November 6, 2003 – January 23, 2004
Curated by Curtis Joseph Collins.
Explores how postmodern cultural strategies in Canada are determined by a re-invention of the past, and highlights artistic practices ranging from painting to installation. Features new work by David Hoffos as well as several artists and collectives in the U of L Art Gallery’s holdings including Carl Beam, Chris Cran, General Idea, Rita McKeogh, Joanne Tod, and Jin-me Yoon.
“Feigned Memories” celebrates the interdisciplinary quality of contemporary art in Canada, through works produced from the 1980s onward and selected from the University of Lethbridge Art Collection. The range of thematic strategies employed by the artists under consideration here is indicative of an ongoing postmodern obsession with memory. Two Lethbridge-based artists, Jennifer Crane and David Hoffos, have been commissioned to create new pieces for this exhibition, which will confirm how a deliberate feigning of the past continues to determine our cultural present.
The art of General Idea can be said to mark the considerable push of a postmodern condition in this country. The 1982 work by the Toronto-based collective entitled “The Unveiling of the Cornucopia” (see image above) is composed of five four-by-eight foot plywood panels that support a supposed wall fragment. This fake artifact makes reference to the commonly known archeological finds of Imperial Rome, more specifically a circa 50 B.C. fresco mural in Pompeii at the “Villa of the Mysteries.” By substituting the images of ancient Romans for that of three human-like poodles, the trio’s highly touted signature motif, the past and the present are artificially fused. The grand narrative of Western society’s ascendancy to the height of civilization, through visual proofs such as the Pompeii murals, is thrown in doubt as General Idea’s deconstructive effort takes a very physical form.
Upon entering and exiting Feigned Memories, viewers are also confronted by General Idea’s work via a monitor situated over top the Gallery’s doorway. The collective’s 1985 video “Shut the Fuck Up” critiques the never ending democratic chatter of North America’s mass media. Television turns upon itself in the hands of AA Bronson, Felix Partz, and Jorge Zontal as they quote a variety of 1960s programming including the Batman series and a documentary on the abstract painter Franz Kline. These emissions mark the modernist epoch in the United States, a time when the republic set out to achieve global domination. Hence an underlying claim to cultural superiority is undercut by the threesome whose interspersed broadcast news-style commentary implores the media to: “Shut the fuck up!” What’s more, these talking heads convey an everlasting immediacy to General Idea’s objection, which seems almost more poignant today as American television has swamped the world through satellite technology.
Painting and video are of equal importance to any history of art in Canada from the 1980s forward. Yet, undoubtedly the most engaging practice in such a lexicon of postmodern aesthetic impulses is installation, for it allows the orchestration of all techniques into architectonic productions. Rita McKeough, a Nova Scotia-born artist, has been making ephemeral spaces in galleries since the mid 1970s. The two oversized plush dogs with skyscraper bodies in the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery’s holdings are the vestiges of a 1984 installation for the Banff Centre for the Arts called “Urban Scroungers.”
The dogs function as symbols of multinational corporate greed in Calgary, where McKeough resided in the 1980s and watched urban residential neighborhoods get eaten-up by office tower developments. Each dog is positioned on a bed of shredded documents and accompanied by a sound track featuring ringing telephones, the tapping of keyboards, and rolling office chairs. However, the re-situating and re-broadcasting of this installation has changed it in 2003, as McKeough’s art becomes an anti-modern testament to the impossibility of stability or closure. The present can never be completely known and one should constantly question all claims to a full understanding of the past.
McKeough’s dogs take a graphic form in the 1984 etching “Urban Uprising,” (see image below) as she moves from three to two-dimensions along a singular thematic trajectory. Such a practice reveals an interdisciplinary approach that emerged in North American art from the mid-twentieth century onward. Like the crudely built dogs, her cartoon-like canines exist by ravaging the places where local people live to make way for faceless and often foreign corporations. Thus these activist oriented creations relive a particular instance in the artist’s personal history and speak to a micro-politics of social resistance.
