviously spot lit: an elaborate theatre light (an ellipsoidal reflector spot) is positioned on a floor stand at chest height just inside the gallery door. The lower edge of the sculpture is mounted just above viewers’ heads and can be easily inspected at close proximity. Given this clearly theatrical presentation, one might anticipate theatre-prop finishing standards. But, characteristically, Schwarz has lavished attention on the polished and oiled steel. Her carefully produced illusionism is betrayed by her production of an equally purposeful and quite physical object. As one approaches the work, one becomes increasingly aware of the artwork’s flatness and its trompe l’oeil contrivances. For all its graceful artifice, Crossover appears chilling at close range. It is a window onto a lightless wall held in the precise stare of an invariable searchlight. Schwarz’s calculated contradictions do not suggest any guileless opening out onto the next thousand years.

The other main gallery offering offers an equally tenebrous gloom from which Arnoldin’s more conventionally lit Mille (1999) emerges — a pair of fifteen-foot-tall panel doors reaches from the floor to the gallery’s skylight. During the installation, the artist moved a structural beam in the ceiling in order to accommodate the piece. Arnoldin’s interest in scale, given that he working towards a yet-to-be realized building, operates outside of the specifics of any gallery setting. (In 1993, Arnoldin left Garnet Press, the Toronto gallery that represented him, because his ever-expanding projects no longer fit through the front door.) Viewers entering the Mille room of the Koffler Gallery approach the facade of the portal — composed of doors set into a doorjamb and elaborated casing. The doors, doorjamb and casing are made entirely of construction-grade plywood. Each twenty-one-inch panel on the façade is filled with a sheet of cast sculptor’s wax that depicts a pattern of maple leaves. Protruding considerably from the doors are two eighteen-inch-high bronze handles — each representing a pair of milkweed pods split open to reveal orderly rows of seeds. On the doors’ reverse the panels are entirely unadorned save the handles, which here take the shape of two tulips. Mille’s expert joinery and the highly finished, expressionist, patinaed bronze is contrast with the more transitory sculptor’s wax and the rough, knotty plywood. Mille looks, for all the world, like a giant, in-process architectural maquette.

In the doors (as we see them now), Arnoldin has not realized the archivolts or played out the universalizing notion of home outlined in his preparatory drawings. Rather, he has restricted his reflections to a more local context. Common milkweed, a native North American plant, grows in fields, roadsides and in waste places. In Arnoldin’s hands, this prolific weed is given an anthropomorphic, if not positively gynecological, turn: the bronze handles resemble fallopian tubes and ovaries, or perhaps a vulva. The notion of reaching out to grasp the fecundity of the New World’s less explored potential is not what one might expect to find on the doors of a thousand years. In a further nod to an even more Canadian matrix, Arnoldin’s chocolate-coloured sheets of wax maple leaves look like something one could buy at a Laura Secord confectioners. On the door’s inside face, we have tulips, surely the most hybridized and well-travelled of garden plants. Where the medieval clerics sought to make a connection between the humble labours of humanity and the movements of the heavens, Arnoldin sees nature as variously refined and interpreted by its (temporal) human gatekeepers.

The medieval cleric Abbot Suger wrote in the 1140s about the light-filled splendour of the gilded bronze portals of the abbey church at Saint-Denis, north of Paris. Arnoldin presents us with heterogeneous soup of “noble” materials and the less-elevated materials. Rather than the resplendent past or a bright future, Arnoldin seems to indicate that the millennium is a matter of unfinished business.

The juxtaposition of these two coincidental artworks, both having as points of reference the western façade of cathedrals at the start of the past millennium, was fruitful, if not inspired. The artists’ divergent approaches to artmaking were in some ways reconciled through the exhibition. Arnoldin’s voluble expressiveness and madcap shifts of scale are tempered by Schwarz’s dedication to a single, fixed moment. Conversely, the theatricality and potential for narrative implicit in Schwarz’s installations are given some leash through their proximity to Arnoldin. And finally, the rapprochement implicit in an exploration of the viability of a Christian architectural vocabulary at the turn of the millennium at this North Toronto Jewish cultural centre gives the show great poignancy. The culturally rooted forms and vocabulary of “Portal” reminds us that the turn of the millennium may be most reasonably seen as a retrospective stock-taking, a reminder both puckish and grim, of much that has yet to be really understood.

“Rapprochement: Carmelo Arnoldin and Judith Schwarz.” C International Contemporary Art 66, Summer 2000