He do the Police in Different Voices: A Curatorial Apologia

The following blurb accompanied the exhibition "Sudden Frost" at Elissa Cristall Gallery in Vancouver during July and August of 2010. Footnotes are a drag with this software; so they have not been included. Feel free to question my academic integrity....

I must begin this curatorial statement with a confession: I was not a very committed undergraduate. The common expression that “youth is wasted on the young” did not suitably apply to my example. Consequently, the vast majority of my recollections from the period are more or less confined to a sporadic series of hazy reminiscences. I offer this confession less as a testament to the exuberant rigor of my youthful bohemia than as a means to shed some light on the resonance that T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” has had for me. I clearly remember my first encounter with the poem. Its words, phrasing and imagery rattled through my bones as though I’d struck an ocean liner with a sledgehammer. I didn’t understand all of the nuances and references contained within its 434 lines. I still don’t. But I knew that it was true, and that scattered throughout its sprawling verse there was a dreadful kind of beauty.

First published in 1922 , “The Waste Land” was largely written while Eliot was on medical leave from his position at a London bank. The official diagnosis given for this sabbatical was “nervous breakdown” ; and the poem clearly suggests a certain unraveling on the part of the author. It presents a series of lugubrious glimpses into the varied tension and malaise that confounded the polarized sliver of time between world wars. Its central metaphor, of a barren landscape wracked with drought, was inspired by Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance , an anthropological study of Celtic grail and fertility myths published in 1920. But unlike the myths from which he drew inspiration, Eliot’s tale presents us with no hero. There is no Arthur to drink from his cup, no Fisher King to make the land whole again. In Eliot’s view, there is little chance for redemption.

This exhibition was inspired by a specific passage from Eliot’s poem:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.

The works in this exhibition have been chosen and displayed more by “sensibility” and “feel” than by a more straightforward (or academically defensible?) point. These works are meaningful shards chopped from larger bodies of work. They share a whimsical yet somber lyricism, creating exfoliating panoramas of tangential fragments and divergent histories.

The remainder of this statement will look closely at the specific works in this exhibition. It will discuss these works against the backdrop of these artists’ larger projects and relate them more specifically (if tangentially) to various aspects of Eliot’s poem.

David Merritt is an artist who lives in London, Ontario. He works in a variety of media including drawing and installation, and much of his work lives in the fruitful intersection between these two disciplines. His large-scale drawing included in this show, “Never Again,” is a word-mapping of common statements that incorporate the drawing’s title. There is a sense of fatalistic pathos that invades this statement that is further reinforced and emphasized by Merritt’s fragile material rendering. This is a quiet drawing that is somewhat at odds with the verbal content that it idiosyncratically delineates. Phrases like “Never Fucking Again” are rarely said quietly. But the intimate and whimsical character of Merritt’s hand-written characters along with the sprawling lines that weave them together, give us a sense that these statements are being whispered. We lean in closely to hear it speak, and the reluctant messaging of Merritt’s reticent marks becomes visibly audible.

Michel Daigneault is a painter who divides his time between Toronto and Montreal. His colourful paintings hover between abstraction and representation. In so doing, his works draw into question the continued possibility and contemporary malleability of these historical forms. His modestly scaled works in this exhibition continue this dialogue. They present vibrant clusters of semi-abstract forms dangling like mistletoe from the ceiling of an ambiguous and illogical, abstractly architectural ground. These works are a nowhere-limbo of mashed-up, art historical tropes overlapped with recycled design motifs. In so doing, they reveal hidden truths about one of art’s most pressing questions: what would happen if you put a late-seventies deKooning into a blender with an album cover by Roger Dean , a Helen Frankenthaller, an assortment of do-it-yourself-tattoo-designs and a Jules Olitski, then zapped the mixture with gamma rays , and finally air-brushed the results onto a medium-large canvas?

