Peter Bowyer, Magdalen Clestino, Peter Cosco, Brian Groombridge, John McKinnon, Lee Paquette
Curated by: David Clarkson and Robert Wiens
27 August 1984 - 22 September 1984
Opening Reception 27 August 1984 8pm
The New City of Sculpture
Group exhibition in collaboration with YYZ; at Mercer Union: Peter Bowyer, Magdalen Celestino, Peter Cosco, Brian Groombridge, John McKinnon, Lee Paquette
From August 25 to September 22, the Toronto public will have the opportunity to view the largest exhibition of contemporary Toronto sculpture ever held, and the first to focus on this city as a major centre of sculptural practice. Over 50 newly created works by 33 local artists will be on exhibit at six different downtown gallery spaces: A.R.C., Gallery 76, Grunwald Gallery, Mercer Union, Studio 620, and YYZ.
Addressing the minimal recognition of such a vital sculptural community, “New City” will focus on works by younger artists whose exposure has been limited to the local parallel gallery system. It will also attempt to restore the critical imbalance between painting and sculpture resulting from such lack of exposure.
Like its 1982 forerunner, YYZ’s “Monumenta”, “New City” has the potential to generate a larger audience, and a strong sense of community involvement, evident in the collaboration of a number of different Queen Street West galleries, including three artist-run centres, a commercial gallery, an independent gallery and an art college gallery. Unlike “Monumenta”, concentration on one medium and one geographic area permits a more decisive, selective and comprehensive exhibition. The common concerns and directions apparent are the importance of content, the multiple use and fragmentation of objects, the use of representational and figurative elements, and the inclusion of narrative or allegorical aspects and references.
The accompanying catalogue with an essay by Bruce Grenville, will be available in the forthcoming issue of C Magazine to further discuss these vital concerns and developments in Canadian sculpture.
AT MERCER UNION: PETER BOWYER, MAGDALEN CELESTINO, PETER COSCO, BRIAN GROOMBRIDGE, JOHN McKINNON, LEE PAQUETTE
New City of Sculpture
This is an allegorical triptych of an imaginary beginning to the neolithic revolution.
The struggle to grasp the collective and personal psyche provides fertile ground for the realization of the essential mechanics of existence. The spiral continues to unfold and provoke. Careful apprehension can produce a course of miracles.
The relief portrays the moment of epiphany when Zeus sees Phaethon charging through the sky on the chariot and realizes that if some decisive act is not taken all will be destroyed. The myth has been modified, however, by replacing Zeus and Paethon with a single contemporary character. The pediment is entitled “Cusp”. This makes reference to its geometric meaning which is the point where a curve changes course. Cusp also means entering a house, referring directly to the fact that a pediment is located over the main threshold of an edifice.
the room and its inhabitants – the object – as a vehicle for the imagination – by way of multiplied cathexic images – the presentation of a belief system – through a visual narrative that indicates a larger subsequent history – a combination of events that offers the idea of the center of the world – a focus – a fixed point in an ontologic reservoir – a sense of place – evinced by inner qualitics revealed outwardly – to make things seem as they usually were – inducing catharsis as a technique for living purgative objectives that tread the line of fire.
My present area of concern is in making objects which somehow use the body as the work’s context. The body supports the work while it enframes and engages the viewer with particular body relationships. This direct connection is an attempt to extend the level of experience the viewer might have with a piece and the types of relationships indicated by it. The pieces for this show (Staircase, Room, Globe) offer the viewer particular frames of reference to see through and be seen in.
The New City of Sculpture
Parachute Magazine, Winter 1984
The New City of Sculpture is not new. I will spend some time addressing this judgement, and consequently – and reluctantly – this review is bound to fail in an important respect: it will not address the actual artists and work included under the New City’s umbrella. My embarrassment in this is genuine, but it is mitigated by a conviction that I am forced to play Bull to the New City’s Red Flag: forced, that is, to address its critical dimension first and foremost. Having said that, however, I do intend to at least refer to some to the works in this New City.1
Why, one might ask, should I do something for which I feel I must apologize? The issue is one of context, and of critical validity, and I take such things seriously. Otherwise I wouldn’t bother writing reviews. I believe others take these things seriously as well, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this, and the organizers of the New City of Sculpture would have been content to call their exhibition Some Toronto Sculptors. We simply do require context, because context constructs meaning.
