John Armstrong

Tableau Vivant 1995-2000

During the past few years, Toronto has witnessed a mushrooming of small galleries along a stretch of Queen Street West (west of Niagara) that is now fairly teeming with young commercial exhibition spaces. Wren Jackson’s Tableau Vivant was among the first and remained one of the most dynamic. Jackson is now closing shop and moving to Italy.

Nestled among a number of not-always-occupied low-rise commercial/residential properties across from Trinity Bellwoods Park, Tableau Vivant was never easy to spot. Jackson’s signage, which took various forms over the years, has finally shrunk to about 6 by 8 inches of white vinyl lettering on her storefront window. I asked her if she had ever considered a sign that might be legible to someone other than the most attentive pedestrian. She replied that she had, but that the idea of having to choose the font, scale and material of the sign was something she felt most comfortable approaching incrementally.

Jackson completed her undergraduate studies in art history, film history and fine art over a period of ten years and at a distance of over 2,000 miles — at Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design, York University and the Ontario College of Art and Design. Like many young art students and recent graduates, In order to support herself and her practice in painting and photography (interests that would later find expression in the artwork she exhibited in her gallery), Jackson looked around for suitably independent part-time work. The example Jackson chose to follow was that of Toronto artist Julie Voyce — an ingenious self-starter and domestic-cleaning-service provider. (Voyce identifies herself up on her telephone message as a “Cleaner of Dirt, Maker of Things.”) Jackson started up a cleaning company —Vivid Cleaning Service — which emphasized the use of environmentally friendly cleaning products.  Clients included commercial galleries such as Drabinsky Friedland and the artist-run centres YYZ and Mercer Union. Unexpectedly, her five years of scouring and organizing a diverse range of galleries eventually led her to open one that would fall somewhere between those models.

Jackson now sums up Tableau Vivant as “artist-run, commercial and anti-establishment.” When she opened the gallery in 1995 she wanted, above all else, to provide emerging (or perpetually emerging) artists with a new way into the gallery system. Like contemporary artist-run centres, she didn’t set out to represent artists on an ongoing basis, but to provide a launch that would take them elsewhere. Like commercial galleries, Jackson worked with exhibitors on a commission basis, but stressed a shared, up-front investment: artists paid a fee that represented about a third of the expenses associated with their show (rent, invitations, advertising); Jackson fronted the rest. The first sales, — up to the amount of the artist’s up-front investment — went directly to the artist; and the commission on sales kicked in once the artists had covered her/his expenses.

Most of the artists that Jackson worked with initially presented their work to her in. Through word of mouth, they were attracted to the unpretentious, intimate setting the gallery offered, as well as to Jackson’s flexibility in terms of any on-going commitment. Jackson has worked successfully with several artists who were, for any number of reasons, suspicious of established gallery systems  — both commercial and artist run. To the end, she was reluctant to verbally affix a specific aesthetic, ideological or commercial direction to her gallery. Artists were undoubtedly put at ease by her self-effacing support and openness. And opinion on Jackson confirms these qualities: Catherine Osborne in the Toronto art magazine Lola (Winter 1999-2000) remarked on the “quietly driven Wren Jackson”; Kyo Maclear in Toronto Life (June 1998) called her a “gentle provocateur.”

Though she had a general policy of not offering artists second exhibitions, Jackson’s approach to the gallery’s business evolved and exceptions crept in: outsider artist Menno Krant had six shows over five years and photographer Peter MacCallum had four. That Krant’s exhibitions, Jackson explains, were commercially successful provided some incentive, and as for MacCallum, she simply enjoyed working with him. This past year, Jackson assumed all of the costs of her exhibitions and considered negotiating ongoing (though not exclusive) representation with several artists. Her gradual move to a more conventional model was perhaps influenced by a stint working in a more traditionally commercial gallery setting. While maintaining the programming at Tableau Vivant, Jackson also worked for a year (1997-98) as the director of the Wave Gallery, a commercial enterprise owned by Arnold Wytenburg and located in the Morrow Avenue gallery complex.

Apart from Jackson’s experimentation with the structure of her gallery and its relationship with individual artists, and even possibly in spite of herself, she succeeded in creating that most intangible of things — an aesthetic program that many of her exhibitions shared. In researching of this article, I came to consider the shows at Tableau Vivant and Wave Gallery as being part of a connected régime. Several artists exhibited in both galleries, and the difference in the two galleries’ programming was most often that of polish or scale, not substance. Wave provided a much larger space and the gallery’s aims were meant to be more expressly commercial; to some degree, the fare of Tableau Vivant was more experimental or at least was less immediately commercially viable. Jackson has shown a preponderance of painting and drawing, along with a good measure of photography and installation. What many of these artists share is an interest in thinking through conventions of artmaking that may, on the face of it, seem to be quite traditional — whether the scumble-and-glaze paintings of Douglas Walker or backlit photographic transparencies of Anette Larsson.

