Monday, January 22, 2007

Peter Wilkins at the Rooms

My introduction to the complex and varied history of portraiture occurred in my first year at NSCAD, when my Marxist art history prof contrasted the neo-Classical portraits of Napoleon by J.L. David to the emerging Impressionism of Gustave Courbet's The Stonebreakers.

The foundation laid by Courbet's depiction of anonymous labourers, as opposed to an Emperor, later made possible, amongst many other things, Manet's Olympia, and Charles Baudelaire's The Painter of Modern Life. The above examples are the starting points for my eventual engagement with the work of Peter Wilkins.

For some time I've been struggling with what to say about Wilkins' Kinetic Portraits. When I first heard about the original showing of this work at Eastern Edge in 2004 (before I'd moved back to St. John's), in which Newfoundland celebrities were featured, my gut told me it was perhaps the most cynical art practice I'd ever encountered. There's no better way to garner attention for your work than if you pile a bunch of celebrities into it, I thought. Everyone loves their celebs, and Newfoundlanders have enough home-grown pride to make a Texan blush.

So I disregarded the whole thing as rubbish even without seeing it. I'd seen photos. I'd seen the numerous press write ups. I'd heard what the "concept" was. I didn't care for it. I thought, How much excitement or attention would there be for this work if Wilkins, like Courbet, presented regular people instead of well-known and celebrated personalities?

For those of you who don't know, the kinetic portraits work as follows: Wilkins asks the celebrity questions about pivotal moments in their lives, their hopes, dreams, ideals, fears etcetera. He writes down their answers. Then, with the camera on, he reads the answers back to the interviewee. In theory, the celebrity's reactions to their own words creates a truer or more accurate portrait of who they are.

So I went to the Rooms on Friday, and then again (braving a snow-storm) on Sunday to have a look at the newest incarnation of the work featuring 12 celebrated Canadian writers. Atwood, Anne-Marie MacDonald, Yann Martel amongst others.

The installation looks great with the twelve flat-screen monitors on the walls with frames around them to reference painting. The writers all variously look amused, intent on listening, fidgety, or stone-faced. A few of them look like they might be passing gas. Martel's was the most interesting because he chose to be video-taped with his pet parakeet moving around on his shoulders and behind his head, suggesting to me, at least, that he was using the bird as a distraction to the viewer, and was uncomfortable with showing too much of himself. But then, I thought, all of the writers were probably doing the same thing in their own way. Anyone who's seen Survivor knows that the presence of a camera doesn't really capture anything "real" or "true" but, in fact, reveals only a person's willingness to perform in front of it.

What emerged for me after this initial revelation was that the sub-text had quickly become the text, as it were. The work isn't actually about knowing these people in a way more profound than watching a television interview, or for that matter, reading their books. It is about the process Wilkins had to go through to meet and interview each of the writers. It is work about the invisible strata of agents, personal assistants, schmoozing, and penetrating the world of Canada's cultural elite. It is work that makes you think: Man, I wish I got to hang out with Margaret Atwood.

So, in this way, due to who's interviewed, the Kinetic Portraits operate as a kind of critique of the art-world and the culture industry. The idea that one's finished product could only ever be secondary to whom one knows is expressed with an irony and eloquence lacking in much contemporary work which claims to critique celebrity culture and the moral bankruptcy of the art-world. I found myself lamenting the naive notion that art could really change the world, that art was anything more than an industry with products and personalities only slightly less disposable than in other industries. I thought about the foolishness of Manet and Baudelaire with their calls for "Modern Heroism", and the irony of their eventual acceptance by the Academy.

As I trudged home in the snow-storm on Sunday after seeing the show, I can safely say that my heart was broken.

The show is up until April 29th.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Les Newman's Death Of The Party/ Immony Men & Mira Lyn Lu's Taking Care Of Business

Eastern Edge gallery has kicked off 2007 on something of a high note with its first show of the new year featuring Winnipeg's perennial trouble-maker Les Newman and Concordia undergrad students Immony Men and Mira Lyn Lu.

Newman presents four 2D wall works from his series, The Death Of The Party, a collection of text snippets from a plethora of sources set against intense fields of various colour and shape.

Newman's influences run from the Cult of Bacchus with its orgies, drunken frenzies, and obliteration of the senses to the life and writing of Charles Bukowski, a degenerate drunk and problem gambler, whose wry, ironic humour is evidenced in Newman's one-liners. "Irony" as it has been used in the contemporary art-world is nothing more than a code word for being a smart ass, in that artists are generally saying the opposite of what they really mean. The text in Newman's work, however, is truly ironic in that the statements he employs give expression to contradictory emotions that are both felt sincerely.

It's black humour, and in Newman's work, there seems to be a suspicion that life is a meaningless and futile struggle. That we're all fucked, basically, and that one of the meager pleasures of being alive is finding humour and rage in the bowels of our own helplessness and alienation and disillusionment with the (art) world. It also helps to get fucked up. Or once did, anyway. Which, in a way, is the sad part about The Death Of The Party: the realization that, at best, a strategy for dealing with the meaningless of our existence can only be a short term fix. The hangover, and the too bright reality of the day, are always just around the corner.

Men and Lu's installation, Taking Care Of Business, provides an interesting counter-point to Newman's work. A to-scale reproduction of an anonymous office space is printed, post-it note by tiny post-it note on your run-of-the-mill computer printer, and stuck to the gallery wall in a grid format.

The process takes several days to complete, with the artists putting in the regular 9-5 day of an ordinary office employee. The piece puts Men and Yu into the roles of unskilled manual laborers, completing the same small, repetitive, mind-numbingly boring task in a project that once the show ends, will not exist outside of documentation. Equating artistic labour with the mundane paper work of a day job undermines the artist's position as genius or cultural visionary, and emphasizes the notion of artist as worker, subject to the same alienation and exploitation as anyone else who struggles to pay the bills.

As of this writing, the project is still ongoing, and anyone reading this is encouraged to go down to Eastern Edge to check on the progress.

The show runs until February 24th.