Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Emoticon: Reflections on a Current Trend.

Braden Labonté

This essay examines a handful of exhibitions in Montréal and Toronto that included the works of several dozen artists. In many respects, it is a kind of sequel to the earlier articles, Softcore Modernism In Toronto and Primitve Glamour. Like those articles, it's a tad sketchy, but that happens when attempting to make a point, however simple, about something rather broad. And like those articles, it examines a current which is running through the work of many young artists in two of Canada's major cities. For the sake of simplicity, I've relegated myself to those who are involved in the least subtle of ways.

One of the things that becomes blatantly obvious is how photographic these works tend to be, even when they are paintings. If anything, they inevitably have more to do with photography than they do with painting. This is true not only by virtue of the fact that they seem designed to appear grander as photographic reproductions – either in magazines or on the internet – than they are in person, but also because of their specific flatness and their shift away from the possibilities of painting into photographic modes. There's a tactility to much of current abstract work that springs from eyes that attempt to see like cameras do. But more important than the technological conditioning of these phenomena is the distillation which it demarcates.

A substantial stream of painting in this country has become indivisible from photography. In effect, work that now falls under the banner of abstraction is photography by other means, or an attempt to do painting by photographic processes. Although this has arguably been a tendency present in English Canada since the 1950s, it has steadily spread through French Canada too. No longer particularly paintings, these works, new and old, have started to function like digital images, lacking both in palpable materiality and substance. Instead, they distill the suggestion of such things down into what resembles an emoticon. This significance of this typographic modelling should become apparent as the article progresses.

Jeff Wall Diagonal Composition

This trend is a straying from the iconoclastic tendencies both of earlier abstraction and its bastard child conceptualism. As Jeff Wall once pointed out, the difference between a Mondrian painting and Lee Friedlander photo is ultimately minor. In practice, if not in publicity, the difference is now essentially null. What's most interesting about this, at least from a historical vantage point, is the degree to which it necessitates a re-evaluation of earlier strategies in the reduction of painting. This reduction has two primary tendencies. One is to force painting to function as a stuttered animation and the other is to force it to operate as script. These tendencies are not exclusive of one another but overlapping.

Tousignant Hommage a Mondrian
The continuity between the current fads for abstract work and those of the past is not an indication of the continuing vitality of serious painting as painting (which abandoned abstraction as anything more than an accent long ago) or a renewed desire for materiality. Such arguments have become a staple of art magazine editorials for a few years, and even appeared in some of the texts accompanying the exhibits discussed here, but they are inaccurate. Rather, these tendencies are part of the ongoing competition between painting and photography. Perhaps more strangely, it has come to be about: Painting as the photography of painting. As one old Modernist1 dogma put it: photography liberated painting from representation so that it could concentrate on itself and its limits. However, it seemed that many painters didn't want the freedom. What they really wanted was to be photographers. Even the works on Guido Molinari and Claude Tousignant are primarily closer to film than painting. Regardless of their own claims to the contrary, their pieces are more akin to Duchamp's Anemic Cinema than they are to their avowed idol Mondrian. Rectangular or circular, at their best they suck the viewer into a loop and, by sacrificing the image, they force the eye to experience the painting as time. They function very much like the retinal burn left behind by a GIF animation as it fades in your brain. This, in itself, was no small accomplishment.

Borduas Fette a la lune
The movement to producing pieces which are more concerned with being pictures of work than anything else may have something to do with generations largely weaned on reproductions of paintings rather than extensive contact with the things themselves. That is, they have to do with a fantasy about tactility or materiality, one which, by virtue of the clichés of design which have persisted for decades, has clearly taken dominance over any serious examination of matter. This in itself isn't new, but the tiny black and white reproductions of scattered art magazines which served as the models of the past are nothing compared to the saturation of images currently at play. By virtue of this situation, it's hard not to feel a certain sense of oddness when seeing many of the famous paintings from the history of Canadian abstraction in person.

At both the freshly opened building of the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal (MBA) and over at the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal (MACM), their collections of the stuff were out in force. Surprisingly, only some Rodolphe de Jauran Repentigny and mid-late Paul-Émile Borduas have managed to retain much force and persuasiveness. Paradoxically, it's only their excessive pathos that has allowed them to remain light enough over time, while most of their contemporaries at best come off campy; at worst, like doddering failures.

