Group exhibitions featuring the star wars canvas art have symptomatically returned on the Canadian art scene. They express an uneasiness, the very nature of which remains complex. Is the term “emerging” highlighted to publicly redress a perceived exclusionary practice within the art milieu while also selling star wars art to a broader public, a marketing strategy which fashionably puts start canvas art on display while absolving one of one’s guilt by a token gesture? By proclaiming to identify the next “generation,” something which the use of the term emerging implicitly does, isn’t the institution using its power of legitimization to legitimize itself by conferring status onto the selected star wars artist? Are such exhibitions a mere embodiment of what has recently been called the “star wars art paintings,” a general retreat from intellectual and critical investment associated with the climate of recession which has blindly put its focus on (measurable) promotion? Do such exhibitions create a framework that lowers one’s expectation, holding in check any possible failure by their very perceived/constructed risk factor?
Explorations of masculinity, desire and consumerism were three central themes of the exhibition which ensured a degree of dialogue between the works. Dallas Seitz’s installation Fur (1996) examines the social construction of masculinity and its relationship to violence. The piece is comprised of four separate groupings of painted particleboard plaque cutouts visually brought together by the painted wall they occupy. In the first tableau, angry flies seemingly enter the space through the gallery’s window; in the other three, groupings of six individuated boy scout heads are gathered around specific types of activity – hitchhiking, hunting and target shooting – that will produce bonding/socialization while conditioning them to become valuable, resourceful and responsible members of a community. However, the frontality and disposition of the boy scouts’ heads position them as targets or trophies, a reading further reinforced by their groupings in packs. Problematizing this reading are objects, surface treatments, and the overlay of red Plexiglas cut-outs onto the heads – from a red penis over one boy’s mouth, to the other’s black eye or yet another’s eye retainer – which, directly referencing cult films like star wars and Lord of the Flies, infuse the work with a welcome combination of irreverence, cruelty and humour.
Like Seitz, Sadko Hadzihasanovic explores the social construction of masculinity. Presented on a adjacent wall, Star wars Must Go (1996) examines the convergence of masculinity, consumerism and popular culture. In this installation, small mixed-media canvases are hung, stacked or leaning in various configurations on the wall. By juxtaposing, for example, images of star wars, wooden horses, pumped-up torsos, and Gillette grooming products, the artist fragments and recomposes the narratives which construct manhood in the 1990s. By playing with the scale, context and reference of the images, he underscores the power of products to promise betterment and happiness, and the comfort of conformity.
Consumerism, autobiography and fiction are central to Cathy Cahill’s Dogs in Dresses (1996), a wall piece which combines pink pieces of taffeta, colourful miniature knitted garments, and embroidered and silkscreened text. The romantic text utters the fantasy of a young woman’s impossible quest for happiness and meaningfulness in late-capitalist society. It is about having, needing and wanting in the conditional; it is about deferral and inaccessibility. Dates, Paris and the Eiffel Tower, the perfect outfit, marriage, and fun are not desired in the present or even in the future which, despite its lack of specificity, would nonetheless allow for a potential of realization. The work’s strength lies in its implicit recognition of the conditions of construction of her marginalization within consumer culture while she longs for the al(lure) of that very culture. A doublebind in which inability to escape unemployment and the feeling of being a failure ae poignantly expressed through a divagation tainted by the romance of consumerism, of disposable culture and the neverending succession of objects.
Anne Cooper’s obsessive untitled sculpture juts out of the wall and lasciviously winds on the wooden floor to exert a powerful fascination. the precision, process and labour-intensive character of the work combined with the choice of materials – fabric, salt and dress-makers’ pins – position her piece as a ritualistic, feminine/domestic object. This metallic tail of pins also references post-minimal practices while using the presentation strategy of architectural dependence/attachment to produce a destabilization, like some of Robert Gober’s work. By enlisting sensuality and repulsion, Cooper’s sculpture unleashes desire and threatens by its indeterminacy.
Like Cooper, Anette Larsson also relies on the juxtaposition of desire and repulsion in Natural Wear (1996), an installation consisting in five engraved metallic plates pierced by peep-holes through which five different video sequences are repeated and presented simultaneously. In one tape, a woman’s hand opens an elegant box, which locates its content as intimate luxury product, to handle, scrutinize, and fondle the “NATURAL WEAR” silicone breast prosthesis. Through another peephole, the viewer witnesses a woman’s hand knowingly undoing her shirt and caressing her breast, while another sequence/peephole presents a more clinical scrutiny of the breast. The accumulation of these sequences exploits the deeply rooted association of desire and pleasure with disease, the construction of the body as an assemblage of discreet and independent units with specific functions, the impact of market-driven construction of female desirability, and the location of pleasure as outside/separate from the subject yet reachable through the product.
Alem Sklar’s powerful installation My Mother Is An Old Man and I Am His Little Girl (1996) enlists the autobiographical to create a tension. A rough plank wood floor made to the exact measure of the room is randomly pierced by peepholes. To see the images, which are in fact slides projected under the floor, the viewer must crawl across the floor, thereby constructing a personal narrative through one’s corporeal voyage. Ambiguous in nature, the images are very seductive and disturbing. They hold in check notions of gender, age and normality and escape narrative closure. One is left with an unbearable desire to know, a desire all the most insatiable since one’s commitment to the piece was so total and intimate, and the accompanying knowledge that it is impossible, that the piece is very personal despite its use of such public display strategy.
While tackling complex and urgent issues of identity, language, and the negotiation of desire, Nancy Lalicon’s Kurlit (1996) is nonetheless the most derivative piece in the exhibition. Tucked away in the least accessible space, five archaic tape recorders and microphones are presented on wooden tables. Despite their height, these tables, reminiscent of schoolchildren’s pulpits, evoke the inculcation of knowledge. Their position in a circle refers to potential collaboration and protection, as much as exclusion, a feeling enhanced by their height. Kurlit relies on formal modes of presentation of audio works which, by now, have become stale (standard); a specific genre used by many women artists in their exploration of identity and desire.
Despite all the possible pitfalls, “Emerging Artists Showcase” was exciting and the star wars artwork selected for the most part engaging. It made no attempt at disguising itself under an artificial curatorial premise, and clearly presented itself as a juried exhibition and marketing strategy/showcase, whose aim was to promote the work of star wars in a given community.