Eleven artists subvert abstract expressionism

by Gregory Beatty


artWho’s Afraid of Purple, Orange and Green?
Dunlop Gallery
Until June 20

“While those downtown macho painters are just alcoholic”

That’s a lyric from a song by Lou Reed and John Cale (“Trouble With Classicists”) that appears on the concept album Songs for Drella that they recorded as a memorial to New York Pop artist Andy Warhol after he died in 1987.

Pop art emerged in the early 1960s from the ashes of abstract expressionism. By that point, modernist abstraction, in various guises, had had a 30-year run as the dominant art form in the Western world (culminating in the Greenbergian monstrosity of Post-Painterly Abstraction in an infamous 1964 show in L.A.).

Heavily influenced by commercial design and mass media/marketing that was exploding around them, pop artists like Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, David Hockney and Claes Oldenberg created work that was markedly different from abstract expressionism.

With a huge assist from prominent European artists who immigrated to the U.S. to flee the impending carnage of WWII in the mid-1930s, abstract expressionism was the first American-born art movement to rise to global prominence. Like the country itself, it was bold, brash and reckless. And, as Reed and Cale’s lyric quoting Warhol indicates, so were the artists.

Most were hard-living, hard-drinking rogues who painted and lived almost on a cinematic scale. Jackson Pollock, Willem DeKooning, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Agnes Martin — okay, she was an exception. So was sculptor Louise Bourgeois because, consistent with the über-patriarchal society that spawned abstract expressionism, the movement was aggressively male-dominated.

Which brings me to Who’s Afraid of Purple, Orange and Green? Curated by Dunlop director Jennifer Matotek, it features art by 11 artists (10 women and one man) working in a neo-modernist style.

That is, they use elements of old-school modernism (line, colour, scale, texture, non-representation) but in a way that subverts some of the ideological baggage tied to abstract expressionism such as patriarchy, capitalism, even imperialism, as it was part of the propaganda war as America rose to super-power status in the 1940s and ’50s.

Adding another layer of intrigue is the show’s location. In the late 1950s and early ’60s Regina was home to an internationally known group of abstract expressionist painters called the Regina Five.

Whether intentional or not, I did detect a nod to that legacy in Luce Meunier’s white cotton and acrylic canvases which recalled Ron Bloore’s famous white paintings. Not that Matotek’s exhibition disparages the Regina Five in any way — nor should it. Art McKay is my favourite of the group, but as a whole they produced some wonderful painting.

Fittingly, there’s some wonderful work on display here as well. It starts at the gallery door (or front display window if you’re passing by in the library) with an installation by Jennifer Marman and Daniel Borins called The Pavilion of the Blind (2013).

It’s a monumental work in its own right, so it kind of reinforces that aspect of modernism where scale was used to dwarf (and intimidate) viewers. But instead of a solid block of stone or metal (as in the case of a sculpture), or huge stretch of canvas with a painting, Pavilion consists of several blinds and shades in different colours and styles that open and close or move up and down mechanically, so the “painting” is always changing. And when the blinds/shades are open/up a huge chunk of it is empty space.

Another highlight is Marie Lanoo’s Colour Cubed (2013). It consists of a metal honeycomb grid attached to the wall like a painting. Inserted in a cluster of holes at the centre are rolled up strips of coloured gel that create an Op Art-style hexagonal dot-pattern — but again, with a palpable sense of impermanence akin to a child playing with a Lite-Brite.

I also enjoyed Sarah Nasby’s Once More With Feeling (2013). There’s two white plastic-coated grids like you’d find in a fridge or freezer with three differently coloured shapes attached to them. To me, (Triangles) and (Swooshes) resemble graphs. One was hung horizontally. The other, though, was just propped vertically against the wall.

Was that the way it was supposed to read? Or was it awaiting installation like its companion? It’s an important question because to read a graph right you need to know its orientation. Again, to me, the work neatly skewers a societal obsession we too often have with numbers. Gathering stats is important, but we shouldn’t let data rule our lives — especially financial data, which for the last 35 years has been pretty much the focus of public policy.

Krista Buecking takes a poke at capitalism in her installation as well. We Thing (leverage island) (2012), consists of a grey carpeted riser with a red vinyl pyramid and potted tropical plant. “Leverage” is a finance term where corporations and individuals invest with borrowed money — sometimes scoring big, other times losing everything. “Pyramid” recalls another sketchy finance practice: pyramid schemes. Then there’s a stenciled sign with two hallowed capitalist axioms: “Time is Money” and “Knowledge is Power”.

I thought Arabella Campbell’s two grey plastic tarp “paintings” were cheeky too. And perversely ironic, in that around the time they were being installed at the Dunlop a Saskatoon man made headlines when he “tarped” a public art work he disliked. But that quirk of timing aside, the works recall the minimalism of Ad Reinhart, Robert Motherwell, Kazmir Malevich and others — except using fabric instead of paint.

Definitely a show worth checking out.