Jack Bush Green and Purple
While looking at a Jack Bush painting at the MBA, it was hard not to notice how rough his delineations were, how smeared his colouring, how lazy his brushwork and just how much it resembled bad poster art. Whatever pathos Bush expressed is identical to mass production printing errors. The masking in his technique sometimes leaves behind little voids. The mix of whimpering and squealing that his work generally suggests swirls around these little gaps. His use of colours is just the husk of a deflated beach balloon thrown over the blank void which is retained as an underlying stain, like the scatological grounding of his therapeutic drawings. But whatever one wishes to say of Bush, in his work one can clearly see the two divergent strains that have always been essential to abstraction. One is a nonsensical, often scatological and misanthropic bent which tends to ugliness and deformation. The other is a kind of elegy to order and the orchestration of decoration. In general, the latter serves to repress the former and it is the latter which has dominated abstraction in Canada.

From evacuation to vacuity.

"A Matter of Abstraction" and "On Abstraction" are sister exhibits at the MACM. The former opens the vaults of the gallery collection to run through the history of abstraction in Quebec. Set up in a primarily linear fashion, it offers no notes of context, no perspective, no startling juxtapositions. Its sister exhibit feels even more randomly culled. Intended to reflect upon the other, it winds up being an odd sideshow whose most basic success is in isolating the peculiarity of Québécois painting. The fact that the majority of the artists aren't part of the specifically Québécois experiment in abstraction is a big part of this, but it still lacks any definite bridging between the two exhibitions. What the secondary exhibition does is replay abstraction (predominately the monochrome) in almost purely interior design terms, something which is a staple of Anglo abstraction but relatively foreign to its Franco counterpart.

Savard The Colours Of Cezanne In The Words Of Rilke

The term 'abstract', like 'non-objective', is, of course, a misnomer but useful for what it is: a marketing term. Technically speaking, there has never been any abstract, non-representational or non-objective art. Works which fall under such headings are as representational as anything in the Renaissance or eighteenth century, they just function in a different set of rhetorical modes which already had traditions by the 1920s. Although this has generally been the case internationally, we'll restrict ourselves to Canadian examples. The works of Borduas and Les automatistes were completely inseparable from the body of writing and public appearances which they made. The paintings are as tied to it as icons were to scripture and the structure of the Church. To view one without the context of the other is utterly perverse. This is just to point out the most obvious fact which is that abstract art has always been an essentially literary endeavour with a secondary relationship to the visual. Rather than the illusion, it is the allusion which carries the force of so much of the work. Such work has a definitively literary crutch. It is actually about the limitations of language (this is true of everyone from Molinari to Francine Savard), and this places it in the realm of concrete poetry. These brushstrokes have little to do with painting and much to do with typography and calligraphy. Rather than wresting the visual free from its conventions, it dislocated it and mired it in the limitations and logic of script.

Harold Town The Sign

Likewise, the works of abstraction in Anglo-Canada are tied to a body of texts, whether those of Bertram Brooker, Lawren Harris or other. But there are some significant differences. There is a more anti-intellectual and anti-literary bent in much Anglo painting.2 Rather than attempting to do anything as ambitious as the reinvention of poetry, much of it is closer to sheer pastiche or collage. With P11 it was already camp and their images thrived on redundancy and a readily comprehended legibility through allusions to previous models. It was completely mediated.3 They were painting pictures of paintings. Abstraction had already become, as William Ronald and Harold Town both insisted, Pop art, and scrawling or dripping paint was identical to cutting photos out of a newspaper. That's why the work of one of their offspring, like John Kissick for example, basically resembles someone vomiting up a home decor catalogue. Relatively anonymous and readily reproducible, such work is entirely figurative but only in a very literal way that displays a grammarian's anal retentiveness. And as the decades have passed, these tendencies have only become more neutered and clichéd. Installed from the top by business elites in the 1950s as a means of emulating Americans, decorating corporate offices and wooing clients with inoffensive cosmopolitanism, the abstract has long functioned as wallpaper for the country's neo-liberals and as an iconic emblem of their power.4

While earlier representational work had both a literary and extra-literary nature, abstraction means, precisely, cancelling the latter by raising script to its most despotic form of capture and cliché. (Wallpaper – and the abstraction that mirrors it – is the figure rendered as cliché in the original sense of the term and a dominant shadow cast over much of the work discussed.) This runs quite counter to the generic account of the progress to formalistic abstraction espoused by Modernists, which explicitly tied it to liberating form from content, that is, from literariness, whether for the purpose of spiritual exercise of innocuous aestheticism. To put it more bluntly: abstraction was from the outset exactly the opposite of what the majority of its exponents and practitioners predicated their claims for its value on. Not only have these ongoing currents reduced the visual vocabulary to an excessive literalization, but they have reduced the literary to a kind of punctuation mark.