Kevin Rodgers is (mostly) a sculptor who lives (mostly) in London, Ontario. His large scale works present sparsely formal reconfigurations of institutional and corporate furnishings. Using these broken down and discarded emblems of a watered-down-and-sold-out Modernist idealism as his working material, Rodgers cuts up, reworks and mashes together these found objects into new and surprising formal variations. His floor piece on display here, “Qualify and Satisfy” (2009) is a striking example of this process. A sculptural diptych, it’s human-like scale commands the centre of the gallery’s floor like a provisionally constructed sarcophagus. There is an awful sense of vacancy that emanates from this work. One can almost picture the cubicles that these reconstructed fragments previously occupied: empty and dehumanized. How many “man hours” did these sculptures bear witness to? How many micro-particles of time transformed into dollars and cents? In this sense, Rodgers’ sculpture is modestly monumental. It is a monument to the monotony of time passing through human labor. Time is spent. Money is spent. Time equals money.

Nicole Vogelzang is a painter who lives in Toronto. Her hyper-representational works explore, provoke and ultimately thwart a photographic language than has been thoroughly absorbed into the discourse of painting. As such, her works play with the perceptible gaps between photographic and naturalistic and imaginary phenomenon. Her imagery is frequently wrought with an absurdist sense of both horror and whimsy, and her paintings in this exhibition stomp both feet into these metaphorical puddles. In Cup (2007), a clear plastic disposable cup has been filled with water. Eye-like slots have been violently carved from its face. Thick tears pour down from these scarified orifices, pooling at the cup’s base. A yellow plate radiates with an unnatural light from the back end of her wooden table top, like a UFO carrying extraterrestrial Lilliputians hell bent for anarchy. The background space becomes increasingly illogical as it recedes into amorphous ground. A moonlike shape glows there with a treelike silhouette interrupting its spherical demarcation. There is no evidence of a window through which we look out. Rather Vogelzang’s moon hovers uncannily in a dark, implausible limbo. Unknown and unknowable, we surrender our convictions to her seductively rendered uncertainty.

Jenn E Norton is a Toronto artist working in video and sculpture . Her piece in this exhibition, Very Good Advice (2009), is a tragic love letter, a conflicted ode to the city of Toronto (as well as a more generalized post-industrial Western experience) rendered in high-definition video. The piece opens with Norton posing daintily in the middle of a traffic-filled city street. Like Lucy draped over Linus’ piano, Norton sings her melancholic lullaby, “Very Good Advice,” appropriated and personalized from Disney’s Alice in Wonderland. As the central metaphor that runs through Norton’s sobering-but-psychedelic non-adventure, it loosely connects a series of haunting vignettes filmed during Toronto’s most recent garbage strike. “Very Good Advice” presents the city as a site of internalized trauma, impotence and escapist denial. Everyone knows the destination of the road of good intentions, putting one foot down in front of the other along its junked path.

Sky Glabush is a painter who lives is London, Ontario. His large-scale paintings provide a startling vision of a crumbling, regionalized pastoral. Marred by tragedy and rife with pathetic fallacy, Glabush’s 60’s architectural suburban dwellings are neglected, overgrown and decayed. “Fence” (2010) is one such piece. In it, a darkened gray-purple haze falls over a joyless Mudville. An eerily under-painted, green light radiates from the twisted branches of the backyard barren trees. The faded yellow split-level hasn’t been repainted in quite some time. Its floral print curtains were replaced by bed-sheets that never open. Mrs. Cleaver died in ’87, and Mr. Cleaver moved into Sunny Ridge Mature Lifestyle Community in ‘88. He cheats at bridge and has grown increasingly incontinent. The Beaver and Wally left town years ago and no longer visit. Para-militaristic squatters converted the garden shed into a hydroponic-grow-op. Ward and June’s handsome cold-war-bomb-shelter was transformed to a meth lab, with racks of non-perishable dry good replaced by post-trailer-gangster artillery.

Will Gorlitz is a painter who lives in Guelph, Ontario. With no offense intended to the rest of our underappreciated national field, Gorlitz might be the best painter living in this country. His post-conceptual approach to representational painting merges a highly sophisticated and visibly self-evident intellectualism with a nearly unparalleled material sensitivity. In this regard, his recent series “Always Already” is no exception. Inspired by an 18th Century allegorical painting by Johann Melchior, Menagerie Landgraf Carls von Hessen-Kassel (1721-28), Gorlitz’s paintings present a vast range of warm-weather animals either deceased or fighting for survival in stark winter settings. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes allegory like this:

the expression by means of symbolic fictional figures and actions of truths or generalizations about human existence.

