John Armstrong

Denise Macharacek Cake & Bread
Art Gallery of Peel

Over the past several years, I’ve encountered clusters of Denise Macharacek’s quizzical, small-scale paintings in a number of Toronto’s Queen West galleries. Her paintings portray all manner of ordinary things, and offer a not-too-sober editorial view of both the solemn genre of still-life painting and the everyday. This exhibition extends the investigation.

Cake & Bread comically reenacts the medieval fascination with the struggle between the virtues and the vices: on one side of a very long, thin gallery at the Art Gallery of Peel, fifty-two paintings intermingle, each depicting an object meant to denote either a “virtue” or a “vice.” Macharacek has asked a number of her friends and acquaintances to come up with lists of objects that fall to either side of the moral divide. Her resource people find virtue in a fountain pen, dental floss and a milk carton; and vice in a pillow, bubblegum and a turtleneck sweater. If this stark division of the quotidian doesn’t strike you as being entirely convincing, that is undoubtedly the point. Macharacek’s survey appears to be an inside job: her collaborators must agree that this moral battle has foundered on the shoals of crushing relativity.

In suggesting these banal objects, Macharacek’s collaborators must also be aware of the artist’s past work. Macharacek’s modestly scaled (one-by-one foot) paintings, like her paintings of the last six or so years, each depict a representational image floating on a shiny black canvas ground. Her quizzical images are rendered in a pastel palette, and are painterly approximations of the faux-naïf variety — to the point that the images may not always be identifiable. In the present exhibition, for example, the dental-floss container could be read as a window alcove, as its perspective flips from projection to recession; and a fountain pen may double as a vibrator. Presented in their tenebrous, jewel-box settings, these objects appear uncertain of their identity, ever ready to morph into another household accoutrement. Virtue and vice indeed: this domestic bric-a-brac is not going to take you any great distance in a moral universe.

Macharacek plays off the moral allegories that still-life painting has traditionally presented — as in 17th-century Dutch memento mori paintings, where a flower in full bloom is understood to signify the fleeting moment of youth. She will have none of this didacticism, and none of the practice of elevating the everyday to any higher symbolic order. The everyday stays the everyday, and may even have trouble being that. Her deft, painterly interpretations are, before all else, an exercise in severely economical gestural interpretation. Removed from their context, her subjects are unable to reliably point to what is represented. In this respect, her paintings demonstrate the difficulty and the many pitfalls of description and communication.

Helpfully, on the wall facing the salon-style hanging of her paintings, Macharacek has handlettered the names of her painted subjects. Even though the name of each object is located directly across from the corresponding painting, the connection between the words and the paintings is not obvious. The words float in varnished squares (echoing the format of the paintings) on a large expanse of matte peach paint. It is as though the gravitas Macharacek bestows upon her humble subjects is too much for them to bear.

I am reminded of 1996 collaged works made from cloth recuperated from sewn-together packages sent from France to Canada. (Macharacek’s French grandmother sent the packages in the 1960s, when, surprisingly, hand-sewn cloth rather than string and brown paper was still used in France to wrap mailed packages.) In fabricating these artworks, Macharacek sewed lengths of the scuffed and abraded cotton wrapping material together and stretched the resulting amalgam up as a painting. The mailing addresses — some scratched out, others barely legible — and the various postal labels directed messages between people and places that no longer exist. We see the mailing instructions, but no message. There is something similarly sinister behind Macharacek’s newest work; we scan her renditions of all manner of personal belongings — nail polish, soap, perfume, lingerie — each placed in a black abyss, rendered in the friendliest of expressive manners, yet devoid of their usual purpose: a circulation in the day to day. In this cooked-up moral drama, these things hauntingly lack a home.

Brochure essay by curator John Armstrong published by the Art Gallery of Peel on the occasion of the exhibition Denise Macharacek: Cake & Bread, 2003.