Kelly Mark Porn
The most demonstrative thing of this point was actually included in the "On Abstraction" exhibition. Kelly Mark's "Glow Video Installations: PORN" is part of a series of video/sculptures. They involve stacks of televisions which play a monochromatic loop of footage abstracted from porn and horror films. Porn and horror films – with their reduction of their medium to the bare principles of design and outline filled up with fluids, a conflation of recognizable shapes, repetitions and a visual frenzy – are aesthetically identical to the modus operandi of abstraction, only the latter lacks most of what makes them interesting. (Not coincidentally, the sets of porn films are almost inevitably decorated with abstract paintings which function as the emoticons of fucking.) The pink glow and its geometrical pattern form an emoticon, simulating, by a radically simplified means, the sensation absent from the work itself.

Ron Martin Cadmium Red Deep

Red dominated the monochromatic works chosen at both the MACM and MBA, varying from some gorgeous Jean McEwen's to the flopping of Ron Martin. This demonstrated its great variety: from luxuriant faux finishing to scatological doodling aestheticized to remove the odour. The monochrome, of course, was always an emoticon, if one that was grossly ambiguous in the way that a wink or smile could not be.5 Abstraction, emoticons and punctuation marks are essentially part of the same family. While abstraction is literary, it is not necessarily narrative (although sometimes it is, as in the explicitly eschatological works of Kandinsky and Malevich), but tends to the diagrammatic. It works you over to elicit a sensation.

And yet it is useless not to seek, not to want, for when you cease to seek you start to find, and when you cease to want, then life begins to ram her fish and chips down your gullet until you puke, and then the puke down your gullet until you puke the puke, and then the puked puke until you like it.
-Samuel Beckett

The Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA) in Toronto orients itself to similar territory. "Trans/FORM" brings together 8 young Toronto artists "...producing artworks whose meaning and essence are revealed through the materials from which they are made." This includes both handmade and industrial materials. When you walk in, what appears to be the stacked and varied part of a studio or garage is in the corner to welcome you to the show which promises "... to animate the latent expressive potential of matter, transforming materials into a coherent, poetic language of form."6

A majority of the works in the exposition are intimately tied to photography. In effect, the material in question merely functions as the medium for the photograph. These photographs bare all the traces of micro noise and pixilation, of a world which experiences matter through the mediation of photography. Unlike the work of someone like Kathleen Munn, whose paintings were intimately tied to medical micro-photographs, these images directly impress themselves upon matter without the same rough kinds of approximation, causing their content to be displayed in a manner which is marginally less transformational. Less so because it does not seek to represent matter, or to display it, but to reduce it to the utility of presentation.

Sasha Pierce Cycle (detail)

Two women stand next to me. One suddenly blurts out, "Oh! It shows that matter is art." She likely realized this because the programme she just shoved in her handbag had something along those lines written on the cover. Of course, it doesn't show that matter is art, but that matter can serve design. And not just more generic forms of artistic matter like paint or clay, but any matter whatsoever. It's a kind of totalitarianism (or democratization, depending on your prejudice) of production that flattens all media into the creation of emoticons of tactility to be projected onto matter. This clarifies the fact that the material has never been revealed, but functions as a form of cleavage (in two senses of the word). Rather than the transparency of the emoticon as an erasure of skill for the sake of the viewer's immediate self-gratification, it extracts this gratification from the explicit performance of labour. In light of this, the fact that Hugh Scott Douglas literally bolts and chains his work to the wall takes on connotations that ought to be obvious.

Niall McClelland Tapestry – Diagram

Of all of those on display, Niall McClelland plays out what's at work most nakedly. Most of his pieces function like wallpaper or posters. This is true both in terms of their deliberate scale and their point of visual reference – the kind of astrological maps commonly used to decorate children's walls in the 1980s and the tie-dye colour mash-ups enjoyed by hippies and found decorating old women's blouses in Value Village bins. McClelland’s nostalgic aesthetics combine punk and hippyness, properly returning them to what Johnny Rotten always said they were: a marketing scam for fashion victims. And this isn't hyperbole. Much of the work at the show resembled inflated versions of the kind of hand-made jewelry you can find dotting Queen West. A genuine investigation of material would necessitate the ruination of design, or at the very least, a rupturing of it and aesthetic experience (although not of the experience of art). None of that occurs here. Quite the opposite. What happens is a de-differentiation of matter which renders all material into a projection screen.

