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Colleen Heslin in Montreal: Can Painting Be Reinvented?

Galerie Laroche/Joncas, Montreal March 8 to April 26, 2014

“Ballads from the North Sea”Colleen Heslin’s first solo exhibition since winning the 2013 RBC Canadian Painting Competition—packs a punch. The most compelling aspect of the paintings on view—in particular, four untitled monochromes of purple, pink, grey and blue that occupy one half of the gallery—are the slight imperfections or alterations in their surfaces. Puckers produced when sewing, bleeds of uneven dye, or small stitches suturing rips and tears provoke a closer, more studied looking and produce a poetic narrative aspect. Each might tell something of its materiality and making.

A sense of story also comes to the fore in Heslin’s titular reference point. The phrase Ballads from the North Sea points to Rosalind Krauss’s 1999 text A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition—itself an echo of Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay on art, politics and the role of new mediums, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.

The Krauss/Benjamin link is just one clue as to the political and art-historical depths in which Heslin situates her practice. Drawing from references as loaded and diverse as Clement Greenberg and Color Field painting of the mid 20th century to American quilting traditions, Heslin’s paintings sit between these various histories, incorporating elements of each to produce a kind of hybrid that falls somewhere between. This oscillation applies not only to a mixing of genres (abstract painting and textile quilting), but also to a crossing of the gender identifications that come with these practices, as mid-century abstract painting is often masculinized, while quilting and “craft” have long been deemed to occupy a feminized realm.

The hybridity in Heslin’s work is further complicated by the artist’s use of dye, a medium that soaks and suffuses the cotton she works on, making the fabric “both support and surface,” as stated in the exhibition text. Additionally, the lineage in Heslin’s appropriation of Benjamin by way of Krauss offers some complementary history to the artist’s own artistic evolution. Prior to her studies in painting, Heslin graduated from Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design with a BFA in photography. An interesting parallel might be drawn here between analog photography and the way Heslin’s paintings are developed, or revealed, within saturated dye baths.

Krauss’s text observes that the international fashions of the art world tend to make artworks “complicit with a globalization of the image in the service of capital,” and her text also suggests that art practices can challenge that norm by “embrac[ing] the idea of differential specificity” of a medium through reinvention and rearticulation. In trying to pursue such reinvention, Heslin has good company. Links can be made to other practitioners in this pursuit, including Julia Dault, whose paintings are produced on grounds of various textiles ranging from pleather to printed silk and speak to the circulation of commodity objects. One might also think of Tauba Auerbach, whose Fold works emerge from industrial-sprayer painting of propped and bent canvas before they are stretched to reveal captivating optical effects.

And yet there seems to be room for Heslin to more radically push against painting’s histories by pursuing less conventional forms. This suggestion is based, in large part, on my initial reaction to the press image that was circulated for the show—a muddled and loose mass of textiles slumped on what is presumably a studio floor. The photo was surprising and intriguing in its (false) hint that like other painters before her, including Joyce Wieland, Richard Tuttle, Leon Golub, and Eleanor Bond, Heslin was not only painting on unstretched material, but also rejecting the rigidity of the wooden stretcher altogether.

After all, if fabric can be, as in Heslin’s case, both support (for the dye and ink that suffuse it) and surface (as assembled colour field), why continue with the use of a wooden stretcher at all? Perhaps there are important questions to ask here about the nature of contemporary painting in Canada. Although Heslin’s use of secondhand textiles can be read as a comment on consumer excess, this exhibition of painting is inextricably tied—at the very least by its location in a commercial gallery—to the (Canadian) art market, a market that is arguably conservative overall. As impressive as Heslin’s practice is, the issue of a work’s saleability and its place as autonomous aesthetic object will need to be continually tackled to produce a radical rearticulation of painting, especially in Canada.

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