After Colville

The title of this exhibition of new works, “After Colville,” refers both to the fact that the photos were taken by the artist immediately after viewing an exhibition of works by Alex Colville and to the evident influence of Colville on the works themselves: in their mood and composition, they may be seen as a sort of homage to Colville’s work – “After Alex Colville,” as a museum placard would say. The title is also a reference to Tom Stoppard’s play After Magritte, an absurd and comical piece of theatre that avails itself of the same ambiguity. The artist himself performed in a production of the Stoppard play when he was a university student. The photographs and their commentary are also intended to raise questions of the interface between viewer and art and of the very place of art in modern life and the role of the gallery as an institution in an era when artistic production is a widespread recreational activity and the technology of small portable cameras supplants for many the essential quiddity of the carefully crafted artistic object, and they also form a critique of the verbal framing of art by placards in galleries.

IMG_1993_a

IMG_1993_a
Photograph
This first image presents us with a simple yet timeless ritual: the consumption of a small cup of perfect coffee in an artistic surrounding. The artist chose to represent the stimulation of viewing Colville’s art through the consumption of a stimulating chemical, caffeine. This image brings to mind previous similar photographs he took on earlier visits, with other cups and tables. The composition deliberately echoes the tight geometry of Colville’s careful paintings. The human figure that dominates each of Colville’s paintings is nearly absent here, however, represented only by one barely visible shoe (the artist’s own). The artist presents himself simply as a foot walking through the gallery, and an eye (that of the camera, echoed by the coffee cup). We are challenged by the erasure of the true human element: Colville’s paintings are of and by a human, but this photograph is from an era of electronics and objects when our very humanity is always already in erasure through overexposure via its hyperreal hyper-representation in “selfies.”

This photograph, like all the images in this exhibit, is named with a modified version of the image file name. The name format is a standard one and suggests to the viewer that the photograph was taken with an iPhone, that ubiquitous chronicler of modern anomie and narcissism. The artist, in this choice of medium, parallels the flaw in the edge of the table, suggesting a crack in the pristine surface of modern aesthetic life and the ultimate disposability of our images and experiences, just as the table itself is sure to end up in a landfill and probably sooner than later. The added “a” on each image name is a personalization and may stand for “altered” or “after” or perhaps, as with highway names (such as the Highway 1A that ran through the artist’s youth), “alternate.” The artist notes disingenuously that “I took the photos with an iPhone because it’s what I had with me,” reminding us that the logic of aesthetic preference is, like the coffee cup, inevitably circular.

IMG_1999_a

IMG_1999_a
Photograph

This photograph was taken through a window in the “tower” section of the Art Gallery of Ontario, on the fourth floor, where modern art is exhibited. The artist notes, “In the past half year the art exhibits up there haven’t changed any more than the view has.” The image presents the viewer with a juxtaposition of curves and straight lines, old and new; the angle of the window reminds us of perspective, which is not only a key element in representational art and mathematically important in Colville’s work but is also essential to the art viewing experience itself in that every viewer brings his or her own perspective. Colville’s work often presents an interface or conflict between the traditional and modern, and is tightly composed and cut off at the edges. This image would never feature in a Colville work, however; it is much too busy and it lacks a human presence. We see windows here, which present openings, but there are no people visible; the artist engages us with the perennial modern question: “Where is everybody?”

IMG_2002_a

IMG_2002_a
Photograph

The tilting and slight curvature of straight lines in this image make the viewer feel disoriented and slightly queasy. The artist has not corrected the barrel distortion present in the very-wide-angle iPhone images, and the slight tilt suggests haste, unsureness, or carelessness. The two figures in this photograph are presented only as legs, again as though the role of the viewer in an art gallery is only an ambulatory one: the seeing and thinking part of the person is erased, eclipsed. This is reinforced by the sign on the wall, “Walker Court.” The swath of wood across the front is the top of the containing wall of a curving staircase on which the artist was standing while he took this picture. The viewer is invited to consider the possibility of climbing over it and falling to the unseen floor below: the ultimate death for art. And yet the two unidentified artworks perceptible in this image look on as dispassionately as the sun and the moon.

IMG_2003_a

IMG_2003_a
Photograph

This photograph presents an encounter, but we do not know its nature. Is it a chance passing, a conversation, a confrontation? Arrangements of two figures are common in Colville’s work, sometimes with the face of one of them not visible, leaving us to follow the unseen gaze and reflect on questions of mortality and morbidity.

