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July 21 -August 3
VOL.14 ISSUE. 24

History Repeating

Bart Gazzola
Published Thursday December 13, 11:04 am
Gronsdahl evokes icons of Canadian art


Runs to Dec. 27

Frances Morrison Library

I suspect that art history is often mocked because it’s dangerous, standing as both the most subversive and most direct of histories. For example, a painting could supposedly depict what the ruling class considers an appropriately pious Bible story, while what the oppressed see is a righteous allegory of revolution and bloody justice.

Sadly, most art history has given way to various postmodernist discourses — which can often offer much, but at other times resembles urinating in a swimming pool of thought, polluting us all. Most universities have dropped the ball on what is to me (and many others) a necessary and engaging depiction of who we are, and have been.

In some ways, that makes me the ideal audience for Troy Gronsdahl’s More of the Same, at the Frances Morrison Library (and not just because of his questions about “magic” in a world of cynicism).

The gallery space is minimal. Troy has always made amenable — and deliberate — artworks, and his impressive history with various galleries is manifest in the conscientiousness of the spatial arrangement. There are some prints that are both embossed and inked, with words given a power by isolation and emphasis. Off to the side are melted clumps of metal, displayed as though major objet d’art. All are exquisitely presented. There are also paper works in display cases which are as much part of the artwork — as a presentation or reaction to art, artworks, art history and the dialectics therein — as the “art” itself.

You need to spend time with this exhibition: in terms of its colour, with the off-whites and metallic matte, the greys and the muted tones, it’s almost banal and soothing. It’s fitting that it’s in a library: these documents are presented as archival and significant, untouchable and treasured, but at a distance. They require consideration.

It’s such a quiet show: odd, when you consider its inspiration.

More of the Sameis Gronsdahl’s response (or ode, perhaps) to La Refus Global, a manifesto published in 1948 by Les Automatistes, arguably the greatest painting movement in this country. Paul Émile Borduas was the intellectual mainstay of the group, but it also included Jean-Paul Riopelle, Fernand LeDuc, Marcelle Ferron and Marcel Barbeau. All were groundbreaking abstract artists, and they were in many ways the visual “history” of the Quiet Revolution in Québec: shake off that which came before, which frames and boxes you in, and do something new and different, and perhaps almost frightening and dangerous. They were intensely political: some consider the publication of this document to be the genesis of modern Québec, and many consider it as controversial as it is indispensible to our entire country.

They were idealists (often Marxist), and it cost them — maybe you’ve seen the “Canada heritage moment” that speaks of exile, persecution and blacklisting. In conversation with Gronsdahl, we talked about his statement on the wall of the gallery (large and dominating– like La Refus), and specifically about moments of “objective magic.”

That may be a translational glitch in the manifesto, but some “mistakes” reveal unexpected truths. Idealism, moments of “magic,” and the antithesis of cynicism are rare in the art world, where “the tabernacles of robbers prosper and those that provoke the Lord are secure, and he brings abundance into their hands” (I’m looking at you, Damien Hirst).

In the same way that I encourage you to experience More of the Same, reading the document that inspired it may give a wider impression. Read it and think of the Québec student protests and possibilities for change both taken and missed (or dismissed), and how rare objective magic truly is — in the larger art world or beyond. I like to think of this “magic” as what Rachael Seupersad (the head of the Calgary Public Art Program) calls the moments of unexpected joy people experience with engaging public artworks. Or something new and groundbreaking and invigorating, like much of the work by les Automatistes was.

I’m not talking much about specifics here: the show is somewhat ethereal, like its raison d’être is elsewhere, or like these are referential documents. More of the Same is more of the same: but like an insightful art history thesis, or like Francis Bacon’s Crucifixion, you can keep visiting the same site and see something different every time.

More than half a century after La Refus Global, it’s good to consider where we are, what’s been done and what ideals have been achieved or abandoned. It’s also good to ask what role art has in all these spaces — as either an agent for change, or a means to manufacture alibis (ignoring history, whether art or other kinds) for the usual suspects.

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