John McKinnon

10 May 1983 - 28 May 1983
Opening Reception 10 May 1983 8pm

East Gallery:

Bye Bruno and other stories of the Yellow Jacket

John McKinnon will be exhibiting recent welded steel constructions from May 10 to May 28. The work depicts in a linear manner an open ended narrative that describes a location.

“The things I build are a continuing series of steel constructions that relate to drawing and architecture. They are based on the idea of forming generalised images with a structural delineation that are infused with a vitality or animation. For me the idea is to define space rather than to displace it.”

– John McKinnon

Catalogue Text:

John McKinnon
Published by Mercer Union,1983
Bernie Miller

While leafing through a few notes I had taken on the writings of Michel Serres, I happened upon an image that would serve as an armature on which to fix some ideas that I had been considering about John McKinnon’s work. Serres talks about a particular nexus of ideas that occurs at the juncture between our mastery over motor power and the end of metaphysics, where we are no longer in the space of statues but of working engines. Serres sketches the assembly of these engines in a schema consisting of poles, reservoirs and a circulation (this is drawn from Carnot’s classic cycle). The poles in their difference desire equilibrium. Often there is a critical point of proximity between the poles that induces a flow of some sort whether it be electricity, or some liquid, like sap. The reservoir serves, as one would expect, as an aggregate from which to draw, whether this be a large population, Capital, theory, or the Unconscious. The circulation is characterised by a directed movement, slow rapid, vibrant, cyclical, pulsions, discontinuous or catastrophic. “Catastrophe” is particularly emphasised by Serres, and from my conversations with John McKinnon, seems to coincide with a notion he has of “stopping the world’, wherein a moment of recognition or finding is so intense as to suspend and close out all peripheral activity. According to Serres “the Catastrophe is therefore a cutting of the circuit, a total stopping of the circulation, a loss or escape of the flow, but perhaps also a change of phase…. The fluid is then transformed, the wine into vitriol, the gold into tickets or merchandise, Metamorphoses, transubstantiations, changes of state.” The image of engines then is not one of a literal illustration but is more essentially a paradigm that distributes artists, the physical works and viewer as components in a configuration that’s directs a flow or circulation, in this case, of meaning.

In TOPOGRAPHY OF A DEER, one image is brought against the next, an inscrutable, bat-like outline, for instance, reminiscent of a comic book superhero, and nearby a rather large nest-like construction a bit big for an osprey or a great bald eagle but at that end of the scale. A flow begins — flight, emblems, heroics. Another image is pulled into this circulation, an open ironwork Constructivist-looking trestle: an impossible conjunction, no, another sign for the heroic, and somewhere there a memory of an adventurous rite. The poles are seen to be differences exchanging similarities. Things pick up, narrative edges in, builds. But then….stalled!….a surrealistic non-sequitor….the bat is on skis. There’s a hitch, down time. More and more material is drawn up in order to start the thing up. Through this effort access is gained to a base or fund, and the viewer becomes more operative as a component part. And now Serres’ image of the reservoir becomes fitting. The reservoir image is applicable as well in McKinnon’s use of the public domain as a territory in which to scrounge up bits and pieces of of public imagery. He “deposits”, as he calls it, his particular investments of meaning into this found imagery, as well as taking into account, as it were, the accumulated meanings that such a piece of imagery may have acquired while residing in the public domain. These images are the valves between audience and artist, and the degree to which they are either general or specific is one of the regulatory devices that control the flows.

It is coincidentally apt that Serres should mention the end of the space of statues and in their stead the working of engines. It’s a nice image, and reminds me somehow of this work’s position at the conjunction of the newly-acquired classicism of welded steel and a more purely informational mode. It’s as if solid, massed work, even for that matter statuary, were stripped down to its armature, its bones, the frame, the contour line, economically jotting down the bare relations of the image-parts. In fact, John McKinnon’s work has less to do with classical welded steel sculpture than it does with the signs, emblems and glyphs with which an information-based society traces its circulations.

Bernie Miller is a visual artist living in Toronto.