Animals are one of the more classic vehicles for true allegory. In most historic allegorical tales, animals are used as a device to symbolize various aspects of the human character. The tortoise is slow but determined. The hare is overzealous and lackadaisical. The lion is always courageous. In the “Always Already” series, Gorlitz uses animals in this traditional allegorical manner, as though all of the redemptive features of humanity are likewise deceased or fighting for survival. The steadfast rhinoceros is dead and buried. The graceful zebra is forever preserved in its frosty tomb. “Always Already” creates a profound sense of pathos because it is clearly a winter of our own making. In this sense, Gorlitz’s bleak winter prophecies might stop being allegories. They might actually happen.

Patrick Mahon is an artist who lives in London, Ontario. Coming from a background in printmaking, Mahon extends this historicized language into the discourse of painting, sculpture, installation and even the occasional video. His works in this exhibition continue his unique material strategy of screen-printing imagery onto clear Plexiglas panels. This process creates an unusual optical effect for the viewer, as the framed works create a soft doubling of the image via the shadow that is cast on the wall behind them. The concrete materiality of Mahon’s drawn image is forever tied to its perpetually shifting, ephemeral twin. His works on display here are taken from his recent series, “Baker Lake House,” in which graphically reductive renditions of portable, modular homes in the extreme Canadian North are thrust into wild and tumultuous grounds. These architectural structures are derived from photographs taken by the artist in Baker Lake, Nunavut in 2007. The background line work is based upon a series of J. M. W. Turner’s landscape engravings. Mahon’s reductively modern and seemingly abandoned housing structures are placed within a European, capital-S-Sublime, capital-R-Romantic, background framing. These works create a harrowing glimpse into a highly marginalized community, filtered through the perceptible lens of an inescapable European exoticism and haunted by the transient shadow that lurks beneath their clean, plastic exterior.

Although the world has changed exponentially since “The Waste Land” was written, it is easy to draw various parallels to the broader social climate under which it was created. Like the times in which Eliot penned his infamous ode, we too are living in an anxious, polarized climate. There are striking similarities between our seemingly disparate worlds. As a particularly clever poetic genius, Eliot was prone to more than his fair share of moments of incredible lucidity. In Murder in the Cathedral he states:

We do not know very much of the future
Except that from generation to generation
The Same things happen again and again

Like the quotation that inspired this exhibition, the title for this show is likewise borrowed from “The Wasteland”:

"That corpse you planted last year in your garden,

"Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?

"Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?

The artists collected here, working in a wide range of media and within a broad critical spectrum, address the frenzied conditions of our current social-political experience. These works provoke us to reexamine our contexts and to reanalyze our framing. In this sense, they have sprouted and are in full bloom. Digging ardently with sharpened nails, they disturb our bed.

Operating Systems

The following blurb is an essay from a brochure that accompanied the exhibition "Unnatural: Monica Tap and Michel Daigneault" at Rodman Hall Art Centre, Brock University.

Whatever we may think or affect to think of the present age, we cannot get out of it; we must suffer the sufferings, and enjoy the enjoyments; we must share in its lot, and, to be either useful or at ease, we must even partake its character.
— John Stuart Mill

Although it could be successfully argued that Baudelaire’s “The Painter of Modern Life” is the prototypical manifesto for the entirety of Modernist painting, many of its underlying treatises had been lingering in the cultural atmosphere for quite some time. The idea that the function of artist-intellectuals in a society is to form and to express an intensely insightful understanding of the character of their age was inherited from Romanticism generally and German Romanticism specifically. The notion of Zeitgeist as “the collective individuality of a society” and the view that high art should aspire to a sense of “fidelity to the spirit of the age” were central ideologies that underscored the potency of the movement. Thus Shelley’s famous English-language decree that artists are “mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present” had its intellectual roots in the movement’s original, continental branch.

