Me, my Grandmother, the Object, and the Others – Jennifer Couëlle

[Fall 1997]

by Jennifer Couëlle

An exhibition whose objective is to present the work of young and not so young, but above all relatively unknown artists raises expectations – if not particularly with regard to specifics of the works presented, then certainly with regard to what we could call trends.

It is an exercise not so much of prescription as of recognition. An exhibition of fresh talent is distinctive notably for its propensity to allow us to make links and identify the appearance, continuation, or return of artistic currents. It is an opportunity that is out of the ordinary – a fortiori, if one considers that aesthetic consensuses, even involuntary ones, are the fruit of ideologies that prevail beyond the visual arts alone. Art, after all, is a “continuity with fundamental human behaviour.”1 A truism for some, the idea nevertheless deserves to be reaffirmed, since the yoke of art for art’s sake is very hard to throw off.

Does this mean that the photography exhibition Aspects de la relève québécoise et canadienne can reveal something to us about our behaviour? If “we” are the artists, jury, and curator, yes. Although expectations accompanying the announcement of an exhibition of “young” artists cannot seriously include the opportunity to take a full measure of what’s in the air, we may be permitted to hope to breathe in a few whiffs. That’s already quite a bit – enough so that, in an exhibition like this one, we might be on the lookout for recurrences. In the fifth edition of Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal, the “rising stars” section challenges the general notion that current art, for lack of direction, is blowing in the wind. Although it was not organized around a particular theme, the exhibition curated by Pierre Blache brings together works that are surprisingly closely related: almost all of them are introspective and feature the faculty of memory – and not necessarily that intrinsic to photography.

Thus, a common ground of memory, but not created through the impetus of an outside, assembling eye. Through a coincidence of circumstances, no doubt well established in our times and our society, it has imposed itself. Among the nine artists in this exhibition, Sara Angelucci, Dolores Baswick, Janieta Eyre, Mia Weinberg, and Loren Williams – the “female delegation” – draw directly upon memory, a memory that, with the exception of Williams’, is their own.

The excavation of one’s own memory and cultural heritage that comprises research into identity has been a theme in visual arts in Canada for some years now; examples (in photography, video, and film) can be found in the works of Sorel Cohen, Wyn Gelynse, Freda Guttman, Emmanuel Galland, Mindy Yan Miller, and Élène Tremblay. Plainly, the question of identity as raw material of art is in continuity with, rather than a rupture from, the past. But although the mode is tried and true, the stories evoked by the artists necessarily remain unique – or even distinctly strange, as in the case of Janieta Eyre. Her domestic scenes, in which she and her double are eccentric and usually wildly dressed up, recall the worlds of the court jester, Dutch seventeenth-century interiors, Genet’s The Maids, and a madness that is sometimes quite close by, quite “ordinary.” The extravagant trauma of this artist’s autobiographical memory2 incites her, apparently, not to reappropriate reality, nor to abandon it, but to transcend it – to render her past as improbable fiction.

While Eyre transposes her personal memory into a chimera, Sara Angelucci rehabilitates hers into a cultural paradigm: that of the experience of the immigrant faced with inevitable feelings of uprootedness. Recycling an existing visual memory, Super 8 films from the sixties, she assembles into a sort of votive scene still images and a looped video projection of a “made in Canada” Italian garden. A grandmother strolls by and gently disappears in this green space between two countries, which both brings back the aroma of her homeland and isolates her from her adoptive country. A similar sense of belonging to an uprooted community, with the additional burden of persecution involved in the Jewish diaspora, motivates Mia Weinberg’s quest. With her grainy, divided images of rubbings of her ancestors’ tombstones and her projections on drapes – notably of the house in Germany where her father lived – she attempts to express visually the strata and fragmented nature of her emotional heritage.

Dolores Baswick’s autobiographical memory seeks to anchor itself neither in fiction nor in a cultural game, but in a site, and in the transition from one environment to another. Altered to create panoramic views enhanced with impressions of fluidity and progression, these landscape photographs document, as metaphors for identity, the geographic spaces that have marked her moves across Canada. Loren Williams, for her part, chooses obsolete objects, found or purchased, to embody memory – this time, the memory of others. Sparse traces of existence – pomegranates, butterflies, broken crockery, and fragments of books – are placed in wooden boxes as patinaed as their contents, then photographed. If “mnemonic art” is an old tune these days, its variant, the “curiosities cabinet,” in which one may collect and count at will, is more reassuring than familiar.

