MELANIE AUTHIER'S KARMA KANYON
[This review of Melanie Authier's Karma Kanyon solo exhibition at aceartinc first appeared in Winnipeg's Border Crossings magazine, vol. 26, number 3, August, 2007, 140-141]
Imagine contemporary art as a collection of marching bands, each of which must toot its tubas down an obscure street until allowed - if ever allowed -- a chance to play on the boulevard. After its moment in the sun, every art band is pushed off to the sidelines to await -- as loudly as possible! -- its next turn.
Is abstract painting ready to march down main street again? The winner of the most recent Turner Prize competition, Tomma Abts, makes modestly scaled abstractions nothing like Melanie Authier's, but her ascendance is widely seen as encouragement to contemporary abstract painters.
Brice Marden and Elizabeth Murray's recent MOMA shows got artists thinking again about abstraction, but I don't know many young painters like Authier who are as committed to making ambitious abstract paintings as she is, even if in conversation she talks as if such improvisational abstraction were common.
The authority and confidence of Authier's work hit me square in the face as I entered her aceartinc show. People who paint like this are usually much older than this audacious youngster, or dead. I thought of artists such as Paul Jenkins, Helen Frankenthaler, William Ronald and, closer to home, Winnipeg's Don Reichert and Diane Whitehouse as I scanned the works.
But the generations who made paintings bloom with colour in the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s are evoked here only as a kind of technical memory, at least as I see it. Authier's work is more graphic than the older abstraction with which it at first seems to have so many affinities. Her surfaces are not so much stained as sculpted. There is always a palpable three-dimensional space in Authier's painting and no anxiety about maintaining flatness is ever evinced. Also, there is a decorative ebullience to the work that is sublimated or missing in many of her forbears.
Authier makes everything up in her paintings, and I like that. She has a range of ways of applying paint and creating form. The paint rarely gets thick, and she does not interrupt a painting's surface with collage or other jarring effects; the surfaces are seamless and the space is slightly illusionistic.
"Each of my paintings is about...a negotiation of opposites: the artificial and the organic, the technological and the natural, flatness and deep space, synthetic and natural colour, chaos and control, the sublime and the everyday," says Authier in her aceartinc artist's statement.
Authier's titles are arbitrary the way works by much older artists are arbitrary. Tidal, Sniff Dive, Rim-rock Catapult, and Rambling, to give some examples, hint less at subject matter than at the processes of abstract painting.
Her way of speaking about painting in conversation is close enough to Hans Hoffmann's dialectical "push/pull" rhetoric to make me think that the landscape references need not be emphasized as much they were in this show's publicity. The PR stress was on the work's roots in the Romantic landscape. We remember that much mid-century abstraction also had nineteenth-century roots in Romanticism by way of Caspar David Friedrich and the Hudson River School, and we also remember that Abstract Expressionism and post-painterly abstraction were no less indebted to Romanticism than artists like Authier. But Romanticism produces much other art as well, since it is still the default attitude of most young artists.
Pollock's Romantic notion of Nature working through him rather than being somehow represented by his marks makes its way into this discussion. Authier is clearly attempting to evoke the sublime in her work rather than, pace Pollock, performing the sublime in the making of her paintings. These works are not a record of the artist's gestures or performative traces but an attempt to represent the sublime through graphic play. For Authier's generation this way of working is perhaps a more honest and a less egocentric undertaking than that of her heroic predecessors.
The late-1960s to 1980s debates about abstract art have subsided, and that makes it easier for such painting to re-emerge. Big abstract painting used to be aligned with right-wing politics simply because corporations bought it and Clement Greenberg and Hilton Kramer wrote about it, but today's crazy art market makes a hash of politics, and we now have money and prize systems in the visual arts that tend to override aesthetic debate. Formalist abstract painting was identified by the conceptual art generation of the 1970s as apolitical, technically archaic and escapist, but none of those words impede contemporary art appreciation in the slightest, and nor should they.
Authier's work also has more recent and more domestic sources than Romanticism or mid-century abstraction. She is a recent graduate of Guelph's MFA program, probably the best graduate school for painting in Canada. Several of Guelph's faculty and past graduates, such as John Kissick, Monica Tap and David Urban, have been making a strong case for abstract painting for some time, and Authier is among the newest of their progeny. (Kissick, I'd speculate, must have been influential here.)
I support this painting, but I will have to wait and look again before I know for myself if its pleasures are fleeting. Will Authier's forms seem dated in the not too distant future - will the work be booted off the boulevard soon? Or, if you can follow me, will the links the work has to important historical abstract painting give the work a lasting aesthetic credibility? Part of the excitement of this show is the chance it gives one to speculate on both the work's historical place and one's own historical place in the parade.