With any attempt to establish meaning, however, there comes a fair degree of responsibility. My concern is going to be focused on what I detect to be a certain irresponsibility – both defensible and indefensible – in the naming of the New City, and in the attempt of its founders to construct meaning from it. I will assume that by New they do not mean merely young, and that by City they do not simply mean neighbourhood. And since I have been unable to detect in their remarks or in their published statements any indication that the term is meant ironically, I will assume that the New City of Sculpture is meant to define a new sensibillty, a new direction for sculpture, and not – apparently – a new way of seeing. There is a subtle alternative to this final assumption: that the New City does not actually exist and that it remains – for its curators and artists – an ideal beyond the exhibition. I will not concern myself directly with this alternative because idealism of that kind is impossible to discuss or conceptualize effectively.
To construct the character of the New City we must begin with the essay by Bruce Grenville which introduces the exhibition. Grenville defines the works’ desires as revolving around a question of discourse which “does not represent a new way of seeing but must be understood as a critique of the illusion of full presence” in Western metaphysics. Grenville suggests that by “giving primacy to the indeterminacy of moments, the uncertainty of effort, the oppressiveness of choice, the exhibition indicates that the artists it represents seek to construct “a ‘surface’ which escapes the determinations that the viewer tries to give to it.” And finally, he suggests that the artists are in fact constructing a form of allegory, a “sculptural allegory,” which by exhibiting the look of fragmentation, of uncertainty, thereby exposes the fragile nature of knowledge, and of existence. Why? To quote Barthes, as Grenville does: “to fissure the very representation of meaning.” Summarized more briefly Grenville attempts to construct the New City of Sculpture as a reaction to the modern and late modernist desire for purity and presence,” and a “frustrating, but necessary step towards the production of a new position for art and culture.”
I have difficulty with Grenville’s off-hand characterization of modernism’s “purity,” and I see it as the source of the intellectual problems which arise with the New City. But first one must confront Grenville’s statement concerning “a ‘surface’ which escapes the determinations that the viewer tries to give to it.” Unless he refers to simple ambiguity, I do not believe he actually means this, since what it would amount to would be a sheer indecipherable presence which would include the viewer from the work. It’s conceivable that that is what Barthes had in mind as a radical act to disrupt representation itself, but Grenville is not Barthes, and Barthes’ nihilism would be irrelevant to any City which called itself by anything so stolidly traditional as Sculpture. The tenor of Grenville’s remarks – and certainly the artists’ works – seems more involved with questions of metaphor, or as Grenville calls it “sculptural allegory.”
Let’s get back to the question of modernism which seems to underlie the New City. Modernism has a complex history, and a complex and even contradictory character; but from its inception as an idea – as Saudelaire’s idea it you want – it has held at its core the concept of “the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent.” And it has held that in return for being Modern, modernism could not be more than “presentness”; it could not aspire to the condition of an historical authoritarianism. To quote Stephen Spender writing in 1963: modernism “is the art of observers conscious of the action of the conditions observed upon their sensibility. Their critical awareness includes ironic self criticism.”2 What Grenville sets up in opposition to, and therefore defining for, his claims to a New City is an historicist Presence which modernism had already rejected as rationalist, idealist, and authoritarian.
Now it is a fact that any coherent venture is ipso facto going to suggest a presence, or purity. Modernism’s purity was – is – a self conscious and self-critical dialectic between the idea ot history and the idea ot presentness. It is also arguably a fact that a venture of this kind is often distorted among its practitioners; and it is certainly true that the venture itself cannot be easily described, cannot be rendered as accessible as a lollipop, given its internal instabilities. Grenville may therefore be forgiven for his apparent misunderstanding of “modernism,” but that doesn’t rescue his thesis, just as incoherence for the sake of destroying, or “deconstructing,” Presence cannot avoid the issue of coherence. Modernism was, and is, at its core deeply critical of Presence, including its own.
