Is there a correlation between what goes on in an MFA program and the amount of writing that appears in an artists’ work? Does it have something to do with what goes on in school or do the type of artists who gravitate to writing end up applying to – and getting accepted by – Master’s programs? The evidence at the University of Toronto 's exhibition of their Master of Visual Studies cohort implies that something is going on. Two of the four featured artists include book length texts in their installations. A third includes a binder of documentation and text tags all over her sculptures. And the remaining artist holds back on the supplementary texts but includes a text work amongst her computer-generated faces and figure. Words have always and will always orbit the experience of art. No argument here. Text also has a place in visual art. Fine. But what is one to make of the wordiness in this exhibition? Also on view at U of T’s Art Museum is an exhibition of undergrad work that runs the gamut from Seo Eun Kim’s untitled abstract paintings to Denyca Decaen’s quietly devastating messages hidden in wooden drawers that implicate the (male) viewer in the instant of reception. But there’s nothing as rhetorical as what’s going on with the grad students. What to make of all their words?
Evan Tyler's installation is engulfed in a swirl of verbosity, both on the page and through speakers. He's set himself up as a familiar character whose spiel consists of a vaguely convincing, largely comedic pitch for the kind of self-help program that used to populate late night television before the advent of the internet. Tyler plays up the nostalgia with cassette sermons and a VHS-taped performance (on a giant CRT monitor, no less) to make his advice available on a variety of platforms. Also included is a book of stories that extend his multi-referential cultural frenzy for turning the past into a palette for play.
Sandra Brewster's relationship to the past, on the other hand, is sincere and personal. Her book details the story of her family's move from Guyana to Toronto and is full of the kind of anecdotes that make for compelling memoirs (she should shop it to a publisher). She describes her parents' mysterious basement parties where the children were relegated to the main floor while the adults congregated around her father’s rec room mini-bar. The visual accompaniment falls on the other end of the communicative spectrum by relying on faded photographs blown up to poster size and hung from floor to ceiling. Whereas the stories are about people, these are about landscapes with the exception of one plastered in strips directly on the gallery wall that has female figures from a long lost past posing for the camera. The disparity between the precision of the writing and the ambiguity of the images effectively describes the limits of memory.
Sona Safaei-Sooreh presents the trickiest installation in which to disentangle words from objects, but I think that’s the point. Her geometric pipe sculptures are created within a global-political context revealed through plastic tags that identify the provenance of the component parts while a binder contains all the documentation of purchase and shipping that allowed her to put these things together in the first place. The simplest summary of the rules that govern this project is that the joints have to come from Iran, the tubes from the country of exhibition, and the straps and flanges from the US, but the subsidiary rules regarding transport turn the whole thing into a metaphor for the web of alliances and conflict that tell the true story of how the world works. The art in this case is the artist’s navigation log with the gallery housing the evidence of her work.
Finally there’s Léa Grantham’s series of faces expressing a range of emotions and her featureless toy figure encased in a mirrored display box. The silence that engulfs this display is dramatic, particularly in this context of this exhibition, and it highlights her interest in the loss of individuality and emptying out of self. A text piece derived from Asperger’s tests and a loneliness scale flickers subtlely in the darkness, otherwise not a word is heard.
Whether serendipitous or intentional, the thread of text that runs through this show is inescapable. While it is essential for all these artists’ works, it is also worrying in that it risks dominating the visual elements on display. It’s already too easy to walk through a gallery and spend more time looking at labels than regarding the art, and as a writer I’m loath to discourage reading, but there’s something to be said for keeping quiet.
The Art Museum at U of T: http://artmuseum.utoronto.ca/
2017 University of Toronto MVS Studio Program Graduating Exhibition continues until April 15
Terence Dick is a freelance writer living in Toronto. His art criticism has appeared in Canadian Art, BorderCrossings, Prefix Photo, Camera Austria, Fuse, Mix, C Magazine, Azure, and The Globe and Mail. He is the editor of Akimblog. You can follow his quickie reviews and art news announcements on Twitter @TerenceDick.
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