Luanne Martineau Parasite Buttress

In the accompanying exhibition, "The Shape of Things," a brief catalogue of 'iconic' works from the 1960s is displayed. Featuring works by Josef Albers, Ron Martin, Luanne Martineau and Elizabeth McIntosh and ... Tousignant rears his head again. This time he's a red monochrome beside a text intoning, in a way that makes Orpah's guru Eckhart Tolle look like Hegel, that this painting is 'only painting' and is empty of everything else. But the kind of asinine vacuity which Tousignant espoused, if never entirely attained, in his work is rightly refuted by the other show. The reductionism of abstraction tells you almost nothing about media specificity or materiality, if anything it negates both. However, it does say a great deal about the aesthetics of a particular stratum of capitalist production. Tousignant's monochromes and animations served as the white noise for the forces of inertia in Quebec; their avowed (though purely symbolic) rejection of language in favour of a logocentric universalism was a utopian leap to overcome a dread of irrelevance and singularity. That kind of effacement was not necessary from the context of Anglo abstraction since it was already in the position of domination. There are other distinctions that need to be drawn. What the younger artists do carry forward is the reduction of pictures of work into pictures of labour for the consumption of the leisure class. This is precisely what the introductory installation sets up.

What separates these young fogies the most from their grand pères is their lack of rigour and questioning. They take the vacuity at face value and reduplicate it across media. In this respect again, the medium doesn't matter. The excessive literariness and literalness of abstraction is almost all that's left of it. It's a choked language. One might optimistically say it's a kind of autistic rambling, at once recognizable but not really communicative. But that would be giving it too much credit. It's more like an imitation of autism – Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man: a routine. Some can eat this vomit like its caviar. Doodling with puke. That's its materiality. Then it becomes vaudeville. Modernism reiterates itself like burlesque. Sagging tits without nipples, only glitter. Abstraction's highfalutin charms have long functioned to take the place of the most marginalized form in Canadian art history – the nude. Abstraction is porn for eunuchs.7

In "Trans/FORM," abstraction's more common association with luxury living is replaced by a fantasy of labour which doubles the fantasy of tactility that is essential to the works displayed. Like the works of Liam Crockard, they function as labour porn for a failed socialist state.


Christopher Varady-Szabo

Back in Montreal at Art Mûr, Tousignant's bull’s-eye is echoed in wood by Christopher Varady-Szabo in their survey of young artists, "Peinture fraiche et nouvelle construction." The exhibition includes artists from all over the country, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Toronto contingent are the ones who have their hands full of the Modernist legacy. Patrick Cull pays homage to the legacy of Les automatistes in a set of pieces recalling Fernand Toupin while others play up the op art effects and rigid lines of Les plasticiens. But this is appropriate. Les plasticiens explicitly stated desire to liberate art from 'anthropocentrism' would most logically lead to the experience of phenomena on a purely animalistic level, something their apologists never seem to digest properly. Dogs don't dig for monochromes and they certainly don't evaluate the formal qualities of dirt. While a Tousignant painting may never make you experience the world like a worm – that favoured model of aesthetic experience for both the Expressionists and the Surrealists – at its best it does induce a kind of childish stupefaction which some unfortunate souls mistake for the spiritual or profound. This is due, both in his case and in that of his many bastards, to the fact that the work involves the industrialization of the gaze and its ensuing myopia. For those of Tousignant and Molinari's generation that essentially meant turning the human perceptual system into a television airing nothing but test patterns.

Braden Labonté

The works dealing with this legacy are more adolescent than childish. The parody gets even more explicit with the works of Braden Labonté8, sardonically summed up in one of his titles, "Fuck Modernism." His lowly pieces are obviously set out just as emoticons are and function with the same figurative force as expletives littered in a sentence. And, like many young Toronto artists, you can take that in at least two ways: Fuck modernism as in 'fuck off modernism', or fuck modernism as in 'having intercourse with modernism'. But this isn't just a random hook-up and, despite the gesture's upturned nose, doesn't break from convention but only fulfills it. Like the viruses of many venereal diseases, Modernism never really goes away; it persists as an irritating joke or rectal cyst. This is the case because Modernists got something fundamentally wrong. They mistakenly believed there actually was progress and innovation in art when, at the most, all that one can hope for is an abortion or a singularity. Among many artists in Toronto, however, all you're likely to get is Chlamydia.


To change the type, because of our weakness.
- Pascal

Another strategy for dealing with the breeding of vacuity that dominates so much Canadian painting is to move into fusion. That is, by placing the figure in a kind of ruptured space. This is best approximated by the term expressionism. Expressionism was indivisible from the exclamation point which haunted the texts that accompanied so much of the visual work done under that header. It emerged between the world wars with the onslaught of new technologies and as an extension of their sensory implications. The daubs and blobs, the strikes, blurs and drips that have become so much token of expression in much current figurative practice date back to this origin in Expressionism and are likewise predicated on an erosion of the materiality of daily life, albeit what may be a far subtler one.