IMG_2006_a

IMG_2006_a
Photograph
In this photograph, we are both charmed and saddened by the mother-and-child pair. The child clings to the glass, for protection or with the aim of escape; meanwhile, the face of the mother is partially obliterated by her gesturing hand, pointing to questions of the effacement of the human person of a parent by the role of instructor. We cannot see what she is gesturing to, so we are invited to bring ourselves into the picture and view from her angle. The pink-jacketed person from IMG_2002_a is present again in this image; she may be museum staff, but she is looking away. In the doorway below the pair, we dimly glimpse a male body entering the frame: he is headless as of yet, a disembodied pair of legs representing the oncoming masculine dominance of the spectator-as-headless-ambulator to override the thoughtful feminine role. The daughter will soon have her eyes obliterated as the mother’s are, and ultimately will become a decapitated denizen of the institution of art as the pink-jacketed person is. This photograph was taken from the same position as IMG_2002_a, so we know, given the fixed focal length of an iPhone lens, that it has been cropped. The cropping of the top of the arch recalls the cropping-off of architectural elements in Colville’s work and the decapitation of the institutional bodies in this picture.

IMG_2007_a

IMG_2007_a
Photograph
This image is one of only two horizontal images in this exhibit. Horizontal images, once the default for photographs, have become the exception in images taken by mobile phones due to the standard orientation in which one holds them and the tendency to use them to take pictures of people. The sensuous curves in this image belong to the same staircase as is hinted in IMG_2002_a, a staircase designed by Frank Gehry for the museum’s expansion several years earlier. The photograph thus becomes an appropriate of the architect’s work into the photographer’s oeuvre, reminding us that architecture is not considered by many to be a fine art and inviting us to take part in its “legitimization” through re-presentation. At first, this image appears to be devoid of human figures, but the dark dome in the lower left quadrant, in front of the railing, on closer inspection is revealed as someone’s head. In this way we are shown how enveloping and containing the high walls of the staircase are, a preventative against hurling oneself over and into the void, but at the same time the person is headed towards a void: the forbidding dark archway on the right. The eyes are again invisible, calling into question the legitimacy of the act of viewing and also telling us that the person could not see that he or she was being photographed. The artist notes that “unlike a regular camera, an iPhone has the bonus of being silent when it takes a picture, so it’s possible to be entirely surreptitious and not disturb people or alert them to the fact that they are being photographed, which could affect their behaviour.” In this way he again implicates us in the scopophilia of the gallery, where humans become stalkers of the aesthetic image and of each other.

IMG_2010_a

IMG_2010_a
Photograph
This image swirls with curves interplaying with straight lines in perspective. Some of the curves are from the arches in the old architecture of the building, and some are from the newer curving staircase, which is the staircase on which the artist was standing when taking pictures IMIG_2002_a through IMG_2007_a. The careful and cropped composition echoes the compositions of Colville’s paintings. In a Colville painting, however, we might see a figure in the foreground, and perhaps a gun on the wooden surface; here, we see only a distant figure carefully placed on the left side of an archway, looking upward as he walks. On the right side, a sign is cut off at the letter P. Is this for Presence, or Perspective, or Photography? Or is it the beginning of the word Please, as in (perhaps) “Please do not place handguns on the ledge”?

IMG_2016_a

IMG_2016_a
Photograph
This image presents more cropped curves, a consistent theme in this exhibition. It is much more human than the others, however: it shows three women in full figure, one gesturing forward, one holding her hands to her eyes, the third just entering the frame. The cropped-off foot of the bottom figure repeats the theme of cropping present throughout this exhibit, and may be a repudiation of, or answer to, the disembodied foot seen in the first photograph of the exhibit. It is answered by the bust in the centre of the photograph (a bust of a pope, identified in recent years as a Bernini and consequently moved to a place of pride), which has very the top of its head cut off by the door frame. The triangular composition of the three women is reminiscent of the careful geometry of figures in Colville’s paintings. The artist invites us to join these women to enter and explore the gallery – but is the incipient decapitation of an old paternal religious figure a portent of what will become of them?