Perhaps the most definitive shift in Canadian society over the past twenty-five years has been brought about by the political activism of Aboriginal, Inuit, and Metis peoples. Their respective claims to inherent North American rights and territories is gradually being recognized by Canada’s parliamentary and judiciary systems. This break down in the exclusive Western knowledge-power couplet continues to be affected on a cultural front by artists such as Carl Beam. The Anishnabai painter-ceramicist-printmaker from Manitoulin Island splices photographs and illustrations in “Rulers” (1995, see image – below left) as a means of questioning modern authority. Using a lithographic printing technique, the artist has placed his personal and collective sovereignty at odds with the origins of foreign control on this continent. Beam’s self-portrait, in which he holds a wooden ruler, seems to stand in defiance to the playing card images of a European king and queen. There can be no escape from colonialism’s brutal legacy as long as the original peoples of North America flourish, for they are permanent reminders of an immoral history that spans from the Enlightenment into our times.
One might say that it is postcolonial remembrances which confer a sense of urgency upon the postmodern situation in Canada and the United States. In the 1994 photo-screen and acrylic on Plexiglas work entitled “Fragile Skies” (1994, see image – above, right), Beam situates a portrait of Sitting Bull, the nineteenth-century Sioux chief who resisted American expansionism, against a newspaper headline and photograph of a noxious late twentieth-century industrial site. Both are images of loss issued from a subaltern voice that does not separate humanity and the environment. Moreover, he demonstrates a key oppositional method, within North American artistic vocabularies since the late 1970s, by quoting visual and textual material across disparate times.
If the multifaceted productions of the artists discussed thus far evoke a polyphonic value, then the large acrylic on canvas by Joanne Tod (no image available) in this exhibition represents a central and exclusive modern Western cultural tradition. The Montreal-born painter’s 1983 work “Melancholia” also slides back in time to remark on the present. A woman seated in the canvas’ foreground is dressed in a turquoise evening gown and long white gloves. While this 1940s style clothing recalls an era of North American glamour, this dated archetype of feminine beauty seems immersed in a meditative sadness as suggested by the paintings title.The woman’s longing for the Scottish bagpiper, depicted in a thought bubble over her head, bares an unknown psychological relationship to the barren room in which she sits. Could this work be a sign of bourgeois emotional emptiness or inherent depression brought on by the patriarchal underpinnings of Western society? Postmodern directives in Canada and the United States, which include feminist cultural advocacy, have not yet supplanted male oriented master narratives as much as they have forced them underground. As a woman, Tod takes hold of art history’s most vital practice to suggest an everlasting possibility for a problematic return to modern subjectivity.
Similarly, Vancouver-based artist Jin-me Yoon addresses subjectivity, but in relation to the landscape as a symbol of national identity. Yoon places herself in front of various scenic locations in Banff National Park for the 1991 postcard series “Souvenirs of the Self.” This photographic narrative hinges upon how Yoon, as a woman of Korean ancestry, occupies an invisible space in modern definitions of Canada. Postcards featuring picturesque views of the land date to the late nineteenth century in Europe and North America, and like landscape painting in Canada, they have served a singular concept of nationhood. Such images speak to the conquering and parceling of the natural environment from a Western male perspective, a dated model that will not yield to the multi-cultural differences of Canadian society today. Thus the artist demands to be recognized as a citizen of this country, in the face of a totalizing visual tradition that has held fast through the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
In 2001, Yoon transformed the “Souvenirs of the Self” postcards into six large scale C prints subsequently purchased by the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery. The first image in this self-portrait series entitled “Banff Park Museum,” depicts Yoon standing in front of a diorama containing a stuffed beaver. This rodent’s ever present association with nationhood, due to its economic importance during the European colonial era, can be said to visually outweigh the numerous contributions that Asian-Canadians and other immigrant communities have made to the country’s formation. A sign over the artist’s head reads “Cabinet of Curiosities” and indeed one is left to wonder how an officially multicultural nation can dilute its elite Anglo norms to counteract an ongoing internal alienation.
