RECURRENTWORKS by Mary Joyce, with an accompanying sound installation by Gerhard Ginader 4 July 4 to 23 August 1996, Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba, Brandon, Manitoba, Canada
[First published in Winnipeg's Border Crossings magazine as "Industrialism," Fall 1996, 64-65.]
It is ironic that just as the industrial look of factories and oil refineries was being adapted to art galleries and university buildings (by architects such as IKOY in Canada and Richard Rogers in the UK) heavy industry began to go into rapid decline in the West. Machine sounds have animated blues music and buildings for decades, of course, and architects and musicians continue to sample the sights and sounds of big steel to make industrial culture for post-industrial people.
But not since the heyday of the Mexican Muralists in the twenties and thirties have painters and printmakers been really enthusiastic about the iconography of heavy industry, and so Mary Joyce may be unique among contemporary Canadian artists. She knows that she can not stop the decline of big industry in North America, but she can make a viewer rethink such automatic associations like industry bad/factory-overgrown-with-weeds good. Joyce makes art out of the visual flotsam of industry which hums away in good times, but disappears in bad. Heavy industry still exists, and so Joyce's view may be read as either a vision of work or part of a culture of nostalgia. I think of displaced workers as I view her work, and I imagine viewing the prints and paintings from the point of view of the post-industrial unemployed.
This work could have been more heavily edited. Joyce does not convincingly scale up the hard, flat colour of her small lithographs into large paintings. This may be a technical problem which will be resolved in future work--no matter: the large paintings in this show are too wobbly and unsure for me. Joyce gives the Toronto artist Shirley Wiitasalo a credit in the exhibition catalogue. A too-heavy Wiitasalo influence shows in Joyce's work, showing an apprenticeship in painting which has not quite ended. The prints--even the small oil on paper works--blow the large paintings off the walls.
Joyce's true medium is printmaking. Here the content is complemented by industrial-era techniques such as hand-pulled lithography used to make them. Joyce arrays hand-drawn (not photographed) images of tubes, pipes, buildings, boats and work boot footprints freely across a print's flattened field. An ear or a cipher of a figure crops up here and there, but most of the images refer not to people, but to industrial settings and machinery. Many images of water, a measure of the ecological purity of industrial processes, are used, and the exhibition's title "recurrent" can be read as an allusion to the recycling and recovery of this basic substance at industrial sites. Joyce seems to be looking for renewal, for an industrial baptism, or perhaps for an allegorical rebirth of lost industry.
This exhibition implies rather than overtly states an unsentimental solidarity with workers: nowhere does one see a full-blown articulated human figure, but only ciphers, and this augers well with the focus on industrial processes. Joyce must not want to recall the propagandistic worker themes of social realist art associated with the Depression, the Soviet regime, Norman Rockwell and other unpleasantries. Perhaps Joyce is clever to avoid hunky worker clichés in which the iconographic image of the worker is front and centre. Implying rather than depicting workers can be read as a smart attempt to reintroduce the subject of working people into contemporary art. Plain images of working class life do not attract even the slightest attention within our wider society of spectacle either, and so sneaking the subject up at a viewer may also serve Joyce's art well outside the world of art galleries.
The exhibition had sounds. Joyce collaborated on an audio installation with composer Gerhard Ginader by providing him with industrial noises (for example, "eetal recycling" and "ethanol plant metal recycling") collected with her tape recorder in factories and plants. Ginader's composition is unexpectedly soothing and pleasant--even serene--given the source material.
Antique washing machines were borrowed from Vern's Appliance Sales in Brandon and placed around the gallery. Joyce's art, Ginader's composition and the washing machines did not quite add up to what is usually called an art "installation." Instead one got the sense, reinforced by the gallery's didactic material, that the separate elements had been brought together the way elements of a collage become a composition rather than the way two colours of paint are admixed to form a third.