The true stroke of Baudelaire’s genius, however, is found less in his framing of the artist as the inspired revealer of hidden truths than in his specific understanding of where these truths were to be found in modernity: in “the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent.” Thus, if we squint past the opulent glare of Baudelaire’s romantic hyperbole, we uncover fragments of lucidity that bear consideration for the present moment as well. If the invention of photography had any more resounding impact on the development of Modernist painting, on Manet and his followers, it was this: that faithfully representing these newly uncovered truths was no longer enough. Rather, the painterly processes that created these representations had to further encapsulate modernity’s perpetually shifting character. Paintings could no longer merely describe the present; they had to embody it. This thesis is thoughtfully and passionately argued throughout modernity. In countless manifestos, criticisms, and paintings, the familiar refrain is this: different forms of experience necessitate different forms of expression.

Let us fast forward.

Perhaps the most insightful manifesto for art making in the early twenty-first century is Nicolas Bourriaud’s Postproduction. In it, Bourriaud states that the most “authentic forms” of contemporary expression are those which incorporate “inauthentic forms” into their production strategy, a layer of interference that acts as a mediating filter through which artists perform the varied enactments of their creative musing. Bourriaud claims that artists today seek

to produce singularity and meaning from the chaotic mass of objects, names and references that constitute our daily life. Artists today program forms more than they compose them: rather than transfigure a raw element, they remix available forms and make use of data.

Let us press pause.

The works of Monica Tap and Michel Daigneault clearly embody the ideals laid out by Baudelaire and Bourriaud. Although their paintings and production strategies are “formally heterogeneous,” the artists seek to discern “fragments” of meaning from the bedlam of information that bombards our contemporary experience. In the remainder of this essay I will seek important thematic congruencies through which to discuss the nuanced diversity of their painterly responses. I will argue that their works and “operating systems” offer an insightful glimpse into the frenzied nature of now.


Monica Tap’s paintings are based on video clips of the landscape that passes as she travels by train, bus, or car. Taken with a low-resolution, ten-frames-per-second, five-megabyte, digital still camera, this footage is uploaded into QuickTime, where still images are sliced from their raw data. Tap’s paintings are representations of the “physical” landscape revealed at the speed of low-fidelity. Michel Daigneault’s paintings are representations of the “social-visual” landscape, the complex web of graphics and images that flood our eyes and memories. His work blends abstract formal and/or compositional motifs with found, ready-made-template shapes and forms. These paintings are a veritable limbo of art historical and cultural memory. The work of both artists is vibrant and colourful, filled to the brim with an array of confident painterly negotiations that give substance to the ephemerality of the image.

There is a remarkable consistency to Daigneault’s formal and iconographic vocabulary in the paintings on view, which date from 2002 to 2008. Although new forms gradually creep into his lexicon, the recurrence of familiar shapes gives his work a sense of constancy without ever feeling feigned or repetitive. These shapes become specified terms in his idiosyncratic, painterly language. In Outer Space (2008), Daigneault employs a large semi-centralized motif of multicoloured RVs that cluster down from the painting’s upper right side. The conglomerated mass of forms comes perilously close to the painting’s edge without extending beyond its frame. This bulky pilgrimage is contained within a faded cobalt-blue ground that is interrupted by a chocolate-milk-coloured, continental-maplike structure that crosses the middle of the painting laterally. A wispy delineation of maple leaves gives a light but tangible weight to the painting’s bottom edge. It is a compelling cantation of our national symbol in that Daigneault avoids the more common graphic simplifications that mark our flag and local hockey jersey. Rather, he presents the familiar foliage quasi-naturalistically, as a sparse silhouette rendered in soft grays that grounds the whimsical melody of his sophisticated composition.

From the Train II (2005) is the earliest of Monica Tap’s works presented. The earthy but colourful, pixel-like patchwork of her painterly mark making is contained within a horizontal blurring that implies an inherent sense of lateral movement. Unlike the “posthumous blurring” of Gerhard Richter, Tap’s blurring is structural; it is built into the painting’s drawn, compositional framework. In Road to Lily Dale II (2006) this horizontal banding gives way to a Mondrian-like system of pluses and minuses. There is also a noticeable increase in the overall wattage of her palette’s luminosity. In Tap’s most recent paintings, however, these earlier structural motifs become more internalized, and a true embarrassment of brushwork, opacities, and colour daubs radiates from the confines of their large-scale frames. Between Winter and Summer (2009) is one such piece. A bright, turp-thinned, under-painted orange bleeds though the slim trees that cross the middle left side of the painting. The olive and umber and sap and beige of tree and leaf and rock and sky are backlit by this uncanny glow. Thick, triangular shards of paint punctuate the surface with a gooey, shiny viscosity that breaks the painting’s spell of loose verisimilitude. This is the glare of the window, the glare of the screen.