IMG_2018_a

IMG_2018_a
Photograph
This photograph was taken in the Art Gallery of Ontario shop. It prominently features kitchenware and other housewares, which may seem out of place in the store of an art establishment; it asks us to consider whether there is a true dividing line between the aesthetics of houseware design and that of paintings and sculptures, two realms that may be joined in the middle by the ostentatiously aesthetic yet functional architecture of the Art Gallery of Ontario edifice itself as seen in the previous pictures. The colours have had their saturation enhanced, as though the world of functional objects is more vivid than the etiolated and withering sphere of the pure aesthetic object. The image features a strong single figure, as in many Colville paintings; he is facing away from the camera and apparently unaware of his role in the aesthetic production, simply a faceless mute personage, deafened to the world by his headphones, who might as easily have wandered into a housewares department and looked up to find himself in an art gallery, wondering what the difference was. The human figure partially conceals a mannequin bust, which brings to mind the first painting that Colville felt was truly successful, showing his wife looking out an attic window while a mannequin bust dominates the foreground. The glow at the top of the picture invites us to the heaven of consumerism while at the same time reminding us that we are in the world of the real and dirty – we may assume it is present due to smudging on the lens of the phone, which is heavily handled.

IMG_2032_a

IMG_2032_a
Photograph
In the last image of the exhibit, we find ourselves entirely away from the gallery and into the real world that the art supposedly represents. This is St. Patrick station on the Toronto subway, the closest station to the Art Gallery of Ontario. The photo of an oncoming subway train taken from the platform is one of the great clichés of Toronto urban photography, but at the same time it too recalls Colville: the obvious and perfect perspective, the pensive figure in the foreground, a hint perhaps of the horse and train from Colville’s most famous painting (which appears in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining). We are unsettled by the anomie and the faint suggestion of suicide. At the same time, there are people in the background, a normalizing presence reminding us that a person walking around with a cell phone cannot always control all elements of the composition; as pure as it might have been not have had them there, the photographer could not exactly shoo them away, and he did not wish to digitally alter the photographs – other than adjusting the colours and levels, which leaves us to ask ourselves whether those privileged silent alterations are less altering than the erasure of other details.

An overall note about the exhibition 

The presentation of the text in the captions for the artworks contains many sections in strikethrough, a style that preserves legibility while at the same time signifying deletion. This presentation imbues the work with a chill of censorship and a suggestion of the evanescence of the written word, and it begs questions not only of the “legibility” of artworks themselves but of the erasure of the critical voice, the disappearance of the reflective approach to artwork in a time when so much is dictated from “above” and the the curator’s presence is not only obsolescent but in fact always already self-erasing at the moment of utterance through the perpetual requestioning of thought. It can also be seen as an expression of the artist’s view that “there is a lot of onanistic bullshit written on gallery placards that doesn’t enhance the understanding or appreciation of the artwork for anyone other than the people who write it, and possibly not them either. Interpretation of artwork is an enjoyable sport, but it’s a game that each viewer should get to play for him or herself over and over. Some placards are like fully-played gameboards lacquered into place: the critic has had his fun and you don’t get to. I’d prefer to know details of the context and material and the work’s place in the artist’s oeuvre, things that help me understand it better, and maybe get a few thoughts on the content presented as simple suggestions, and not be told what I’m looking at or how I’m reacting to it. Also, sometimes they just use too many words.

9 responses to “After Colville

  1. Just love this!! Sustained, pitch-perfect parody, and a whole lot more. How did you train the tongue to be eloquent while jammed in a cheek?

    • I used to write critical theory all the time as a drama grad student. And I’ve read so many museum placards… I took photos of some of the worst ones from the Colville exhibition and looked at them again for inspiration. I decided for copyright reasons (and fun) not to use them directly.

  2. Oh, and terrific photographs, ironies apart.

  3. Glancing through the text and its strikethroughs, my eyes rested on the unstricken-through phrase: “onanistic bullshit.”

    Definitely worth posting in “fun.”

  4. One feels inevitably encircled.

  5. That was … totally wicked!

    But have you considered the alternative and obvious explanation for the exhibition title, that something seminal and awful happened once in Colville?

    [Or as the kids call it, Colville.]

    • The actual exhibition at the AGO is title just “Alex Colville.” “After Colville” is the name I gave satirically to my own “exhibition” of iPhone photos for the purpose of taking a shot at museum placard writing. But now you have added another sense to it, which I also like… and which also forms a kind of critique…🙂

  6. Pingback: evanescence | Sesquiotica

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