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The Last Things Before the Last: Never Forget

McMaster Museum of Art, Hamilton May 24 to Aug 4 2012

In keeping with the current verve for what Robert Storr calls “churning” permanent collections, E.C. Woodley has sifted through the McMaster Museum of Art’s holdings to establish new lines of affiliation between a wide historical spread of objects through a curatorial process of quotation, insertion and transposition. Rather than a complete shakeup, “The Last Things Before the Last” performs acts of restitution, inviting consideration of the gallery architecture as a living membrane imprinted with the history of all the exhibitions it contains.

The exhibition is anchored by fragments from two previous permanent-collection shows held at this site—Alexander Pilis’s 2010 exhibition “The Blind Architect Meets Rembrandt” and the 1994 display of benefactorHerman Levy’s collection of Old Master paintings in a small inner enclosure purpose-built to mirror their original hanging in his household. This “home” has stayed planted in the centre of the exhibition space since 1994 and is a peculiar feature of the museum’s upstairs galleries, where darkly painted walls, spot lighting, carpeting and baseboard trim conspire to create a viewing space that is decidedly more Victorian than white cube. The curator plays this pseudo-domestic atmosphere to his advantage, and the orchestration of the works—all forms of portraiture, some more oblique than others—fosters meditation on the themes of collecting, lineage, loss and the overlap of the past with the present.

Woodley’s purposeful remix of two points in the museum’s history results in an experience akin to an archeological dig in which asynchronous strata are revealed at the same physical site. From the Pilis exhibition, Woodley adopts the method of hanging portraits so as to establish sightlines between those figured, activating, for example, the gaze of a figure drawn by Tiepolo (c. 1742–59) towards a Ptah-Sokar-Osiris funerary figure (c. 1000–500 BC). In restaging the inner Levy gallery, Woodley encourages consideration of the bequest as a form of memorial portrait in which the collector inscribes his identity through surrogate objects.

The excavating impulse carries over from Woodley’s 2010 performance and installation Auguststrasse 25, in which the contemporary site of Toronto’s Kiever Synagogue stood in for another space and time, that of a middle-class Jewish domestic interior in 1920s Berlin. Likewise in “The Last Things Before the Last,” Woodley attempts to salvage fragments of private experience and memory from the dustbin of history.

The tone of the exhibition is set by the first items on display—a torn ID card and two other portraits, followed by one page of snapshots of a Levy family sojourn in Switzerland just prior to the outbreak of the First World War and one page of family photographs taken in Hamilton around 1900. This peaceful portrait of a family at leisure is, however, burdened by our knowledge of the future to follow; hindsight parses how we construe these images. The sentiment is expressed by Barthes in Camera Lucida: “In front of the photograph of my mother as a child, I tell myself: she is going to die…Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe.”

Woodley’s exhibition wrestles with many forms of human catastrophe—from the personal scale to the larger political arena. In Steven Andrews’Self-Portrait as Jim Black (1985), an accordion-folded imprint of the artist’s own youthful body is laid against a portrait of Jim Black, who was then dying from AIDS. Bearing witness to two coterminous lives lived, the double portrait also challenges us to consider which deaths are inscribed in history and which losses go unwritten. Nearby, Max Dean’s photographic self-portrait Chair Without Front Legs (2011) shows the artist seated with his hands cupping his face. The gesture suggests internalized pain, while outwardly the body demonstrates a physical strength sufficient to compensate for the missing limbs of the furniture. Woodley also reads this image as a type of family portrait, registering the gesture against a difficult element of Dean’s personal biography, the suicide of his mother.

Various mappings of family lineages dot the exhibition. A press photo of Sigmund and Martha Freud’s funeral monument designed by their son Ernst and incorporating a fourth-century BC Apulian vessel (a nod to Freud’s collecting mania) is drawn into comparison with a 1987 etching by Ernst’s son Lucian Freud of a sleeping figure whose prone posture connotes a death portrait. Other family portraits include Gerhard Richter’s painting of his second wife Isa Genzken, completed in his signature photorealistic blurring technique, itself a marker for the difficulty of German representation post–Second World War.

This blur is paralleled in the almost vanished line of two graphite drawings by Degas, one of his biological father, the other a copy of a self-portrait of his artistic forebear Filippino Lippi. The reprisal of another artist’s work is also evident in Wenceslaus Hollar’s etchingWoman with coiled hair (1646), after a work by Albrecht Dürer. These emulations exemplify artistic learning as a process of selecting ancestors. In a manner similar to the handing down of family history, we tell art’s history by speaking of provenance—where objects have travelled, under whose care and how they came to pass from one set of hands to another. In both cases, we face omissions imposed either by historical trauma or the limits of human memory.

The careful selection of works in “The Last Things Before the Last” points to both the potential and limitation of an artwork in recording trauma. The tortured gestures of the figures in Ernst Barlach’s reliefThe Transition (1917) and Otto Dix’s etching Soldier and Nun (1924), the latter depicting rape in war, attest to the irrecoverable injuries of history. The narrative arc of the exhibition is heavily infused by the loss of faith that has haunted cultural production in the period of tumult and fragmentation that occurred during what Eric Hobsbawm refers to as “the short twentieth century.”

Pasolini, under the guise of a study of the long take in cinema, theorized on death as the organizing event around which we can constitute the otherwise chaotic experience of living. He wrote, “It is thus absolutely necessary to die, because while living we lack meaning, and the language of our lives (with which we express ourselves and to which we attribute the greatest importance) is untranslatable: a chaos of possibilities, a search for relations among discontinuous meanings.”

The acquisition of a work into the permanent collection, representing the death of the object as it is removed from the ritual of life, can be construed as a similarly necessary narrative endpoint around which we may unfold meaning. “The Last Things Before the Last,” in all its acts of reconstitution and decipherment, further underlines a possible function for curatorial work—what Hobsbawm names “a protest against forgetting.”

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