Time and speed are essential themes in Monica Tap’s paintings. Her works are testaments to the frailty of a moment, incandescent renderings of a travelling landscape that rushes past in a trancelike convoy. The speed of a car. The speed of video. The speed of information. The speed of light that reaches our eyes; a whirlpool of data reaching our brains with ferocious velocity. The speed of a brush, attached to a hand, attached to a body. Ten frames per second. There is a careful urgency to Tap’s mark making. She is making these marks as fast as she can, as fast as she can maintain control over her eyes and body and materials. Fat over lean over hardly-even-there. Every once in a while she is able to breathe: masking tape placed on almost wet paint, lifting a little bit but bleeding a little more. These paintings give us the optics of speed. The plein air landscapes of Impressionism happened at the speed of real life, but that was the pastoral life of Sunday excursions: day-trippers and faux-bourgeois tourists. Monica Tap’s paintings are the speed of commuters, the speed of necessity. Process and exhale.

Time and speed are likewise important themes in the work of Michel Daigneault. In contrast to Tap’s turbulence, however, Daigneault’s collage-like mash-ups give us a sense of being “out of time.” His use of wonky, Surrealist compositional conventions immediately signals the roundabout fancy of dreamscapes, for if the legion of Andre Breton has taught us anything, it is this: we know what our subconscious is supposed to look like. Daigneault wields this trope with inspired virtuosity. His shapes morph unhurriedly into smeary fields of lush, open hues. There is a leisurely narrative to his compositions. Our eyes move slowly across Daigneault’s panels: right to up, down to left, looping around through the marshmallow centre. We read the semiotics of his images like words spelled in the sky by an airplane. This is slow looking. We feel the deliberateness of our gaze. Moving our eyes alone seems inadequate. We have to move our whole head, our whole body. Stepping in, moving back, we discover more at each interval. At every step, the funny-strangeness of his eccentric plot proverbially thickens.


Michel Daigneault’s paintings are (up)loaded with a vast inventory of visual memory. As if you are walking through a second-hand shop filled with recycled design motifs and hermetic art historical referents, these paintings present an immense catalogue of twentieth-century painting and its fallout as twenty-first-century kitsch. In this regard, Daigneault’s paintings are particularly lewd. Generally focusing his art historical lens on more peripheral or “marginalized” Modernist moments, Daigneault pulls an assortment of skeletons from the annals of twentieth-century abstraction and mixes these motifs with similarly blush-inducing moments from popular culture. These works probe and indulge a vast range of our guilty pleasures. Quand la couleur signifie (2006) is a particularly intriguing instance. A sea of watery-coloured, tattoo-parlour flame balls waves across the better part of the background. Several flame-coloured flame balls fall through the centre of the canvas into a fleshy heap of misty, airbrushed puddles. An airbrush is itself a fairly bawdy device to incorporate in an abstract painting, referencing Jules Olitski, jean-jacket art, and van painting. The pencil guidelines that recur around some of the sparsely laid-out forms is a clear sign of “tracing” that interrupts the “painting as drawing” convention traditionally (and heroically) linked to historical abstraction. The true comedy of the piece, however, comes from the Tanguy-like blobs in the bottom left-hand third, which cast a faint shadow over the Post-Painterly background haze. This moment of trompe-l’oeil slapstick best encapsulates the encyclopedic humour of Daigneault’s work. Monsieur Greenberg, however, would not be laughing.

