Péripéties – James D. Campbell

[Fall 2010]

This exhibition highlights narrative disruption and its consequences in five mature bodies of photographic and video work, and demonstrates how the uncanny seeps in and out of those ruptures in an auratic and seismic way, even as meaning and dénouement are delayed. The moment of temporal and spatial suspension allows for the viewer’s psyche to project into, and become entwined with, events that are destined to remain enigmatic. Works by Bettina Hoffman, Carlos and Jason Sanchez, Milutin Gubash, Eve K. Tremblay, and Chih-Chien Wang allow for dovetailing continuities on this theme, even as their bodies of work remain idiosyncratic and distinct. Ably curated by Sylvain Campeau, this exhibition broached a theme that made for a very diverting experience.

Eve K. Tremblay’s images have multi-tiered references that reinforce one another, even if it is not necessary to have knowledge of any or all to savour their visual clarity, theatrical resonance, and seductive mien. Having long since proven to be one of the most important young photographers working today, Tremblay continues to jar us with images that possess truly Truffautian and Sarrautean triggers. The works included here are from her series Postures Scientifiques. Tropismes is at once a reference to the work of Nathalie Sarraute, to the scientific term, and to botany. Both the triptych and Tropismes were shot at the Institut de biologie moléculaire des plantes, and they transport the viewer into a fairytale world of science in which enigma reigns supreme and the self casts a long shadow over the proceedings. The viewer is encouraged to find his or her own nameless Other in the tableau vivant.

Milutin Gubash understood the curatorial rationale for the show to have something to do with “a reversal of fortune,” and his interest in the interplay between chance and deliberation in art (or fate, as he says) is clearly on display in the third “episode” of his DIY sitcom from a project titled Born Rich, Getting Poorer (2008–present). In this episode, the artist is asleep and dreams that the ghost of his dead father is now residing in an Emerik Fejes painting. (In reality, his father grew up next door to Fejes, now the most celebrated naïve artist from Yugoslavia.) His father’s ghost recounts having had the opportunity to own many of Fejes’s paintings, but he had failed to recognize their importance. So the episode is an attempt by Gubash to pair and conflate small failures and large failures in arresting fashion throughout.

Chih-Chien Wang is the resolute stoic in the show, even as the surreal sprouts like wildflowers everywhere in his work. Here, seemingly mundane objects – the sundry artefacts found in any household – take on a strange particularity in space and time. They are also concrete integers of self and shed light not only on how this artist lives, but how he thinks about the objects that he lives with. I have spoken elsewhere of his work as an improvisatory cartography of the immediate horizon of the lived world.

It is as though he is specifying objects that most of us take for granted and seem homely, and transforming them into enigmatic ciphers. The palette is breathtakingly domestic, from the transparent plastic of storage containers to the green-and-yellow sheen of organic things such as melons and pineapples and banana skins. Frequently the clarity of his palette extends beyond the ordinary into the extraordinary. Familiar and foreign at one and the same time, Wang’s imagery gives itself over to the indeterminate and the uncanny.

Bettina Hoffmann’s captivating video is something of a point of fulcrum here. Given its scale and hypnotic appeal, it governs movement within the exhibition space. Inside a bedroom, a host of characters are frozen in time and movement. The large-scale projection encompasses us and draws us in as a mute presence, our curiosity piqued. A slow, relentless camera pan around various figures in the room – standing, sitting or reclining on a bed – reminds us of a latter-day history painting in the round: using the language of cinema, a Géricaultian Raft of the Medusa of contemporary social reality. Within this infinite present tense is the rich suggestion of unknowable layered and intimate relationships, and we feel as though we are voyeurs at a specific vantage point within the room. Hoffmann weaves us into her nature morte as if we were inside a painting, as a truly disincarnate optic, and we are swept up in the uncanny.

Carlos and Jason Sanchez, stereotyped as the bad boys of contemporary photographic practice, once again do not disappoint in terms of anxious imagery and cinematographic gravitas. The disruptive theatricality of an image such as Identification (which seems to deal with a father in a morgue identifying a dead loved one, but who knows?) induces a jarring sense of emotional unease. Theirs is a methodology of narrative disruption the shock imagery of which always stakes a potent claim upon us, even if we are not sure precisely what has transpired or will transpire. Clearly, however, there has been a palpable rip in the fabric of certainty, leaving room for the wayward to take root and a nascent sense of upset and anxiety to flower. The Sanchezes have a rare knack for bringing suggestive psychological content to bear on situations that are never clearly explained, but cinematographically razor-edged. Their work is also an activated zone for our own projection and working through of image.

Here we have Gubash, the poet of large and small failures; Tremblay, a theatrical Alice who falls down the rabbit hole of science and finds religion in ambiguity and the enigmatic; Carlos and Jason Sanchez gleaning from systemic rupture dark revelations about our shared humanity; Hoffmann’s revolving history painting video with its remarkable purvey on the social as a web of unfathomable relations; and Wang’s resolute stoicism in the midst of surreal domestic tableaux. All of these artists elude safe taxonomy; they all flirt with the edge. In fact, I would go further and say that all the works in the show are, at base, about living on the edge, in the moment of rupture, and inhabiting the liminal. These are all artists who have taken significant risks within their respective bodies of work, and, at least in this exhibition, those risks invariably pay off.

James D. Campbell is a writer on art and independent curator based in Montreal. The author of over 100 books and catalogues on contemporary art and artists, he contributes frequently to visual arts publication across Canada.

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