So much figurative painting being done now resembles decaying video because the sensorium of each successive generation is readily being hacked apart and pieced back together in new forms, sometimes without their knowing and sometimes with extraordinary pain. The sensual torture that constitutes contemporary living is sometimes met with a total cauterization of the senses resulting in tourism of the material world (abstraction). At other times, it results in a desperate kind of figuration that verges on the mumblings of a retard. It can become the kind of over-compensatory reaction that governs the work of someone like Kim Dorland. A lot of the time this tendency is excessively aggressive and mannerist, like bad rap music, but it entails a move away from the reduction to script and an expansion to narrative.

Sarah Tue Fee Traveling Voids or: Pupils are holes in your head that information about the world gets shot into at

While this tendency is far more varied than that of the other which I have outlined, it still pops up in many young artists. We'll relegate ourselves to simply mentioning a few who were on display in the show at Art Mûr. Nathaniel Hurtubise, who has been making quasi-abstract work reminiscent of Harold Town for a few years, has pushed the script and ornament combinations on his gridded canvases further toward figuration. Although this can get close to mash-up of collaged patterns, at its best it sets this in oscillation with a violent punctuation of blankness. The figure now appears as a gap, delineated only as absence in the midst of design. This same strategy is shared in a few works by Natasha Gusta but it comes to its most interesting formulation in the paintings of Sarah Tue Fee. In her works, she explicitly links the effects of new technology on the sensory system ("Traveling Voids or: Pupils are holes in your head that information about the world gets shot into at") and plays them out in a layered, highly dense and implosive visual space. The grids, colour blocks, patterns and monochrome shapes of abstraction all spread around her canvases. They serve as vehicles to enter into the vanishing point that dominates the centre of her images. These are often vaguely narrative, dominated by harsh diagonals, leaks and sharp disjunctions between widely varying kinds of brushwork and texture.

Aside from generally being much better painters than their abstract contemporaries, there's something definitely nostalgic in their hymns to decaying sensuality. The benefit of the figure, even in its pronounced erasure, is that it makes the palpable rot of this process so much more naked. Their push against simplicity and legibility is compounded with a form of depersonalized narrative that makes the functioning of the emoticon problematic by creating fractures within it. This kind of messy work, flat, murky and bleary eyed as it is, most readily suggests the 'abyss' (to use Dennis Reid's word for it) of what landscape painting fell into in the 1950s.

1. [Suffice it to say, when using the term Modernism, I do not intend it in its generic art historical context. I don't think that sense of Modernism can be legitimately applied to art in Canada because the conditions of production have been entirely different both materially and ontologically. Canadian art, in spite of superficial resemblances, is not part of either European or American Modernism. Rather, when I use the term Modernism I am appealing to a particular provincial fantasy that collected around the term and which still has currency in the country as part of its own slightly eccentric version of poshlust. Abstraction was perhaps Canada's first, and only, genuinely bourgeois kind of art. ]
2. [In certain respects, the concrete poetry books of people like bp Nichol and Bill Bissett, comes far closer to the different strains of Quebec abstraction than painting in English Canada did.]
3. [Although he avoids the logical consequences of this mode of production in formal terms, Roald Nasgaard indexes the degree of allusionism and redundancy that has been fundamental to Anglo abstraction in his tome, "Abstract Painting In Canada" ]
4. [Even Nasgaard admits that it was entirely institutionalized and ultra-orthodox with a thoroughly orchestrated plan of media exploitation replete with fake debates.]
5. [The promises of the monochrome - to someone like Rodchenko and his fellow travellers anyway - was to save painting from the neurosis of representation and lack which he thought were fundamental to it. Bu it seems clear, to me at any rate, that this is precisely what it failed to do and that it persists as an explicit documentation of this incredibly neurotic failure. This is part of the key to the lingering curiosity of the monochrome. It poses the paradox of being utter lack and total excess, compete pretension and gross stupidity all at once. It functions still as the most absolute manifestation of kitsch.]
6. [These statements were taken from the exhibit's accompanying text written (presumably) by curator David Liss.]
7. [I use the word 'eunuch' advisedly, and not to suggest a lack of virility. On the contrary, the eunuch has so often been the reproducer par excellence. A bureaucrat, whose very public reproductions allows them to function as a face of the state or business class. The virgin, the sodomite, the chaste, the virgins and impotents could not be further away from this breeder of the common sense.]
8. [Also in the show: Antoine Lortie and Olivier Hebert touch a similar vein, though in a far less caustic way and in one which retains a greater deal of tactility over finish.]

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