This being said, does art not value something other than the uniqueness of the mode or concept that rules it? Is it not also in the imprint of the artist, that shifting territory where discourse on art barely survives, that a work is defined?

From Memory to Object
Benefiting from tight framing as if a performance space were devoted exclusively to them, the objects photographed by Williams are also related to the world of icons. And it is this sacral relationship to the object that constitutes the exhibition’s second lode. In Allan Edgar’s work, the large, chromatic surfaces reveal, usually in their centre, a single object or component. For Edgar, a compass, a boat, a treetop is sovereign in an environment that flatters it. In fact, the meticulously prepared spaces are almost as important as the objects that populate them. The aim of this artist’s infinitely malleable production lies mainly in the doing – the scratching and trituration of his negatives.

The Image Creates Itself
The insistent presence of process in Edgar’s work is echoed in Charles Bergeron’s photographs of prefabricated and uniquely mobile sites. The pleasure, and the meaning, of his images reside above all in their capacity to betray (for those who look closely) the world in which they were created. For instance, when we look at a realistic portrayal of the well-known Manicouagan dam in Quebec that turns out to be a miniature model erected on a Florida, it is what preceded the taking of the picture that catches our attention. It is the lie of the image – its fabrication – that fascinates us. A photograph of a vast snowy landscape from which pylons rise would be utterly banal were it not for the gap between its referent and its real subject: a cunning arrangement of small structures made of sticks planted in a snowbank.

Young Artists Take 2
The presence of Ethan Eisenberg and Xuân-Huy Nguyen – photographers whose approaches differ considerably from each other’s and from those of the other participants – in this exhibition responds to a fundamental aspect of a presentation of artists “on the rise.” By favouring the discovery of emerging propositions, this type of undertaking allows us, as I have mentioned, to verify whether or not new cross-references exist. Or, as is the case here, it allows us to note the continuity of certain concerns. But to comply with its primary objective, such an exhibition must be liberal in regard to the nature of work presented; thus, the inclusion of a documentary photographer and of an artist whose work comments from afar on the very milieu of photography against which it must be measured is necessarily appropriate. Both of these photographers are on the margins, either of “art” photography or of certain of its conventions, and the decision to present their work in the context of Aspects de la relève manifestly portrays a desire to give a broad overview to “young” art photography.

In the tradition of humanist photography as it was in its heyday in the thirties, Ethan Eisenberg records human beings – their conditions and emotions – in his photographs. Faces, gestures, and surroundings, here Jewish, there Palestinian, become witnesses to the effects no longer of war, but of the compromise and entrenchments born of a promise of peace. From the Gaza Strip to Jerusalem to Jewish settlements, Eisenberg’s photographs feature contrasts, paradoxes, and uncertainties, as well as the fragile certainty of goodwill.

In a totally different spirit, Xuân-Huy Nguyen’s photographs do not seek; they proclaim! His luminous multicoloured compositions of curios, toys, and cheap dolls make a “contaminated” shambles of “sanctioned” photography. Depending on the ironic aesthetics of the shoddy to lighten his subject matter, Nguyen not only stakes his right to be different, but quotes and defies those in whom he does not recognize himself: Raymonde April, Louis Lussier, Gabor Szilazi, and other representatives of mainstream Quebec photography, typified by the artist as bland, closed, and distant. We find the signature of the “ridiculed” among the odds and ends: used as a dress for a Barbie, pricked into the plump bellies of rubber babies . . . Has art photography in Quebec become so constricted that one must implicate others to make a place for oneself? Or is this the next generation finding its voice?

1 Jean-Marie Schaeffer, «Esthétique, le retour», un entretien réalisé par Camille Saint-Jacques dans Le Journal des Expositions, no 44, Colombes (France), avril 1997.

2 The artist recounts that she was born attached to her twin sister at the head; her sister died at three months of age of the effects of the surgery that separated them.

Art critic and journalist Jennifer Couëlle lives and works in Montreal, and she has been publishing pieces on art since 1989. Her writing appears in the magazines Parachute, CVphoto, and Art Press, among others, and in the newspaper Le Devoir.