Over the years, Jackson presented work by a seemingly diverse range of (principally Toronto) artists: Eli Langer, Michelle Gay, Douglas Walker, Kate Wilson, Reid Diamond, Rebecca Diederichs, Angela Leach, Gretchen Sankey, Ron Giii, Janet Werner, Peter MacCallum, Eldon Garnet, Jack Niven, Michael Lewis, Andrew Reyes, Elizabeth and Ellen McIntosh, and Moira Clark, to name a few. Jackson is reluctant to offer a rationale for her choices. She has selected some artists that she doesn’t straight away appreciate in order to challenge her own habits of mind; and she has exhibited artists simply because she has felt that work of a certain type is too seldom seen. For most exhibitions Jackson worked directly with the artists; in other cases she simply gave her gallery over to an artist or artists: such shows were designated as “artist run.” Certainly, the modest and decidedly domestic scale of the two rooms in Tableau Vivant, coupled with the dense installations she favours, left a particular impression. The gallery’s intimate nature supports Jackson’s contention that artworks should be found in the home; and, like many art dealers, she was among her own best clients.

Jackson is keenly interested in emerging artists, and after following the work of Matthew Stein for over a year, showed his diminutively scaled oil paintings in August 1997. Stein had recently finished his studies at the Toronto School of Art (where he had worked closely with instructor Gretchen Sankey). This was his first off-campus solo exhibition. Stein characteristically worked in a caricatural manner over roughly impastoed and overpainted grounds that only partially hid underlying images. (He often worked over discarded paintings he found at art school.) In his exhibition Anatomy of Melancholy, Stein presented three bodies of paintings, each remarkably accomplished but in their diversity symptomatic of his relative youth. The earliest grouping of pictures was based on found photographs of accident and murder victims and depicted violent death; another portrayed sliced-open children’s toys (such as stuffed animals and dolls), onto which cut-away views of human organs or an imaginative portrait head were grafted. In the third, dark, abstracted landscapes and ocean views could be seen through, for example, a veil of murky, scumbled snow. Tragically, the artist took his own life shortly after this exhibition.

Although Jackson had seen Douglas Walker’s well-known cliché verres and photographs in exhibitions at Toronto’s S. L. Simpson Gallery in the 1980s and early 90s, she came across his more recent paintings at the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition in 1996 and 97. Walker’s initial assays in painting, which he exhibited at this rambling, juried art and craft fair, were small-scale oils of traditional still-life subjects such as lemons, limes, flowers or asparagus — all of which demonstrate a more than passing acquaintance with similar pictures by Edouard Manet and Gustave Courbet. Jackson has one of these early still-life paintings in her own collection.

The hauntingly ambiguous paintings in Walker’s three exhibitions at Tableau Vivant, including a solo exhibition in 1998, took the idea of art historical recuperation a step further. These small paintings conflated a number of more obliquely cited high-art sources with stylistic ticks associated with naïve painting. Untitled #128 (1998) depicts a lighthouse on a treed island set in contrejour lighting against a sulphurous sunset. The silhouetted trees are surely derived from the oh-so lachrymose weeping willows found on turn-of-the-century gravestones across Canada. The surrounding sea’s gray waters are rendered in a stylized curling pattern reminiscent of the technical innocence displayed in early Canadian topographic paintings. Walker quite consciously creates a ruse of faux aging: the surfaces of the paintings are often cracked or appear soiled, and each painting is framed in a similarly distressed traditional frame of the artist’s devising. One easily imagines these works piled up in a forgotten corner of a flea market.

Walker’s landscapes wink cleverly and often to the tradition of 19th-century Romantic painting; Caspar David Friedrich’s eerie, vacant land or water vistas are not far behind Walker’s Untitled #128 (1998). This painting also alludes to the meteorological phenomena depicted in many of J. M. W. Turner’s maritime paintings, as well as the pierced rock outcropping at Étretat often painted by Gustave Courbet and Claude Monet. And all of Walker’s paintings surely owe something to the moody, crepuscular landscapes and marines of Albert Pinkham Ryder who also submitted his paintings to calculated indiscretions to create the effects of pronounced aging. Walker’s paintings comprise so many patently moody and affecting sources that that they ought to be overburdened catalogues of familiar Romantic fare; paradoxically, his paintings dash any sentimental view of transcendent nature on the shoals of their own manufacture. Perhaps this has mostly to do with the fact that what appear to be smallish, knocked-about and forgotten objets d’art are oddly kin with his subjects: somber islands, shipwrecks, architectural ruins.

