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Art Histories: Washing Away the Canon

VOX, Montreal Mar 16 to May 19 2012
Sorel Cohen <em>The Shape of a Gesture</em> 1978/2012 / photo Michel Brunelle Sorel Cohen The Shape of a Gesture 1978/2012 / photo Michel Brunelle

Sorel Cohen <em>The Shape of a Gesture</em> 1978/2012 / photo Michel Brunelle

It can be argued, to one degree or another, that we’re stuck with the grand narratives of art history. From the caves at Lascaux to the YBAs, these cumulative frameworks inform, but can also encumber, the way we look at and think about art. For artists, this weight of a canonical past poses another dilemma: how to balance the binding hierarchies of history and at the same time refresh, reshape or, as is often the case, refute them.

In the group exhibition “Art Histories” which marks the debut of VOX’s new and expanded rue Ste-Catherine space, curator Marie-Josée Jean takes a look at the strategies and counter-strategies artists use to, as the gallery text states, “restore notions of fiction and politics to the ideal museum that is art history.”

Opening with Marcel Duchamp’s self-fashioned retrospective-in-a-box-in-a-suitcase, La Boîte-en-valise, the exhibition cruises across time and cultural geographies, unpacking notions of an art historical status quo along the way. Works such as The Last Futurist Show, an anonymously produced 1986 rehanging of Kazimir Malevich’s iconic 1915 exhibition, and the Slovenian art collective IRWIN’s rearrangement of the Eastern European avant-garde, Retroavantgarda, strikes at the legitimacy/authenticity of modernist legacies.

Paul McCarthy’s performance video Painter offers a critically laced parody of abstract expressionism and the attendant pretensions of the art system that surrounds it, a wry artist-as-genius satire echoed in Rodney Graham’s photo triptych The Gifted Amateur, Nov. 10th 1962. Gerard Byrne’s four-part video installation A Thing is a Hole in a Thing it is Not challenges the authorial voice of minimalism as well as the institutional and discursive constructs of the minimalist canon.

There is, of course, always an underlying paradox that neither artist, curator nor viewer can avoid in "institutionalizing" works initially meant as gestures against the dominant archetypes of art practice—a fact that is especially hard to ignore when looking at the show in VOX's gleaming new white-cube spaces. (Indeed, this mode of institutional critique might well be another of art's grand narratives worth questioning.)

Still, rounded out with works by artists Michael A. Robinson, Bik Van der Pol, Sorel Cohen, Guillaume Désanges, Mario Garcia Torres, Marina Grzinic and Aina Smid, Louise Lawler and Ron Terada, as well as video documents featuring the seminal thinker Walter Benjamin and Eastern Bloc noisemakers Laibach, Jean's gathering of discontents offers what we might think of as an alternative canon that blurs the authority of history making and, for the moment at least, knocks those grand narratives wildly askew.

This article was first published online on April 5, 2012.

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