KWAG Biennial: Monochrome Mavericks
Now in its fifth year, the KWAG Biennial, organized by the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery, is a decisively seasonal affair—taking place, as it does, in a region that literally and figuratively comes alive in summer, rife with Southern Ontario daytrippers in pursuit of all things picturesque. In this light, 2011 curator Robert Enright’s concept is a provocative one. Entitled “The Black and the White: An Allegory of Colour,” the biennial contains works by 12 artists that, as Enright’s title indicates, explore the dynamics of that wintry palette, black and white, whether in painting, photography, sculpture, video or installation.
“It was good work that appealed to me,” Enright reinforces, “but I realized I was being drawn to things that were relatively narrow in a colour sense, and dramatic, perhaps even expansive, in a meaning sense.”
Central to Enright’s curatorial vision is, as also expressed by his title, allegory. Black and white is “beautiful,” he says—“extraordinarily pleasing in a formalist way.” As a phrase, it is a cliché used to connote straightforwardness and clarity. In this manner, it is graphic and symbolic, akin to traditional allegory. Yet it is precisely this order and even rigidity—or rather the appearance of same—that interests Enright, granting black and white its ambiguous power.
Enright makes special mention of one of the biennial’s participants, Guelph painter Will Gorlitz, whose Always Already suite of paintings—a vision of nuclear winter shown at Toronto’s Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art last year—is based on an 18th-century allegorical Dutch painting by Johann Melchior Roos. “These are toy animals that are probably in flour or sugar or something like that,” says Enright of Gorlitz’s work, “but they also suggest a deeply troubling future if we continue on our existing path. At the same time—and this is always the trick with good art—they are such beautiful paintings that we’re trapped in this strange space between admiration and terror.”
Other 2011 KWAG Biennial artists include Ashleigh Bartlett, whose abstract paintings as selected by Enright show a grey-scale palette subtly breaking through into colour, and Jenn E. Norton, whose two-channel video creates a confounding visual feedback loop. Themes range from geopolitics (Maha Mustafa’s Black Fountain, a sculptural statement on the 1991 Gulf War) to momento mori (Maura Doyle’s porcelain bones, at once delicate and disturbing, exquisite and gothic).
Enright himself is present in the work of Susan Dobson—a colleague at the University of Guelph, where they are both professors—in her photographic series “Eyes Closed.” Here, the curator himself becomes an allegory in black-and-white. “Dobson took photos of people in a dark room, asking them not to move and to close their eyes for three minutes and think of something,” says Enright. “As a viewer, you can scrutinize these subjects in an extraordinarily close and sometimes embarrassing way. It’s the idea of the photograph coming out of the blackness into a kind of image.”