February 28, 2011

Éric Cardinal: Histoires Improbable, Jocelyn Philibert, Laurent Craste: Abuse, Subvertion at Galerie SAS By Meaghan Thurston

Galerie SAS
372 Ste Catherine ouest #416
+1 514 878 3409
January 27th to March 5th 2011

One Criticism Sandwich: Hold the Art Babble

"A lot of my work is about not being able to do something well... it tries to locate itself in a place where the appreciation of craft is not a part of the appreciation of the piece", Richard Tuttle (a kick-ass minimalist artist, in case you didn’t know) said in a recent interview.

During the writing of this review of the work of Éric Cardinal, whose show Histoires Improbables is currently at Gallerie SAS, I repeated under my breath Mr. Tuttle's refreshingly frank words — to no avail. Apologies from the outset, it's hard to review a show that you didn't like without descending into a ridiculous discourse of just plain negativity about the works, so I'll start with detailing what was interesting about it.

Ink Drawing: Fungus no. 2 (2011) India ink and pencil, 32 x 44 in

Mr. Cardinal's large scale India ink drawings appear as abstract geometric designs from afar. But, when you get up close an orgy of Disney figures, M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E, and Goofy and maybe even Donald Duck is revealed. I was particularly taken aback by Histoires improbables no. 6.

Histoires improbables no. 6 (2011) India ink, - 32 x 44 in

Which uncannily is almost exactly like the dream I have when I'm about to get sick. In case you don't know what I mean by that, I'll explain. I've had this dream repetitively since a child. Two cartoon characters inaudibly talk at me, and then get into a rolling fist fight as the words, "POW!" and "BANG!" appear above their heads. Next morning, "WHAM!" I've got a cold. But, I digress. M. Cardinal's Histoires exposes that awkward anthropomorphic mouse for what he is — a mutant. Not simply a character in animated cartoons and comic strips, but as virulent and contagious as the common cold. Titles, Fungus no. 2 (once I found some tofu in the back of my fridge growing mould that looked something like this) and Effigies make no effort to hide M. Cardinal's grudge against the never-ending and constant increase of images of the Mouse of Capitalism.

How best to describe Mr. Cardinal's sculpture? 'Mutilated religious kitsch' and 'I definitely thought I saw a dildo in one of them' are two phrases that spring to mind. For all the crafting that went into them, and while normally I'd be interested by the idea of a garden-variety statue of the Jesus sprouting cranial dildos,

Ascension (2010) Polyurethane foam, 100 x 170x 140 cm

for example, is just plain ugly. Etres Dites and Comme une sorte de surgissement, did not help me forgive the former desecration. Don't get me wrong; I'm not crying "Heathen!" because he's made an ugly Jesus sculpture. I myself covet the sculpture of the Virgin Mary I inherited from a friend's grandmother and my house is filled with an appalling number of holograms of the Virgin of Guadalupe (she's my patron saint after all). I know the things are unsightly. Religious iconography occupies a powerful place in the human imagination and the mythologies of self-sacrifice, virtue and piety often go hand in hand with unabashed worship of hideously ugly sculptures of saints and the Virgin Mary. Yet, I have a sneaking suspicion that the theological debate over the logistics of the ascension, that is, the belief that certain special people such as Jesus and Mary ascend directly and bodily into Heaven, will not be helped by M. Cardinal's suggestion that the whole idea is really just thinly veiled penis-envy.

Initially, when trying to 'place' M. Cardinal in some loose art narrative, I thought of Richard Tuttle because upon reading M. Cardinal's artists' statement I thought these two artists might have had more in common. M. Cardinal writes:
Until now my work consisted in a variety of simple and spontaneous gestures done on various types of objects. I was folding, gluing, crumpling, and cutting. If I have long been more interested by objects of quick consumption (towels, plastic utensils, etc.), I now use about anything, any objects at hand might end in one of my sculptures. When I work with a chair, a roll of toilet paper or a ping-pong ball, I am not working with ideas. It is respectively this chair, this roll of toilet paper or this ping-pong ball that I am interested in according to what they have to offer in terms of material qualities. Some objects allow us to fold them and some others to tear them. This is how I tackle the objects and materials that I use.
Alas, M. Cardinal's new sculptures are a far-cry from the spontaneous, 'sculptural drawings' of Richard Tuttle - check this out if my vague description of his work did not suffice:

Whereas Richard Tuttle is the master of making art from "feeble" materials such as paper, rope, string, cloth, wire, twigs, cardboard, bubble wrap, nails, styrofoam and plywood, etc., Éric Cardinal's sculptures are hideous, cheap plastic things. The poverty of their material qualities makes his statement sounds like art babble to me and therefore their commentary on (I assume) Quebec and religion and sex is lost on my fickle eye for beauty.

