Anna Leonowens Gallery, Halifax
[First published in Vancouver's very good but now defunct Vanguard magazine, November 1985, 33.]
When we were kids in the burbs, we'd sneak up to people's big picture windows and look in. If the Griswald's, or whoever they were, had situated the TV correctly, we could see the Ed Sullivan show flicker off their zombie faces like Degas' pit lights off a chanteuse. You could peek in and the Griswalds would be sitting, not blinking or moving. It was scary.
Les Sasaki is about the right age to have grown up irradiated by television, and his latest paintings are suggestive of the numbness, boredom and despair that fills people as they watch other people watch TV. Recently, several Halifax artists have avoided the use of videotape in works which directly address problems about television. Garry Conway's recent exhibition of fabricated metal TV screens and Gerry Amey's recent TV news photomontages are examples. As in Sasaki's work, an unmoving visual reference to TV is substituted for the video medium with every confidence that the mere reference can do the job. It is as if making videotapes involved a conflict of interest or compromise. Some local artists, the most prominent being Ed Slopek, have given up the video medium for good: Slopek believes that TV is a health hazard.
Sasaki's works are small. They use certain optical effects. They incorporate some of the thick, crusty paint that has been going around Halifax for years, in this case on thin paper surfaces. At first you notice all the blobs - impasto TV rays at one side of the pictures. As the rods and cones adjust themselves, the black on black silhouette figures emerge at the other side of the pictures. The most memorable image is that of a figure in a chair watching TV. The guy consists of a black area painted over a black ground, so that from several angles he is virtually invisible.
Some of Sasaki's works of the past few years have used Op Art effects in a related way. In patterned paintings, splashes of paint become rows of people standing at attention or marching in files down the picture plane. Repetition and patterning in these pieces is a sign for regimentation - a connection not often made by pattern painters. (If there are any left: Sasaki cannot really be called a 'pattern painter'). His attempt to reinvest Op Art and pattern painting techniques with oblique social messages leads one to think that offset printing or some other graphic medium would suit the work. Except for the thick patches on the TV paintings, which would have to be reworked or applied manually (a quibble of technique), these works could be very effective as graphic art. By this I mean that they deserve the wide distribution of a particular kind that would then be possible. Ironically enough, the TV paintings are probably impossible to reproduce accurately in slides or black and white film.
What these works have to say about TV is slightly sinister and moralistic. One asks in their presence whether there are any empathetic uses of television by artists other than rock videos, which are uniformly and fascinatingly awful. Again, the typical attitude among artists to TV, even if they make videotapes results in someone watching someone else watch. The position is reinforced in an art gallery setting, which makes for slower and more contemplative viewing than seems possible with television itself.
Sasaki's works also get a heightened auratic glow because of their physical fragility. As the works are constructed of tempera paint piled high in places, they would not survive long without preservation. I like to think of them as studies for mass produced, graphic pieces. They have been created with the moral authority we associate with surveillance.