Critical, but not dismissive. I have trouble with Grenville’s quotation of Barthes. I have no idea of the context from which the quotation comes, but in Gronville’s context Barthes’ demandings as a hollow frustration with the entire process and methodology by which we construct experience. We all indulge in daydreams of total renewal, or total annihilation and rebirth. They are the basis of all ventures, of all change, and to the extent that they are flashes of impatience rather than programmes, they are as indispensable as they are predictable. Elevating them to an agenda, however, is to construct nihilism, a different kettle of fish entirely, and one I will return to.
The obscurities of modernism aside, there are two phrases Grenville uses in describing the character of the New City which tickled my interest: “the uncertainty of effort” and “the oppressiveness of choice.” There’s nothing wrong with these characterizations, because they are familiar aspects of human experience.
What is wrong is to suggest that the mere illustration of these experiences – an implied surrender to them – is valid. Effort and choice are states of Being around which we exercise what free will we have. It has become axiomatic for human experience that we exert effort, make choices, in order first to survive, and second to wish to survive. Even in California. That they are uncertain and oppressive is inherent in our interest in them – in survival – at all. The question is not about their qualities, but about our response to them. What response does the New City’s rhetoric construct? Barthes?
If Grenville is unwilling to go further than to quote a fragment of Barthes, Clarkson and Wiens are unwilling to do much more than quote fragments of Grenville. And this they do reluctantly. For them, the New City becomes apparently a chance to compare their own work with their contemporaries in Toronto. And who could object to that? The problem, however, is that they continue to insist that the exhibition, as a whole, reveals an anti-monumental, anti-presence intention on the part of the artists. And by insisting on this without further elaboration, they imply that this is their distinguishing, their New accomplishment. In so doing, they insist upon precisely the conviction that has characterized sculpture in Toronto – indeed, sculpture internationally – for at least a decade, a conviction which has in fact characterized the broad basis of Modern art and literature since the mid nineteenth century: the conviction that in uncertainty, in irony, in “shuffling grace” lies the only hope of constructing an understanding of personal meaning. If Clarkson and Wiens are serious, the New City of Sculpture is the current city of sculpture, with only one difference: its builders think it is new. Why?
Part of the problem lies in an understanding of Presence. The obvious historical foil for the New City would seem to be heroic sculpture, or religious sculpture; that is to say the various classical (and, I suspect, even romantic) traditions which date back to the beginnings of civilization, whether Egypt, Greece or Easter Island. While the enduring attractlon of these traditions for the modern middle class certainly provides a rationale for the New City to anack them, this woutd not construct a New City. As I have said, modernism already did that, still does that. Perhaps the netural foil, then, for the New City in recent art would seem to be not the work of the 1970s – despite Grenville’s attempt to suggest an unexplained difference of issues and circumstance – but the minimalist work of the 1970s: Donald Judd, Tony Smith, Robert Morris. But minimalist, or to use Fried’s term, literalist Presence, based its reductivism on a dialectic struggle with what its leaders saw as European historical Presence, a struggle against an incurably corrupted formal pictorialism deriving trom idealist notions of harmony which amounted to an intricate and monumental labyrinth of history. They sought to construct an American presence derived from American material pragmatism: things – as – they – are – encountered, actual experiential – theatrical – Presence. As is obvious from Grenville’s essay and the curators’ remarks, this sense of actual presence, theatrical presence, is precisely what the New City embraces. Where does this leave the notion of Presence and the New City? Both modernism and minimalism pre-empt any claim of novelty in addressing the issue of Presence as such. There is one other possibility: Fried himself.
