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Reviews / February 12, 2009

Deborah Margo: Sweet Stuff

Deborah Margo 40019's Ceaseless Transformation 2009 Installation detail Courtesy Patrick Mikhail Gallery / photo Tom Evans

The results of the most recent RBC Painting Competition seemed to signal, among other things, a return to process painting, and particularly the kind associated with 1970s Post-Minimalism. While layer painting and related practices may appear novel to some, they have a rich and complex history in Canada, one that contemporary artists continue to mine. Deborah Margo’s work is certainly among the more interesting branches of this vein, and her recent exhibition at Ottawa’s Patrick Mikhail Gallery takes a provocative new direction.

Building upon her previous work with giant jawbreaker candies, Giant Okeydokes 20085 from 2006, 40019’s Ceaseless Transformation consists of hundreds of huge, round jawbreakers that have been partially dissolved, stressed, cut and deformed. At four inches in diameter, these candies seem somewhat beyond the realm of human consumption, but their association with food, and particularly mass-produced confections, give them an interesting pop edge. Indeed, like Pop art, the atmosphere of the exhibition hovers between gorgeous and vulgar, high and low, forces of conformity and powers of resistance.

Cross-sections of the jawbreakers reveal colourful patterns of concentric rings, created by a time-consuming manufacturing process called panning, in which a core of crystallized granulated sugar is dipped in hot liquid sugar hundreds of times. Margo has seized upon this inherent characteristic and exploded it through a variety of deconstructive experiments. For example, submerging the candies in water causes them to bubble and effloresce in spectacular ways, producing random formations reminiscent of celestial bodies and geological specimens.

Carefully arranged in a grid on the gallery floor, these colourful, tactile curiosities fit easily within evolving theories of painting, and especially its relationship to sculpture and performance. It is difficult not to associate her work with Eric Cameron’s “thick paintings,” or even Claude Tousignant’s “targets.” As viewers we are permitted to walk through the grid, enacting a final deformation in which modernist symmetry gives way to phenomenological risk. At once amusing and vaguely grotesque, Margo’s work offers a compelling critique of Canadian painting without ever touching paint or canvas. (2401 Bank St, Ottawa ON)