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Re-Configuring Abstraction

University of Manitoba School of Art Gallery, Winnipeg

“Re-Configuring Abstraction,” at the new University of Manitoba School of Art Gallery, contained 17 works by four painters with Winnipeg connections. The exhibition turned on a pair of procedural tendencies: Derek Dunlop, Dil Hildebrand, Krisjanis Kaktins-Gorsline and Holger Kalberg share, in different ways, preoccupations with processes of salvaging and with navigating the (surprisingly) narrow boundary between abstraction and illusion.

Kaktins-Gorsline and Kalberg are the great reappropriators of the group. The former showed four large canvases containing circuitous painted collages created using stencils, colour swatches and application techniques mined and rehashed from his earlier scenes of clustered chimeric figures and oneiric landscapes. It is tempting to perceive a shopworn irony in the arbitrary calculation underlying his production process—but this is too easy. Especially in the late Willem de Kooning–esque Todd Glass (2012), Kaktins-Gorsline marshals his inventory of determinants in ways that are subtle and sincere.

Kalberg remaps unresolved earlier canvases of decamped modernist structures and environments, pushing the previous representational occupants from their remnant source. In works like Prop 1, Prop 2 and Prop 3 (all 2012), a biomorphic world encloses the architectonic; old real estate is retrofitted with new purpose. The expansive, three-dimensional Untitled Suspended Structure (2012), a network of interlocking black, white, red and mirrored modules that descends to greet the viewer at the door, combines the competing order and chaos of an expanding flock of constructivist seagulls.

At once and with equal force, Hildebrand’s Domestic Arrangement (2012) and A Small Distraction (2012) lobby for both illusionism and what-you-see-is-what-you-get literalism. Twofoldness, the ability to see something and to see it as something else, achieves a disorienting level of beauty. Cutting mats, windows and scaffolding appear with trompe l’oeil certainty before passages of dramatic impasto suddenly obliterate the illusion.

Dunlop, a dyed-in-the-wool University of British Columbia conceptualist, parlays his theory-laden proclivities into stark, material results. Most captivating are three untitled canvases that take up the non-illusionistic mantle of Kazimir Malevich, Mark Rothko and Josef Albers while also, strangely, picturing that non-illusionism. Are they abstract paintings or paintings of abstract paintings? Dunlop’s investment in the peripheral, in concealed traces, blankness and borders, pays off with a lurking viscerality.

Curator Mary Reid described the exhibition tactically, as a “contrasting perspective” to the “figurative and narrative-driven” preoccupations that have come to typify (rightly or wrongly) contemporary art practice in Winnipeg. But “Re-Configuring Abstraction” was successful for reasons that extend beyond this contrast. As the title wryly suggests, its contributors tackle the at once immeasurably useful and groundlessly overdetermined term “abstraction.” Hemmed in by the legacies of modernism and postmodernism—by Sigmar Polke’s deflationary irony as much as by Jackson Pollock’s gestural sincerity—the artists convey a dogged commitment to clearing new places for abstraction to touch down.

 This is a review from the Spring 2013 issue of Canadian Art. To read more from this issue, please visit its table of contents.

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