Fried, in rejecting the lerm minimalism and referring to it as literalism, presents us with a clue, and perhaps most aptly locates the New City as a radically focused form of literalism. Inescapably one finds in the New City’s rhetoric the tactic of “fragmentation” referred to time and again. In an interview, Clarkson and Wiens singled out Robert McNealy’s work as a key to the exhibition in this fashion: “His work is very open-ended and runs the gamut of styles and materials in a single piece. It’s very fragmented and accessible.” It becomes clear that the formal attribute of fragmentation, or appropriation of different styles, modes of construction and so on, is seen to construct this New City. What is “new,” one realizes then is not so much an intention to subvert Presence, which would require more than formal devices, as an intention to appropriate styles, to appropriate historical, literary, or mythological references, to mix and match materials; to construct, if not a new Presence, then to construct a new Look. What we have, in fact, is not a critical direction based on the deconstruction of Presence, but a desire for a formal change or difference from the immediate past. Fragmentation – dismantling the sentence into its separate words or letters – is the most immediate form of establishing difference. What is possibly “new” about the New City becomes its intentional ignorance about the past as anything more than Look, as anything more than letters in a line, an ignorance which is inevitably an ignorance about the dynamics of the history which constructs not only the New City’s precursors, but more significantly its own inhabitants: Fried’s Formalism Revisited.
I do not think I am being flippant or dismissive in this. Ignorance is a vice as much as it is a misfortune, and it has an unfortunately familiar as well as profound consequence for the New City. I believe that the New City is grounded in the romantic ennui of the historical avantgarde and its nihilistic – willfully ignorant – impatience with history and process. The unfortunately familiar consequence of their ignorance is that the founders of the New City are simply playing out the historical, and one might say discredited, role of the European avantgarde without having the grace to realize it. The profound consequence of their playing out that role is that their New City has nowhere to go, nothing to do, except to fuss about in the fragments of old art and old history. Their nihilism, founded on superficial appearance as an alternative to historical dialectic, ensures this. The New City is simply another failure to realize that nihilism is not deconstructive, but simply narcissistic. And narcissism reconstructs the emptiest of formalisms.
I have been hard on the New City because their lack of responsibility in articulating their position concerns me. Is there anything to be said in their defence? I think there is. The New City may not be new, but it is important. The instability of our understanding of modernist (that is, our) notion of presentness, the requirement that what we do be constantly scrutinized and challenged, the importance of periodic nihilism in the history ot culture all indicate that we cannot sustain our own convictions without some sort of suspension of disbelief in the complexities of what is new. The New City must be respected – cautiously – for having the audacity to call itself new.
On the other hand, and fortunately, many of the artists in the New City were there for reasons other than the founders defining intentions. They were there for the most natural reason: Clarkson and Wiens knew and respected their work, and were finally not so concerned about the apocalyptic character of the New City as they wene about its generation and location: young artists in downtown Toronto. It would be trite to attempt to characterize current young Toronto sculpture, because generally stated its concerns are those of current contemporary sculpture throughout the modern Western world: varied. And no, there is nothing particularly Toronto, or even Canadian, about those concerns, though in at least one case Toronto was a site. Personally, I am critical of that as a cumulative refusal to engage with, or even locate, an aspect of actual experience. However, that refusal, or perhaps simple unconscious unoccurence, is itself deeply embedded in our culture. I am more interested in characterizing the work I personally found exciting, and four artists – Louise Noguchi, Magdalen Celestino, Peter Cosco, and Brian Groombndge – did excite me, though they were not the only ones I found that did so. Since I cannot consider individual artists in depth here, I will use Brian Groombridge’s piece Balance and Power to summarize what I consider to be the concerns and abilities of the best art in the New City. The gestural simplicity and epigrammatic clarity of this work acts like an arrow – or better, a laser – speeding simultaneously into and out of history and culture, its carefully chosen symbolic materiality crossing in a dialactic with the codes of its imagery in reverberations of ironic relerence not only to the broader dialectics of civilizations and gender, but to all that we know and only partially comprehend about the complexities of our own individual place in the world.
These same characteristics of irony, coded materiality and histoncal self-consciousness are reflected in Cosco’s mock-monumental papier-maché architectural cartoon, Celestino’s seductive Noli me tangere, with its intimate obliqueness and ironically titled inventory of cultural histories and fascinations, and Noguchi’s elliptical yet straightforward construction of moral narrative and metaphoric physicality.
