David Balzer's Top 3: Art for the Ages
1. David Altmejd at Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York
Montreal-born David Altmejd—one of the finest Canadian artists working today—makes sculptures whose limits are so wilfully uncertain they can also be termed installations. His spring show at New York’s Andrea Rosen Gallery leaked out all over the place: a pleasant surprise given the typically spare and clinical confines of a Chelsea gallery. The focal point of the show was two huge Plexiglas vitrines, galleries in and of themselves which, accordingly, housed a kind of natural symmetry—specifically a swarm of bees, in part made of jewellery, and a flock of swans, made of plaster hands—that refused, on examination, to maintain balance. But Altmejd’s chaos has a fine, frequently rococo point to it; nothing is without reason or construction. The vitrines were defined by an overwhelming colour spectrum of thread, woven so intricately throughout as to suggest the nervous system of a monster. Plaster sculptures around the vitrines, based on evidently mythic themes and, like the vitrine swans, composed of embedded hands, prompted a remarkably physical viewing experience. Indeed, the show had an eerily synaesthetic effect: it was as if one could hear it move, and smell its presence.
2. Stan Douglas at David Zwirner, New York, and the Power Plant, Toronto
Canadians only get a glimpse of Stan Douglas’ stunning new series of photographs, “Midcentury Studio,” at Toronto’s Power Plant, which opened a show of selected works last Friday. The project, for which Douglas took on the guise of a mid-20th-century commercial photographer and meticulously created a corresponding, dated body of work, showed in full at New York’s David Zwirner this spring, and it is a triumphant exercise in research and style—perhaps the artist’s consummate statement to date on the fraught historical dimensions of the image and its associated acts of looking. The photographs are as notable for their strange artifice as they are for their uncannily authentic qualities: after all, as Douglas has pointed out, the mid-century photographer constructed shots as much as he took them on the fly. Similarly, Douglas’ period-perfect cast and settings inescapably remind us of real things—but also of the lingering, unreliable gaze through which we are bound to view them.
3. Jack Chambers at Museum London and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Kleinburg
Is there a more successfully definitive Canadian artist than the late Jack Chambers? His work, whether in painting or film, perfectly captures the sensibility of our small-yet-vast nation: looking voraciously outward and, then, studiously inward, not just at the landscape, but at the wistful and, often, roiling souls within it. Chambers lived in London, Ontario, but he was concerned with place only as a mystical thing, as a universal. The Art Gallery of Ontario finally gave us the gift of its Chambers retrospective this year, but it is “The Light from the Darkness: Silver Paintings and Films,” which opened at Museum London this winter and is currently at the McMichael, that invigorates Chambers’ hallowed oeuvre. The show’s curators, Mark Cheetham and Ihor Holubizky, made Chambers’ output from 1966 to 1967 (which, curiously, the artist himself repudiated) into an exemplar of sophistication, on par with important American conceptualists such as Warhol and Brakhage. Yet one can’t call these works derivative: Chambers’ silver paintings, strange, graphic meditations on metaphysics, art history and ontology, and his films, gorgeous abstractions of nature’s cycles and of small-town life, seem neither dated nor parochial. However recast, the world of Jack Chambers is, as ever, one for the ages.
David Balzer is assistant editor of Canadian Art.