SUZANNE GAUTHIER ODDS
[First published in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island's Arts Atlantic 51, 1996, 13-14 about an exhibition at The Upstairs Gallery in Winnipeg that happened 13-25 November 1995.]
Suzanne Gauthier's return to Winnipeg for a solo exhibition at the Upstairs Gallery was much anticipated. The buzz, which went around for weeks before her arrival, prompted me to think unfruitfully about affinities Gauthier's work might have with Winnipeg artists such as Diane Whitehouse, or Winnipeggers-turned-Haligonians such as Nancy Edell and Suzanne Funnel, all of whom know each other well. Gauthier has lived in many places, and is about as omnivorous a collagist as a collagist can be, so no doubt the affinities are there for the seeing, but my guess is that an attempt to systematically relate elements of her work to Whitehouse or Edell or Funnel is probably pointless. Too, Gauthier's art is just as diffuse in relation to the past work of giants of collage such as Picasso, Rauchenberg, and Motherwell, not to mention the work of countless other representatives of sub-traditions of the genre. In asserting that Gauthier's work answers only generally to other art, I suppose I am calling her work "original" a term that has no secure place in contemporary art criticism.
Many materials show up in various combinations in these works, including paint, wheat stalks, patterned cloth, dollies, acetate film, wood, wire mesh, honeycomb, ceramic tiles and shells. Many of the titles are flatly descriptive, for example "Glue" (1995), "Wax" (1995), "Tile" (1995); while others are almost overbearingly allusive, for example: "Odalisque" (1992), "Volcano" (1992) and "Archangel" (1993).
Historically, I identify Gauthier's theme-and-variation play with Picasso. Picasso felt that an artist should "find," rather than "seek," solutions to self-imposed artistic problems using any medium and every subject matter. Such an attitude must also be at the core of Gauthier's project, given the evidence of this work. The approach is not as common in art as it used to be before Picasso's working methods passed through the bowels of the avant-garde and plopped down on high school art departments, public art galleries, and foundation year art college programs the world over as a warmed-over ideology of art education. In a skillfully-made work of contemporary art such as Gauthier's, the approach can still convey a thrilling sense of freedom and play. Gauthier communicates a sense of delight in artistic creation rather well, but such pleasures do not seem to be as important to the contemporary art world as they once were. After seeing just a few pieces, a jaded viewer may think she can anticipate all the themes and variations. Add to this malaise a more general sense of exhaustion at cultural innovation itself, and the gloss may come off the artistic exuberance of a Picasso or a Gauthier. Voluminous production, endless formal innovation, and brilliant combinations of material and technique are wonderful, but the variations may not seem as various as they once were, and the themes not as thematically distinct...
The largest work in this exhibition, a mixed media piece called "Cage," (1993) is reminiscent of the video dissolves of television. Works like "Cage" illicit comparisons with video, giving them a contemporaneity which too strong a connection with traditional cubist collage would otherwise deny them. The video look is accentuated in works like "Cage" with the blurring effects of encaustic and collaged lacework and wire mesh, which break up surfaces into fields which resemble fields of computer monitor pixels, almost as if the tracery were swirling "screen savers."
I returned again and again to one of two works in this exhibition called "Horse Turtles" (1993). "Horse Turtles" is composed of wax, photographs, formica, and rattan on bare plywood. The photographs are of Gauthier's own rounded sculptures, one of which depicts a horse. Deep greens, impasto whites and red spatterings of encaustic make this work a compellingly elegant piece. (The "turtles" are encaustic blobs.) I like the way Gauthier uses photographs of her sculptures rather than, say, appropriated magazine images to make collages. I am inclined to think that I like the sculptures, too, although I have never seen them in three dimensions. Almost everything in these combines is of the artist's doing, sometimes in a second or third generation version--for example, photographs-- which is remixed into the latest collage brew. By this method Gauthier constructs an hermetic world full of self-reference in which products of artistic play are seen again in a new context, doubling back so that we can get another look at them. As they are distributed through the paintings, the "Odds" become, through repetition, the (lets call them) "evens" of an organically coherent show.