Art Reviews

A review by Pennylane Shen, an associate at Bau-Xi Gallery, Vancouver, BC.

Ruminations of Order 

CityScape Gallery March 2013

At first glance upon viewing the exhibition Ruminations of Order at CityScape Gallery, one would be impressed by how open, bright and modern the space feels without the aloof and sterile sense often associated with contemporary public gallery shows. The abundance of negative space in artist Angela Gooliaff’s delicate illustrations on paper paired with Rosemary Burden’s cream-coloured paper cut-outs echoes this inviting feeling. However, still accents of bold colour in Judy D Shane’s photographs pierce through amongst linear silhouettes in Debbie Westergaard Tuepah’s sculptures.  This combination of textures, shapes, colours and voids make themselves known in the visual field.

The tall ceilings and relatively small confines of the CityScape Gallery pose a challenge to any group. It is clear that the installation of the exhibition was a deeply considered task on its own. The two dimensional works create a dialogue with the sculptural ones. The monochrome white works initiate a question while the coloured textural pieces answer.

However, it is the idea of metamorphosis that conceptually stitches the work of these four artists together. Changes of materials and media, conceptions of practice and theory, as well questions of scale unify what might otherwise appear to be a too disparate group of artists.  If history has proven anything, it is that art is dynamic.  This might be the closest thing we have contemporarily to a definition of this elusive pursuit.

Art defies our expectations, resists our attempts to categorize and identify it, and at its best, art challenges our notions of stability and immutability.  Such is the work of these four artists as they each individually question: the binary opposition of craft and art; the boundary between the written word and the sculptural space; the surprisingly still fresh argument between paint and photography; materiality; and the longstanding dialogue between the micro- and macro cosmic.

Ruminations of Order and Mis-Under-Stand-ings(s)

Immediately upon entering the gallery three panoramic drawings of an ant trail greet the viewer at the door. They lead down the narrow corridor and into the gallery space. These true-to-life size meticulous drawings are by artist Angela Gooliaff. The exquisitely framed, white on white pieces are connected by a trail of ants drawn directly onto the gallery wall. Playful, yet carefully calculated and cold to the eye, the title of piece Delicate, but Determined is more than fitting.

Angela Gooliaff’s body of work, interspersed throughout the exhibition, seems to concern itself with dualities; the micro and the macro, civilization and primitivism, order and chaos, destruction and creation – concepts historians, physicists and philosophers alike have grappled with for as long as their disciplines have existed. Staring into what seems like a limitless void of Gooliaff’s perfect circle comprised of a multitude of ants, one is engulfed by these ideas. In the mass of repetition, configurations emerge, linger for a moment, dissipate, only to reconfigure in an endless procession.

There is a clear reference in these strands of ants to DNA patterns; the reference is layered, as if we are viewing those microscopic patterns from a distance to see the macroscopic biological forms they create. Meanwhile, these patterns are comprised of those most systematic and pattern-forming creatures – ants. Gooliaff deeply embraces the spirit of this show in her commitment to draw us out of the time pressured over-stimulus concomitant with current day systems. Draw she does – each ant is skillfully rendered, even to serve as a single unit in a much larger visual pattern. These larger patterns are composed carefully and beautifully – recalling crop circles (specifically referenced in one title, and including the suggestion of a far distant vantage point), Fibonacci’s golden sequence, and that exemplar of balance between intricate detail and overall form – the mandala. Gooliaff’s macro-compositions would thus be striking even if comprised of dots, or other simpler ‘pixels’; but, by taking the far greater pains to articulate satisfyingly detailed insects, both the micro and macro retain their interest value, as opposed to one overwhelming the other. By taking the far greater pains to articulate each moment in the pattern as a complete visual unit – a satisfyingly detailed insect – Gooliaff deftly interweaves the visual interest of the whole with that of each part. An artist who chooses to work in fine detail enters an alternate time frame, during which a small area of canvas or paper becomes the meditative focus of minutes, even hours. The artifact of this process – the work of art – radiates the stillness and patience so clearly invested in its making. The artist has stepped aside from our usual modes of bustle and created a rewarding arena for us viewers to do the same.

A further duality embedded in the title Do We Eat the Red Ones Last involves destruction and creation. Gooliaff mentions in her artist statement that the themes in her work often “mirror human behavior, question established socially acceptable ideas.” Along with a lighthearted reference to the Smarties candies and our tendency to save the “best for last”, the title nods to another tendency, shared by ants and human alike: the practice of weeding out our weakest members for the greater good of the strong.

Another dark theme involving life and death hovers over this apparently light work through Gooliaff’s use of spirals and circles. Her use of spirals, as a last example, is without accident – these thin and expansive forms, applied in context with ants, compel a dark resonance. In an ant colony, individuals follow the scent trail of pheromones left by those in front, to retrieve food or building materials, conquer new land, or return home. The behaviour is innate, efficient, and key to over 100 million years of species survival (we Homo Sapiens been around for well less than one percent of that time).  Occasionally, though, the scent trail becomes confused, possibly mixed in with trace scents from previous colonies; each ant follows the one ahead of it in a continuous, massive circle, until all die of exhaustion. There is no shortage of metaphor here in the image of a complex and accomplished society falling prey to the very patterns on which it thrives. Overall, Gooliaff has smuggled considerable depth and gravity through her deceptively light, spacious handling of graphite on paper.

Concluding Statement

Each of the artists in Ruminations of Order has emerged from involvement in complex systems that surround us – markets and marketing, photography and digital media, language and writing and even the meta-cycle of life and death – to offer us a release from these. Significantly, their means of release from systems is to invent new ones. This gesture ultimately affirms our affinity with – and place within – orders, patterns, particles, and interconnections that are fundamental to the natural world of which we are a part. These artists complement our essential tendencies to be affected by our surroundings, and to affect them ourselves. It is no coincidence that metamorphosis – a process where elements of nature respond to, and then influence other elements of nature – plays consistently through this work. Paint becomes photograph, and then photo collage of “paint”; marketing / business modes morph into conceptual art and sculpture; text becomes shape; butterflies emerge not from caterpillars but from book pages; old becomes new; ant-sized micro scales become macro; shapes of individuals are patterned into shapes of groups.

Not only are we part of systems; we are as innately builders of them. Language, learned behaviours, work processes, communities and inventories of our surrounding resources – these are essential to our species survival, and to our creativity and vitality. However, as a species we have reached a point of over-saturation. Certain organizational systems are not clearly serving us, while too clearly petition us to serve them. Rosemary Burden, Judy D Shane, Angela Gooliaff, and Debbie Tuepah invite us back to a present experience in which our natural kinship with systems is honoured and rewarded.

In the still space of a gallery we can engage with the moment of aesthetic and personal connection to their work. This work complements our own enjoyment of designing, compiling, processing, and ordering, by featuring these elements as the main focus of viewing. We are not being persuaded, market-analyzed, targeted, or even presented with an image (as art materials, and words in books, typically do), beyond the visual properties of the materials themselves. These materials exist in their own right, and if they reflect anything, it is their right to exist as such.

Each of the artists in Ruminations of Order embraces artfully one of the basic purposes of a gallery space. They offer us a stepping out from the mundane, the of-the-world, which is still, as William Wordsworth lamented over two centuries ago, “too much with us.” They draw us to the present and create new spaces, new worlds, for us to be ever exploring and ever still questioning.

by Pennylane Shen