Veteran Toronto documentary photographer Peter MacCallum’s first exhibition at Tableau Vivant in November 1996 was titled “Interiors.” The exhibition was a departure from his past solo outings, which customarily presented focused studies of specific industrial or workplace settings. (Suites documenting Toronto’s National Rubber Cawthra Plant, the Wickett and Craig Tannery, and Spadina Avenue garment industries come to mind.) For “Interiors,” Jackson chose works from a number of his existing portfolios to emphasize their merit as self-sufficient artworks. “Interiors” included MacCallum’s photographs of Queen Street West’s Jacobs Hardware, which depict the jumbled and densely packed interiors of this longtime local merchant. The photographs of Jacobs Hardware mischievously rhymed with Tableau Vivant’s spare but shopworn interior. By contrast, the cavernous and busy factory interior of an assembly line in the Massey Ferguson plant captured the soon-to-be-defunct manufacturing facility prior to its demolition. MacCallum went on to exhibit a version of his Tableau Vivant show in 1998 at Harbourfront Centre’s “Photo Passage.”

The theme of an ever-evolving workplace within a specific (often industrial) setting was again poignantly explored by MacCallum in his third solo exhibition at Tableau Vivant, “Downtown Industries,” in May 1999. For example, Restoration Work, Gardiner Expressway near Fleet Street, Toronto (1998) records the mending of four of the damaged concrete pillars supporting the elevated portion of Toronto’s lakefront, twenty-one-kilometre-long expressway. In the uppermost sections of the pillars we see that the unsound concrete has been chipped away, while the lower portions of the pillars are sheathed in plywood forms waiting to be patched. Amongst the proliferation of scaffolding, formwork and errant planks are four purposeful workers, two up on the scaffolding, two in conversation on the ground. As is often the case in MacCallum’s pictures, the seeming enormity and chaos of an industrial site is imbued with a rationale of human endeavour. MacCallum seems to say that chaos, or at least the appearance of chaos, and what may seem to be cold, impersonal work environments are perceptions of the workplace that spring from an alienated (or decidedly unsympathetic) view of work and industrial production. That industry all too easily betrays its essential human component is seldom so insistently argued.

Jackson first encountered Eli Langer’s artwork in his first solo outing in 1993 at Mercer Union —  where a number of his artworks were removed from the exhibition by the Metro Toronto Police, and the artist and gallery director were charged under Canada’s newly minted Child Pornography Act. Early in 1995 the Crown Attorney withdrew the charges, and later that year the court ruled to return the confiscated works to the artist. Jackson, like many viewers, found Langer’s treatment of the difficult subject of the sexual relationship between children and adults both troubling and compelling. She was impressed by Langer’s deft painterly shorthand: Langer worked in simplified, contrasting tones and colours, mostly black and red, which lent his paintings, on one hand, a sort of calming illustrative assuredness, and on the other, a hellish, theatrical tone.

Langer’s first exhibition with Jackson was at the Wave Gallery in October 1997. This exhibition, his first in Toronto after Mercer Union, comprised paintings of a similar theatricality. The artist’s palette shifted to an equally artificial range of stage-gel colours: warm greys, military drab green and Naples yellow. His solitary men and women are often hooded and attired in various ways that are sexually suggestive: depicted in lingerie or in body suits with openings cut out for their genitals, or tattooed with suggestive images. Langer’s protagonists perform the choreography of sexual availability; they recline, lounge about propped up on their elbows, sit forward on the edge of their seats. While Langer’s earlier pictures offered an entire context for his depictions of sexual encounter — a bedroom, a view beneath a dining room table, a cupboard interior seen through a half open door — here we encounter lone figures without mediating context, as though they are performing solely for us. Now it is the adults who are vulnerable and even a bit forlorn; the artist’s presence no longer as removed or voyeuristic.

When Langer showed at Tableau Vivant was held in November 1999, his paintings had shrunk further in scale, and his interest in contrasting tonality was replaced by closely valued tones, at times barely discernable. Langer now had us now peering into his whited-out tableau, waiting for our eyes to adjust. Images of reclining figures persisted, their genitals exposed and their legs up in the air appear; or ghoulish, Ensor-like faces peered back at us. Langer’s new interest in attacking legibility found further expression in the photographs included in the show. Here, Langer photographed his motifs — a flower pistil, a spare seascape, the legs of a wax museum figurine — and then re-photographs them until a diffused image was achieved. One exception to this is a cropped, sharply focused, gynecological view of a woman’s labia from which a stream of urine issued. The empathetic concerns of his previous artwork have given way in this exhibition to a carnival atmosphere of half-glimpsed spectacle. The exhibition seemed oddly laconic; his dedication to the social foibles of humanity now replaced with a shaky mechanics of representation.

