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DESCRIPTION WITHOUT PLACE
Paintings and Selected Works by CELIA RABINOVITCH
27 January to 25 February 2005, Gallery One One One
Opening Reception: Thursday, 27 January, 4:00 to 7:30 PM
Artist's Talk: Monday, 7 February, 7:00 PM
Rm 207 FitzGerald Building
Curated by Cliff Eyland
ABOVE: On the Freighter. oil over acrylic on canvas, 40"x45" 1996
Photo credit: Ernest Mayer
DESCRIPTION WITHOUT PLACE:
On Celia Rabinovitch's Paintings
Modernism, like the culture of the 1960s and 70s, could take it for granted that when it came to the cultural establishment, realism was still dominant. Indeed, it has proved perhaps the most resilient cultural form in Western history, beating off all contenders. [Eagleton 66]After Theory, Terry Eagleton's essential 2003 book, claims that the stable, "realist" background that art rebels of the 1920s and even 1960s assumed as a foil has since been completely demolished by the captains of postmodernist industry and art. What does it mean for instance, to call a recently-made work of art "traditional" given today's ethos of postmodernism, since "traditional" can mean virtually anything from video art to performance?
A graphic of an aircraft on the cover of Eagleton's book is an unmistakable reference to a day that has become a debating point in cultural theory: on September 11, 2001 theocratic fascists married media theory and a murderous ideology in a terrifyingly sophisticated way. To Jean Baudrillard, for example, 11 September confirmed his long-held theory that what we call "real" is in fact cinematographic; the religious right, by contrast, asserts that the ironic (read the unreal) must be banished not only from art but from the cultural discourse altogether.
So what of Celia Rabinovitch's Gallery One One One exhibition, which includes contemporary realist paintings? Is not traditional art as subject to the same postmodernist pressures as everything else in our culture, and so mustn't Rabinovitch be painting in a postmodernist manner? If one believes that the postmodern condition is inescapable, the answer is yes, but Rabinovitch, like other social realists, would argue that postmodernism's contradictions can be ignored if one's own theory acknowledges the materialism of bodies and paint. She would agree with Eagleton, who notes that "Among students of culture, the body is an immensely fashionable topic, but it is usually the erotic body, not the famished one. There is a keen interest in coupling bodies, but not in labouring ones." [Eagleton 2]
In any case, it is an art's references and not its technical means that makes it contemporary, and Rabinovitch's art is full of contemporary references. Barry Lord, the social realist theorist and author of The History of Painting in Canada, was never disturbed whenever the so-called aesthetic conservatism of painting supported political radicalism. Maybe it's best to reserve the word "traditional" for artists who work strictly within an ethnic form, like Morris dancers and folk singers. Perhaps it is also best not to assume that the word "realism" is always synonymous with the word "traditionalism."
In one of Rabinovitch's paintings a young woman strikes a classic pose of socialist realism as she carries a large, blank green flag toward a smoke stack, as if in an environmentalist parade. In another work, migrant farm workers tend a Californian field by the sea as oil tankers float in the distance. If the worker references make no overt political statements they are nevertheless plentiful in Rabinovitch's work, enough to frame even her images of leisure in terms of days off work rather than a rural idyll. Rabinovitch's interest in impressionist effects of daylight and especially twilight, the time and space between waking and dreaming, shows an interest in impressionist technical effects and also an engagement with what the artist calls "epiphanies" (see the Rabinovitch interview in these pages) that can happen in the exchange of a glance or the experience of a misty day.
Realism's tropes can be used by any ideology from Russian Communism to North Korean socialism to Hitler's Nazism. If the postmodern condition dictates that our dominant illusions cannot be contradicted by realist depictions of things, then perhaps we are left with only description defined by the personal view, as this Wallace Stevens excerpt, a favorite of Rabinovitch's, suggests:
Description is revelation, it is not the thing describedDescription is realism that embodies a personal point of view, and that is integral to the artist's vision, but what is described in Rabinovitch's paintings? According to the artist, it is: "the singular moment, mood, and tone of the west coast in images of passage through landscapes and the industrial sublime."
Rabinovitch has aesthetic and technical interest in the more realist aspects of impressionist painting and old masters like Vermeer. She is a writer and an academic who has a Ph.D. in art history and religion, and she is a practicing artist who is well aware of the history of realist painting from the 1850's Gustave Courbet to the following decades of Manet and the impressionists.
The impressionists themselves, as described in T.J. Clark's brilliant book The Painting of Modern Life, depicted nineteenth-century industrialization in terms of their own vision of realism. The proud smoke-spewing towers of the typical nineteenth-century industrial advertisement -- and impressionist paintings -- differs from the contemporary depictions of Toyota plants for obvious reasons. We might like fog, but for us to enjoy its depiction the fog must be ocean mist and not polluted air. Unlike Monet's train stations or (his contemporary) Whistler's nocturnes, no visible smoke billows out of the stacks in Celia Rabinovitch's paintings of contemporary freighters and industrial sites. The impressionists, after all, were not environmentalists, since the idea had hardly been formed, and for them industrial smoke and haze were opportunities for special modern effects within the realist project of depicting everyday life. Rabinovitch, by contrast, who has spent many years living in California, could not any more revel in industrial smoke than any of us.
The industrial revolution, as we remember, also coincided with the beginnings of what was to become, although again the term had not been invented then, the "tourist industry." This new phenomenon, now the biggest industry in the world, was a direct result of worker agitation for days off, and it figures heavily in the impressionists' depictions of worker weekends. When I use the term "social realism" to describe Rabinovitch's work, I refer not only on her depiction of workers and industrial equipment, but also to her depictions of the fruits of industrialization as represented by modern phenomena like a day at the beach: worker's playtime.
- Cliff Eyland is the Director of Gallery One One One.
NOTE: In a striking coincidence of unintentional timing, Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art is showing Chris Welsby video projections of the Pacific Ocean, in which, as in some of Rabinovitch's paintings, tankers float in silence. I encourage viewers of this exhibition to also visit Plug In in order to experience -- in the middle of a Winnipeg winter -- the ambiance of a Pacific day as rendered both by Rabinovitch's paint and Welsby's film.
Eyland wishes to thanks Robert Epp for his editorial assistance with this essay.
Baudrillard, Jean. The Evil Demon of Images. Sydney: Power Institute, 1987.
Clark, T.J. The Painting of Modern Life, Paris in the Art of Manet and his Followers. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1984.
Eagleton, Terry. After Theory. London: Penguin Books, 2003.
Lord, Barry. The History of Painting in Canada, Toward a People's Art. Toronto: NC Press, 1974.
Stevens, Wallace (edited by Holly Stevens). The Palm at the End of the Mind, Selected Poems and a Play. New York: Vintage, 1972
The DESCRIPTION WITHOUT PLACE, Paintings and Selected Works by Celia Rabinovitch CD-ROM includes an essay and images with information about other Gallery One One One projects.
Gallery One One One, School of Art, Main Floor, FitzGerald Building, University of Manitoba Fort Garry campus, Winnipeg, MB, CANADA R3T 2N2TEL:204 474-9322 FAX:474-7605
For information please contact Robert Epp firstname.lastname@example.org