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Appearing (review; published when?)

Vikky Alexander, April Gornik, Anne Ramsden, Joyan Saunders, Martha Townsend, Carol Wainio, Wendy Wortsman

Art Gallery, Mount Saint Vincent University; Halifax, Nova Scotia, November 17-December 11, 1983.


One of the few coherent facts to be learned from the lengthy catalogue essay for this exhibition is that six of these seven artists spent time in Halifax at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. Joyan Saunders has been included, I gather, because she has not done time in Halifax. The logic of this escapes me, but then if there is an aesthetic or thematic logic to this exhibition as a whole, that escapes me too. The apparent common denominator for the selection seems to consist in being in “close association” with its curator, Bruce Ferguson. Whatever that means, the combination was not a happy one and most likely did not do justice to the individual artists by creating a rather bleak and dispirited general impression.

Of the three painters, Carol Wainio’s works were the most complex and also the most problematic. They invite us to attend to textbook issues like progress and the forms and functions of society’s institutions which exist outside the realm of art. Yet their subjects are expressed in such casual, fortuitous imagery and art-historically entrenched painterly mannerisms that these issues are made obscure and their narrative indecipherable. Wainio is technically very skillful and plays the surface of her canvas in naïve rococo style, but underlying this decoration is a calculating intellectualism which conditions the work at every level and makes its expressive spontaneity appear disingenuous.

While Wainio’s paintings deflect the viewer with their ambiguous candour, Gornik’s tend to seduce him or her with smooth black-velvety surfaces and credibly simple, straightforward subject matter. She showed three large landscapes—all very dark—literally lots of black and dark gray, very spacious and artificially atmospheric, and very contrived—endeavouring to express the ominous presentiments of vast unhumanized territories. These paintings almost work—are almost alarming and foreboding, almost sinister and frightening, almost mysterious and hypnotic, but for one thing. They lack the sensual, immaculate, and illusory surface that this kind of painting demands. It has to be perfect to create the magic spell essential to synthetic, symbolist landscape space. This is a technical matter that cannot be settled with the intellect as Gornik tries to do. Rather it must be done by the mind while it is totally and organically absorbed in a waking dream.

Wortsman presents in four quite large paintings yet another aspect of post-Modernist literary painting. Her preoccupations here are with visual analogies which refer lightheartedly to male genitals and sexual behaviour. She shows more concern for the conventional 20th-century devices of picture making, composing in large flat areas of simple colours, self-conscious painterly brushwork, and rudimentary cartoonist drawing. These works exist all on one level—simple jokes about simple ideas, simply expressed. It was as if they had arrived folded up with the rest of the newspaper on Sunday morning.

Townsend makes art out of scavenged or found materials such as used typewriter erase tape, her own hair, and old shingles. Visually these objects are not very interesting, but she presents them as display items with clever allusive titles bearing messages and invocations. Language is obviously a natural tool for her, and the best thing in the whole exhibition was the autobiographical paragraph of malapropisms in her catalogue statement. This was funny and a relief from the straining intellectualism and moralizing overtones of the rest of the show.

Saunders, Ramsden, and Alexander use the camera either for still photography or video, and of the three Joyan Saunders is by far the most intelligent and interesting. Her eight 20"x24" black and white photographs take the form of carefully composed pictograms or suggestive illustrations for psychological drama or didactic messages. Although they are contrived, it is for the most part with enough restraint and freedom from manipulation to ensure that the viewers can make up their own tales of woe to fit the imagery. Saunders’ “Video Tableaux” consisted of a series of surrealist events like Magritte paintings that had been brought to life in very slow motion. Her feminist subject matter was a bit burdensome, though more complicated and less heavy-handed than in the photographs of Vikky Alexander and the video of Anne Ramsden.

These two artists attempt to expose the clichés of female roles as presented by fashion models and women in romance fiction through the clichés of feminist dogma. Unfortunately their preoccupation and disgust with the plastic images of women as put out by the media makes for a tiresome and redundant narrative. As a subject for art, feminism on this level is so jejune that even the sophisticated technology in the gimmicky photographic methods of Alexander’s grainy enlargements and the pretty, pop tedium of Ramsden’s 28-minute video drama of a femme fatale fail to bring it to life.

Coming away from the gallery was like leaving a committee meeting on the evils of the media as seen by the contemporary art establishment, and I felt bored, exasperated, and saddened. Seven young women, supposedly in the prime of their creativity, all liberated from oppressive sexism, I presume, and all floating on grants and awards from this or that source (eleven Canada Council, eight others) could have better things to say and batter ways of saying them.

Carol H. Fraser.


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