Luckily, my day was saved by Jocelyn Philibert's digital photography, also showing at SAS. Of the series, Night Set,

Untitled - Sans titre (pont sur la rivière Ouelle à Saint-Onésime d'Ixworth), 2009

and Sans titre (saule pleureur) (2006) were particularly striking. By M. Philibert's lens, trees at night possess a special luminosity He creates each image by piecing together hundreds of pictures of the subject. Whether or not the images are truthful reproductions of the subject is beside the point, the final product is an eerie resemblance to the thing where the real looks like an illusion and the 'authentic natural' is called into question. I'd wager that M. Philibert's attitude to making images of nature is in tune with what Ansel Adams said of the photograph: "beauty comes first." Long before the digital reproduction of images, the relationship of the viewer with the natural world was changed by the photographic lens.

Lastly, a note on the work of Laurent Craste, whose ceramics you'll find nestled in the third and final room of Gallery SAS. His delicate urns, vases and teacups, all of which have been attacked with heavy tools such as axes, crowbars and knives, indicate there is certainly a rebellious spirit at work here. That rebellious spirit is versed in the technical knowledge and know-how of his craft, however.
The outmoded ideas disseminated by bucolic scenes, floral bouquets and exotic trash, are presented and staged to highlight their racist or sexist elements and the conservatism of the object's owners. Therefore the critique of the representation also becomes a critique of the medium
so says M. Craste of his work. Two pieces certainly cut me like a knife. Paire de vases Médicis. Série des scènes pittoresques: Hiroshima et Auschwitz (2010), pink vases, one of which is painted with a scene from the gates to the camps at Birkenau, the other with a scene from the aftermath of Hiroshima. I visited Birkenau this past spring. There was and is nothing bucolic about that place. Even the grass and the flowers left on the rail tracks did nothing to suggest that life ever was or ever will be idyllic in that place. What I found strangely moving when I visited Birkenau were the enormous piles of everyday objects on display: shoes, brushes, cups and saucers. Orphaned objects stored behind glass, lonely reminders of their former owners. I felt that M. Craste's vases perhaps not only stand in as artifacts of war, but as reminders of the cultural plunder of it. During the Holocaust, everyday objects such as china, crystal or silver were lost forever. The monetary value of these kinds of objects is never equal to their worth to individuals and families.

In M. Craste's other works on display, including Iconocraste 0 – IV series, the ceramics take on an humanlike guise. M. Craste casts his ceramics after having stabbed or otherwise abused them, hence they mold to the weapon. Iconocrash 1 looks to be yelling back at its abuser. "These savage porcelain sculptures depict heavy tools smashing into vases, urns and teacups, satisfying the need to rebel against Grandma's china" Stephanie Saunders wrote in Toronto Life in her article where she also wrote that M. Craste was one of the "Ten Artists First Time Buyers Should Invest in Now". I cherish my grandmother's china, and given M. Craste's devotion to the craft of ceramics, I can't imagine he'd take one of his hammers to his family heirlooms. Though, if the mood struck, it'd make for a charged performance piece.

Praise is due to Galerie SAS for taking chances on Quebec artists, even if that means subjecting me to utterly ugly sculpture. No apologies necessary SAS, because when a student, when broke, when looking for a legitimate excuse to raise a glass or five with other art wonks, you're my go-to gallery. Hands down, SAS throws the best darn vernissage in town. I didn't make it to the opening for the Cardinal and Philibert show and while it was nice for a change to visit the gallery without the impetus to cram another bottle of ice-cider in my bag, I bet a glass of wine would have tempered my dislike for Cardinal's sculptures.