Anette Larsson’s exhibition with Jackson came early in the artist’s career. pleasure vision II, Larsson’s array of illuminated transparencies, was mounted in Wave’s elongated space in February 1998. The architecturally scaled artwork provided a dramatic counter to the gallery’s windows on a facing wall. Her nine lightboxes offer a panoramic view of linked images of fingers touching parts of a naked body. Each image is based on a 35-mm photograph the artist made of her reflection in a mirror. Enlarged, the images become ambiguous, grainy details of anatomy: part of a neck, thigh, collarbone, underarm or torso. Larsson tinted the transparencies with an otherworldly blue wash, and applied a matte, skin-like membrane to dull the reflective. Wide variations in magnification between images make it impossible, in most cases, to identify the part of the body subjected to scrutiny, while formal continuity is provided through the juxtaposition of coincidentally shared contours and shapes.

Larsson’s installation presents a beguilingly truncated view of photographically rendered pleasure. Viewed as a sequence, pleasure vision II could be seen as a blow-by-blow record of lovemaking or of struggle (one hand appears to dig a little too deeply into the flesh). The blue wash could be seen as the indicator of erotic “blue” movies, but Larsson pointedly avoids the depiction of the corporeal sites such films emphasize. Rather, by virtue of linking the elements, we are directed to look at the entire nine-panel composite and behold a sort of monstrous hybrid of haptic possession. We watch the artist’s hands touch grainy expanses and folds of skin without any context or reason. Public sexual pleasure, Larsson seems to say, is without bounds, no longer tied to the rehearsed voyeurism of erotica and pornography. Erotic self-absorption is the stock-in-trade of fashion and lifestyle photography, and indeed Larsson’s presentation of photographs in the sort of steel lightboxes one finds in bus shelters and shopping malls suggests this connection. But pleasure vision II avoids pointed social critique, and dispassionately locates pleasure in glowing, narcissistic and repetitive ritual.

Moira Clark’s 1999 show “Place Setting” at Tableau Vivant was this well-known Toronto printmaker’s first painting exhibition. Her still-lifes evoke the heightened colour and patterning characteristic of European modernism. Clark’s motifs are the cast-off pitchers, bowls, plates, and teacups found in thrift shops and at yard sales. Two recurring types of dishes appear in her paintings: an inexpensive and widely available white English ironstone dating from the late 1800s and restaurant-service glassware of Canadian production made from the 1950s on. Clark’s paintings abstract and simplify one or several of her dishware motifs, and render them at either a modest or monumental scale. The ironstone crockery is painted in layers of warm and cool off-whites; these closely valued, bleached tones, in combination with a semi-opaque scumbling of the paint, lend the china a flickering pearlescent quality. The domestic objects are often pictured obliquely, seen from above and tipping forward, affording a view into their interiors.

The crockery’s reduced and ambiguous forms are further heightened by the dizzying patterns and saturated colours of Clark’s grounds. She models the grounds on the woven patterns of chair caning, perhaps making a playful reference to Pablo Picasso’s hallmark Cubist painting of 1912, Still Life with Chair Caning. Picasso also used an oil-cloth print of a caning motif as a collage element. Like Picasso, Clark treats the caning motif as though it were glued to the surface of the canvas, but unlike Picasso she realizes each stitch of the caning as individual brushwork, creating a link between the handwoven caning and the physical act of painting it. Clark reduces the crockery’s design to nuance, whereas her painted caning interweaves pronounced colour juxtapositions to give the ground great prominence. Her interest in overwhelming her carefully chosen crockery makes the domestic objects seem strange. Her seasoned dishware has undergone a bleaching evocative of the haziness of recollection. But there is no nostalgia here; rather the dishes are empty and seem rudely unsettled, diminished by the optical theatrics of grounds. We see a confident display of painterly subterfuge suggesting how tradition, whether decorative or domestic, may bear down upon the incidental things with which we surround ourselves.

Despite Tableau Vivant’s open and flexible arrangements with exhibiting artists, some of those whose work I have explored here did nonetheless come to be associated with the gallery — a virtual stable. Over five short years — on scant resources and with understated grace — Wren Jackson introduced and assisted many artists through a vigorous, wide-ranging roster of exhibitions.

“Tableau Vivant: 1995-2000.” C International Contemporary Art 69, Spring 2000-2001