John McKinnon
Mercer Union

Jeanne Randolph
Vanguard, September 1983
” ‘ Ugly’ is a most important and necessary component of a satisfying aesthetic experience,” Hanna Segal asserted in 1952 in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis, and in the ’50’s there were a lot of ugly things around, or so we commonfolk thought when our furniture, dishes and hairdos were formed like bacteria, bee hives, sub-atomic particles satellites and the mushroom cloud. John Rickman, in the same Journal, twelve years earlier had anticipated it well when he wrote ‘the fear which ugliness rouses is due to the irrefutable evidence which it provides that the will to destructiveness has been let loose; and we turn from it in part through dread of the temptation of complicity . . .” My sentiments exactly when I beheld women hobbling around in the height of fashion, wearing spike heels and the so-called ”Sack Dress,” displaying their complicity with that season’s deformation of everything into the shape of a paramecium. But I was wrong. Now we realise that the ’50’s stylistics were fun loving. The furniture in particular now looks like it had been built in anticipation of our mutation into, or supercedence by, giant radioactive insects who, in spite of their spindly legs, stapres carapaces and asymmetrical sitting postures, would still want to cavort in rec rooms and bars. What I had missed in my youthful horror at the aggressive glee of that by-gone imagery, was in fact the complementary vulnerability that is so visually obvious now.

John McKinnon’s constructions are leggy, ajar, they’re vulnerable looking and, well, fun-loving, too, in a way, like that furniture, but there is certainly no danger that in toying with his imagery one must be complicitous, even subconsciously, with any kind of violence. Some of these works, Bye And Stories of the Yellow Jacket, for example, present a tangle of jagged, thorny shapes that hardly seem cuddly, but there is nothing repugnant or cruel in the way that they curve out to meet the viewer. In The Third Secret of Fatima there may be the outline, in a single strand of looped steel, of a paramecium of all things, a four-wheeled paramecium, although it could just as well be the outline of a six-foot cartoon speech bubble with forty cactus like spines and wheels. How could it be, any more than it is a symbol of a model train track taking a ride instead of providing one. Two dimensional sketches, signs and symbols of things have been given three-dimensionality with deliberate dyslexia. These shapes, like every other form and relationship McKinnon has assembled are irrepressibly ambiguous. Such polysemic forms are ungainly at times, their spikes and angles audacious, but not so aggressive they threaten the lyricism of the imagery in any garish way.

Is this absence of “ugliness” in Rickman’s sense of that word, this absence of any allusion to “the will to destructiveness,” the central immaturity of McKinnon’s work, or is it the work’s nimblest achievement? Just how much ”ugliness” would Dr. Segal prescribe as the minimum necessary for a work to manifest in its structure a fundamental psychological reality? Has McKinnon, or has he not, welded steel in such a way that ”restated, in terms of instincts, ugliness –destruction–is the expression of the death instinct; beauty — the desire to unite into rhythm and wholes . . . the life instinct”? Segal claims “the achievement of the artist is in giving the fullest expression to the conflict and the union between these two” (in “A Psychoanalytical Approach to Aesthetics”). Any viewers moping about the political paranoia of these times might feel misgivings as to whether McKinnon has ”given the fullest expression” warranted to the destructive forces stalking us these days from within and without. And lacking such expression, the rhythms and graces of his melodious fabrications could seem rather irresponsible .

Or unreliable. The imagery does have a feel of “unreliability” in the sense that interpretations are multitudinous and elusive. The semi-symbolic figurations will not declare themselves as a definitive narrative. The titles of these works likewise are equally colourful but non-committal. The physical presence of these constructions feels ”unreliable” in that there is a disequilibrium, precariousness; some of them have spikes and some would bruise badly if their full wobbly weight toppled upon the viewer. Such unreliable vulnerability is exactly the liveliest quality in the imagery and in the corporeality of the best of these structures. The Advent of Emielia, for example, is a tripartite assemblage in which a very large but delicate pentagon, a heavy, askew “X” with fins, and a stubby crown on five 7-foot-long spidery legs, lounge against a wall, lean so lazily against a wall that an enlightened proletarian wearing steel-toed Kodiacs could kick it all asunder if he chose such a means to convey disapproval of its political innocence.

At the moment of sensory, visual interaction with these works, the viewer is generously provided with their tactile, perceptual and metaphorical fluency. The steel traces the path of an imagination that seems so versatile and so carefree that it is ugly to think that if “the will to destructiveness were let loose” on any grand political scale or social or even psychological scale there might be no place left where such perceptual play had meaning.