Thursday, July 19, 2012

Michael Snow’s object lessons

Except perhaps for their children’s departments, art galleries tend to be “look-but-don’t-touch” zones for patrons.

So it’s a bit of surprise to attend Objects of Vision at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto and be invited, encouraged even, to crawl under, walk through, sit on, peer into and touch some of the 14 artifacts on display. The show, opening Wednesday and running through early December, collects what its creator Michael Snow calls “a family of things” – “abstract-form sculptures” created at various points in his illustrious, multifaceted 60-year career (from, more precisely, the late 1950s, late 60s and early 80s) but never exhibited together until now.



At 83 the grand old man of Canadian contemporary art and, with Jeff Wall, perhaps the best known Canadian artist internationally, Snow confessed in a brief interview Tuesday that he actually conceived Objects of Vision at least 20 years ago. The 14 works “are each very individual in their way,” he observed, “but they also have these aesthetic connections” in that “they’re all directors of attention; each work, in effect, tells you what to look at.”

Core, from 1982-84, for instance, is a large thimble or obelisk of unglazed clay, 200 centimetres tall, “whose shape says how it should be seen; you have to go around it.” At the same time, the ever-playful Snow has made it so high that the viewer can’t see the core of Core. By contrast, Transformer, a long lance of varnished wood, made from a tree that Snow felled near the cabin in Newfoundland he’s owned for 30 years and cossetted in a cardboard jacket horizontally suspended from the ceiling by a rope, directs the eye cross-wise, forward and backward, from shaft to point, and up and down, from ceiling to lance.

What gave Snow and the AGO’s assistant curator of Canadian art Georgiana Uhlyarik the opportunity to pull these elements together was Snow’s winning last year of the Gershon Iskowitz Prize. Established in 1986 to honour a mature artist for his or her “significant contribution to Canadian visual arts,” the Iskowitz comes not only with a $50,000 cash prize but also the chance to present a solo show at the AGO. Voila Objects of Vision.

Tight, beautifully installed, thought-provoking, elegant, Objects of Vision could, of course, easily be the title of any other Snow showcase of other aspects of his protean and prolific output as painter, filmmaker, drawer, photographer, videographer, even musician. Indeed, not for nothing is this native Torontonian who, lest we forget, at age 47 became the first Canadian ever to have a solo show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, often called “the original multimedia artist."

“Confident” is a word often used to describe Snow or at least the seeming ease whereby he gives himself permission to try his hand at this or that without inviting complaints of dilettantism. But it’s not necessarily a term Snow applies to himself. Yes, he admitted, “I think I’ve mostly won” in terms of accomplishing and presenting what he’s set his attentions on over the decades. “But I always do things to see whether they do what they should do. They have to exist. They‘re not strictly speaking concepts or ideas . . . For me, the idea, the planning, the approach and all that are not really a complete prediction of what the final experience will be. You can’t easily know what a work is going to do without having the work.“

He said he recently received a request for permission to reproduce one in a series of paintings he did sometime in the 1980s in an upcoming book on Canadian painting. Funny thing is, “it’s one painting I’ve been thinking I might try to paint over. Every once in a while, I think maybe I could have done something better and I might give it another try. So maybe I will with this one [it’s in his personal collection] but,“ he chuckled, “not right now."

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