Memory is likewise an important theme in the work of Monica Tap. Camcorders are a tool meant to enhance personal memory. For people of a certain age, few important moments in our early lives are not contained on some form of magnetic strip. The contemporary task of enhancing memory is, of course, more or less assigned to the realms of the digital. An algorithmic stream of ones and zeros perfectly recreates my son’s first birthday, or at least the parts of that event that seemed worthy of having the lens turned in their direction. In this sense, there is something mildly creepy and ultimately tragic about the direction in which Monica Tap points her lens. The “rugged Canadian landscape” that once seemed so eternal to the Group of Seven and their horde appears, in Tap’s paintings, to be fleeting and ephemeral, in danger of vanishing. These are not only landscapes passing from our vision; they are also passing from our experience. Monica Tap wants to remember. She wants us to remember too.


“I want to be a machine” is one of the more famous Andy Warholisms in circulation. In contemporary art, however, artists have extended and refined this notion. Monica Tap “wants to be” a camcorder. Michel Daigneualt “wants to be” Photoshop. The obvious difference between their methodologies, however, is that where Warhol sought a more “mechanical” means of production (through silkscreen), Daigneault and Tap deliberately court the individual machinations of their own bodies and imaginations. In so doing, their work captures a splinter of precision about what it is to be, here and now. Of course, some would argue that the medium of paint is itself an anachronism and that more “contemporary materials” offer a more “honest” reflection of our current moment (the art world’s peculiar brand of contemrophilia and contemptrophelia). Painters, however, are drawn to painting precisely because of its history. It gives us context. For painters, the history of painting is the common denominator through which we can compare the nebulous scope of our collective experience. Through it, we gain a more thorough understanding of where we’ve been and where we sit. The paintings of Monica Tap and Michel Daigneault offer us this.

The system has no memory

The following blurb is an artist statement that accompanied the exhibition: The system has no memory at Board of Directors in July 2009.

“An infinite number of sentences can be generated from a finite number of words which undergo a finite number of transformations of order.”
Noam Chomsky’s First Principle of Transformational Grammar

This is an artist statement. As such, it should be regarded skeptically. This should not be mistaken for a declaration of meaning. Rather, it is a clarification of intention. Meaning belongs to the spectator. To complicate this notion: Sartre once said, “Paintings don’t mean anything, but they have meaning.” Despite the uncomfortable fact that I’ve now cited Sartre in my artist statement, the quotation itself is compelling and conveys my thoughts on the subject of meaning in my work.

I used to be an abstract painter. While always acknowledging, and in fact courting, the idea that my interior condition was not virginal terrain, that the things within us are always filtered through the lens of memory and experience, the specific shapes within my work were always of my own invention. These works acquired meaning, I think, through a sense of “looks-like”, phenomenological resemblance. This tenuous relation caused a crisis for me, and I started to think about a different approach.

Inspired by an essay of Yves-Alain Bois on the work of Ed Ruscha, I started taking pictures of the “visual noise” in my surrounding landscape: paint spills, billboards, magic-marker-graffiti-tags, product packaging, etc. Most of these photographs were taken where I lived (at Yonge and Eglinton), and where I worked (in Regent Park). I then started tracing these shapes, projecting and layering them onto my canvas. Projecting was important because I felt this process maintained the integrity of the appropriated form. It wasn’t my interpretation of that shape. It was that shape. Whatever went on inside their contours and how they fit together was my domain of creative play. All of the titles for my work came from spam emails. They still do. The title for this show also comes from spam. And so meaning has, or so it is intended, shifted more to my works epistemology. But the longer you work with something, the more complex it becomes.

For the first year, I added more and more shapes to my inventory. I ended up with 102. I’ve been making my work with the same shapes ever since. They are my vocabulary of forms. This language is not necessarily closed, however, like any other language, its terms are predicated by need. I have, thus far, not needed any more. There is no specific reason for 102, but it’s better than 101. Language needs structure, and so I have become increasingly concerned with the structures that I place my vocabulary into: art historical and pop cultural formal structures and conventions.

I’ve never been one to paint the same thing over and over again. Perhaps this is shooting myself in the foot as it complicates the likelihood of easy branding. But a painting for me is a proposition: a can this thing actually happen? Sometimes it can. Sometimes it can’t. A really great painter once told me, “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you paint.” But in my case, I think that’s entirely the point: my work is about reinvention, or at least reuse and repositioning. I know that’s not what he meant. But it’s what I’ve taken.