Mat Bushell, Guido Molinari, Monique Mouton, Richard Tuttle Or Gallery, Vancouver, Curated by Eli Bornowsky

Curated by Vancouver artist Eli Bornowsky, Making Real presents a broad examination of the possibilities for abstraction today.

This small but forceful exhibition featured the work of two seminal abstract artists and Chinese oil painting reproductions.

Tuttle created a new work specifically for the exhibition, Theory (2008), a series of wall sculptures made of small plastic plates that have been dabbed with paint in such a way that I wondered whether or not they were inadvertent gestures, like the way one tests if a pen is dry by scribbling without considering what one is drawing. Hung an inch away from the wail, the works appear both as paintings and as palettes for other paintings, an interesting take on the barrier between wall sculptures and paintings.

Mouton’s washy oil paintings on handcut sphere-shaped panels bear an interesting relationship to Tuttle’s work, as each stroke of paint reflects the artist’s careful deliberation of how it interacts with the irregular edges of the panel. Mouton’s sober approach and the use of shabby materials seems deliberate, as though negotiating the line between intention and accident.

In the main gallery, my eyes were drawn to what appeared to be an optical wire sculpture, which, in fact, turned out to be vinyl adhered to the wall: Bushell’s Untitled (2008). Bushell’s other work, also Untitled (2008), a black-and-white digital print of hundreds of squares forming a grid, is more awkward and lacks the optical zing of the vinyl work but makes an interesting foil as its twin. Bushell manages to make computer-generated shapes seem guided by an idiosyncratic logic rather than by a generic one.

Molinari’s four prints depicting graphic diamond-like shapes are modest in comparison to the other works. Offering a poetic exploration of form, the impact of the works hinges on the calculated tension between each shape and its position on the paper.

Topically, Making Real reflects a larger contemporary interest in abstraction and formalism. Formalism has become a dominant trend in the international art world, largely since Formalismus: Moderne Kunst, heute (Formalism: Modern Art Today) at Kunstverein Hamburg in 2004-2005, a major exhibition focusing on mostly German, English and American contemporary artists. While artists working with formalism today interpret the concept broadly, there are certain common threads, such as the use of abject materials and an embrace of German artist Michael Krebber’s aesthetics of failure, as seen in the works of Wade Guyton, Sergej Jensen and Dirk Stewen.

What sets Making Real apart from other exhibitions focusing on contemporary formalism or abstraction is the oddity of Bornowsky’s curatorial approach and accompanying press release. While group exhibitions tend to be organized by the selection of particular artists from the same generation or geographic region, or artists with similar thematic interests, Bornowsky’s selections do not meet any of these criteria. Mouton and Bushell attended school together at Emily Carr University, but none of the other artists are based in the same city or are colleagues. Turtle has been an internationally recognized artist since he showed his first shaped, dyed, unstretched canvases at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York in 1968. In 2005, he had a major retrospective organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Molinari, the other senior artist in the exhibition, was a leader in the mid-50s colour abstraction movement in Montreal known as the Quebec Plasticien school of painting. Molinari lived and worked in Montreal until his death in 2004 but remains largely unknown outside Canada.

Considering these details, and the fact that Bornowsky is an abstract painter himself, I assume he selected these four artists with some other criteria in mind. Interestingly, the press release does not distinguish between any of the artists or artworks in the exhibition. Its emphasis on what art does (as opposed to magic or science) suggests that its function is to be more of a manifesto on the importance of abstract art, with Bornowsky stating that the works presented are “instruments for subjective exercise, and, if one allows, mystical experimentation” The curator also uses the press release to refer to the unique ability of art to reflect reality beyond our understanding of it through a scientific gaze.

While some of his language may irk the reader in its triumphant assertion of the power of art qua art, I found Bornowsky’s earnestness refreshing. Perhaps his belief in the validity of formal exploration–a prominent goal of modernism–is itself a reaction against the postmodern approach of describing artworks in terms of their irony, cynicism or self-reflexivity. Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek articulates our “postmodern era” as one where, “although the ideological scene is fragmented into a panoply of positions which struggle for hegemony, there is an underlying consensus: the era of big explanations is over, we need ‘weak thought,’ opposed to all foundationalism, a thought attentive to the rhizomatic texture of reality…” When interpreting an artwork follows this methodology strictly, it can lead to a pseudo self-reflexive reading.

One example of this approach is the discussion around Mary Heilmann’s work, whose sensuous abstract paintings look like a twisted version of abstract expressionism. By describing her paintings as “tempered by a tired, knowing irony and [as] embody[ing] all the callous charm of our era,” it sounds as if the writer is trying to force her work to function as a critique of modern painting, even though, aesthetically, it bears much in common with the aesthetic traditions of the modernist era. The discussion of to what extent her work is a continuation of this tradition is not discussed in today’s art criticism.

Other writers have differentiated Tomma Abts’ abstract paintings from high modernism by emphasizing the dialectical elements in her practice. For instance, Adam Szymczyk writes that while a painting by Abts “is built, solid and impermeable,” he says that for the viewer, “the painting triggers a reverse process: that of deciphering, reconstructing, unbuilding, moving backwards in time.” Since it’s in flux, it’s not just another modernist painting proclaiming its own purity, right?

When this approach is taken up in the curatorial realm, it can suffer from being too cautious in its articulation of a thesis that does not indulge in a foundational undertone. One example is Gary Garrels’ recent exhibition Oranges and Sardines at UCLA’s Hammer Museum. Garrels’ curatorial premise was to examine the continued interest in abstraction by asking six contemporary American abstract artists to choose other artists who inspired them to also be included in the exhibition. The artists chose a wide range of contemporary and historical influences–not limited to painters–including Juan Mele, Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Piet Mondrian. By leaving the choices up to each artist, Garrels avoided having to explain why abstraction has now been an active pursuit for over a century and what it means in relation to the early goals of modern abstract art, many of which have been debunked for being grandiose and elitist.

Bornowsky deserves credit for creating an exhibition that stands on its own merits. My understanding of this merit finds an analogy in the way that art historian Diedrich Diederichsen describes Michael Krebber’s work, “Although often surprising and unconnected, his judgments of taste do seem to add up to something like a system.” While the works in Making Real don’t perfectly cohere with Bornowsky’s vision for abstraction, this is a positive sign, as the show as a whole constitutes a dynamic investigation into past and current fascinations around formalism.