Irony may be the most pervasive thematic strategy discussed thus far in reference to postmodern advances, and much of the Calgary-based artist Chris Cran’s work turns on such a sentiment. His 1988 “Self-Portrait Accepting a Cheque for the Commission of This Painting,” (see installation image below) offers a wry twist on cultural commodification at the very moment of its determination. Peter Boyd, a prominent Calgary businessman and art collector, is depicted by the artist presenting him with a cheque while shaking his hand. Cran thus creates a perpetual present mediated by the painting’s ever-increasing history in real time. The politics of subaltern identities as examined in the aforementioned self-portraits by Beam and Yoon give way to an ironic humour drawn from within the patriarchal structure of Western society. Hence Cran, like many painters active during the 1980s, takes on the task of pulling painting out of a modernist abyss dominated by American-style abstraction through a return to the figure.
The wry suspension of time evoked by Chris Cran’s painting can also be traced via the internet on www.vanitygallery.com, accessed by visitors to the exhibition on a computer terminal set up next to the work. The artist’s web page features a three second video clip of him actually shaking hands with Boyd in front of “Self-Portrait Accepting a Cheque for the Commission of This Painting.” Such a reenactment adds yet another layer of satire to the original work which is, by its very nature, a fallacy. A notable difference between these active and static self-portraits can be found in the painting’s background where the curtain behind Cran and Boyd takes the form of a computer bar code of the artist’s favourite shampoo; yet another revealing twist on capitalism’s production of desire and ceaseless demand for consumption.
The spectacle of “Self-Portrait Accepting a Cheque for the Commission of This Painting” has parallels with Jennifer Crane’s performance entitled “Poise,” commissioned by the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery for the opening reception of Feigned Memories. For this version of “Poise,” the artist has organized a group of local young women to attend the opening wearing high school prom dresses (see composite image below).
Such a display of feminine pride illustrates the manner in which women are observed in public as objects of desire, but does not deny their power to be observers as well. Crane worked in a purely directorial fashion at this performance thereby allowing her art to take on a theatre-like quality that recreates a nostalgic yearning for the care free days of high school life in North America.
Lethbridge-based artist David Hoffos regularly calls upon his personal memories to produce multi-channel video-audio installations. For this exhibition, a component of “Scenes from the House Dream, Phase Two, Scene One, 65 Footers,” involving a mysterious cruiser in a ghostly marina scene, occupies a small curtained-off room in the Gallery (see large image below). Hoffos’ fascination with nineteenth-century parlour displays, twentieth-century North American theme park attractions, and Western museum presentation methods are all brought to bare on the viewer who also becomes a participant in this work commissioned for Feigned Memories. A human projection on a life-sized silhouette is positioned in a darkened room, and as visitors become engrossed with the effects of his diorama-like creation, they may be fooled into thinking they are not alone. The observer is suddenly transformed into a player in the artist’s world and joins images of the people from Hoffos’ life that appear throughout his oeuvre.
At the conclusion of Feigned Memories, the cinematic space of David Hoffos’ installation will cease to exist in its current form and the performance directed by Jennifer Crane will become an unrecoverable moment. This ephemeral state of cultural affairs in Canada needs to be understood as a necessary historical lack of closure or knowledge. References to both the immediate and distant past, via practices ranging from painting and printmaking to video and photography, are strategically feigned by the artists featured here. Perhaps it is these overt and latent acts of resistance to the master narratives of modern Western hegemony which must be remembered at a time when contemporary American democracy has come to resemble the ancient empire of Rome. Such an eternal vigilance could save the postmodern condition from stalling out in the present day.
Curtis Joseph Collins
Curtis Joseph Collins extends a special thank-you to the following individuals for their professional and moral support: Josephine Mills, Adrian Cooke, Fred Greene, Lucie Linhart, Jon Oxley, Siri Kramps, Jennifer Crane, David Hoffos, Edison del Canto, Cliff Eyland, William Eakin, and Korey Williams.
The accompanying catalogue for this exhibition is available by going to the U of L Art Gallery’s PUBLICATIONS PAGE.