Irony, coded materiality, historic self-consciousness, the presence of intimate relations with the Presentness of the Other’s Presence in our own, and the history and projection of that presence. Baudelaire called it the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent. I have suggested that the best work in the New City of Sculpture, if it shows any coherence, continues an historic process firmly rooted in the modernist programme, and I have also suggested that the rhetoric surrounding the New City acknowledges that. To defend the title of his exhibition, Bruce Grenville’s introduction suggests that the New City is founded on a new address which is concerned not with the “meaning of an utterance”, but instead with the codes or language of sculpture itself. I view this as a logical fallacy; Grenville’s thesis, or rather, his appropriation of Barthes, is merely the Hip side of Michael Fried’s defence of Greenbergian formalism, whose purity he finds so hard. But Fried is just another tree in the forest. The fact is that the main priorities of intellectual history in the modern era have been directed towards the complexity inherent in the relationship between form and content; towards the “meaning of an utterance” through an attack on the “representation of meaning” as part of an over-all critique of all authoritative assumptions, even its own. If the work in the New City of Sculpture – all of it, not just what I like – pursues the same purposes as work done in the 1970s, is this unfortunate, or anti-climactic? 0f course not. The New City – its name and its artists – occupies an essential position in the dialectic of our culture. It would be the suspension of that dialectic which would put us at peril. The culture of societies is always at risk from those who stand to gain from entropy, or vapidity.
1.The catalogue for the New City of Sculpture appears as a special section in issue No. 3 of C Magazine, complete with illustrations of the work. The exhibition was curated by David Clarkson ana Robert Wiens, sponsored by YYZ and Mercer Union, and exhibited at six galleries.
2. Calinescu. Matei, Faces of Modernity, (Indiana University Press, 1977), p. 89
A Neglected art gets the attention it truly deserves
John Bentley Mays
Globe And Mail, August 1984
For several years now, in such huge undertakings as the 1982 YYZ Monumenta group show and myriad lesser undertakings, Toronto gallery-goers have been given chances to size up the local version of the international painting revival. During those years of the painting vogue, no such comprehensive stocktaking of new Toronto sculpture was attempted, and viewers interested in three-dimensional word were left to catch as catch can, as individual sculpture shows came and went in the city’s galleries.
Now the blush is off the painterly rose, and Toronto’s new sculptors have made bold to step forward with this big show of their own. Organized by artists David Clarkson and Robert Wiens, and co-ordinated by Mercer Union director Steve Pozel and YYZ director Jennifer Rudder, New City of Sculpture proposes to be a sampler of the new sculpture’s variety and accomplishment. “We wanted to focus on sculpture, because it has not received the critical attention the work demands,” says Clarkson. “It can be a show which can go a long way to defining interests that have grown up here.”
Many of the top names in Toronto sculpture do not appear on the Clarkson and Wiens’ lise: among them are John McEwen, Ian Carr-Harris, Liz Magor, Noel Harding. Neither is the roster brimming with unknowns. As the curators explain, that’s because the show is intended to present brand-new work by artists who (like Clarkson and Wiens themselves) are neither fresh out of art school not mid-way through long, notable track-records of national and international exhibitions.
“We had a tendency to concentrate on local artists who have not received the attention which can allow their issues to be discussed,” says Clarkson. “All the artists (in New City) are developing a new path between the complete theatricality of installation and a far older tradition of discrite objects. These people are building another way which represnts both these areas.”
The catalogue for New City of Sculpture is unusual, on two counts. First, it features an analytical essay on Toronto sculpture by Bruce Grenville, a former graduate student in art history at Queen’s University in Kingston, who will be leaving for Cambridge next year to complete his doctorate. Unlike their colleagues in New York and Montreal, Toronto intellectuals play virtually no part in the local artistic discourse. Perhaps Grenville’s admirable trepidation well inspire other art historians to discover first-hand that, believe it or not, art didn’t die when Piet Mondran danced his boogie-woogie.
Second, the catalogye will be published as a special supplement t this September’s issue of C magazine. It will be rather interesting to see how this rather novel, piggy-back way of distributing a catalogue really works.