Monday, February 07, 2005
Yet Another Art Review -- from this week's Terminal City

Weird Science
by Christopher Brayshaw
Aurel Schmidt
Kenny Roux
Antisocial Gallery,
2425 Main St
To February 15

Though Antisocial skate shop is one of my closest neighbours, I hardly ever go in, and when I do it's always surprising to see how large the gallery at the back of the shop really is. Two galleries, actually: one a kind of dimly-lit transitional space behind the offices with a rumbling, ceiling-mounted furnace, scuffed dark walls, and boxes and skateboard decks piled in the corner; the other the "proper" gallery, always chilly, with its bumpy concrete floor, white walls, and small, high windows.

I mention these things only because they are largely invisible or missing at other galleries in town. The CAG, the Or, and the VAG's big highwall galleries are variations on a white cube that cocoons anything exhibited within it in an air of luxurious silence and quasi-religious mystery, an atmosphere purchased from the Canada Council, provincial government, and assorted private donors. Antisocial's gallery, so far as I can tell, is entirely funded by the skateboard business up front, and the sounds of commerce that do leak back into the galleries above the whoosh of the furnace—the music on the sound system; the hum of conversation; the phone; the cash register, the click of skateboard wheels on the floor—underscore how precarious spaces like this really are, run on little or no money and the goodwill of staff, volunteers, and landlords. Some would say this close contact with commerce compromises the works shown there. I disagree. I think that Main Street exhibition spaces like Antisocial, Xeno, and Eugene Choo lay out the economic forces sustaining them far more transparently than your typical commercial or public gallery, and I admire the Antisocial staff both for their quixotic bravery (no business exhibiting contemporary art in Vancouver is getting rich) and ideological transparency.

Antisocial's current show pairs Aurel Schmidt's paintings and drawings with an installation by Kenny Roux. The tone of Schmidt's show is set by an enormous black-on-white picture of an explosion: part black hole, part Big Bang, part star isolated against the white field of a radiotelescope's display screen. This arresting, jagged image, which looks much like Jay DeFeo's Rose redrawn by Raymond Pettibon, is the best work in her exhibition, and none of Schmidt's other pieces come close to matching it in terms of sheer graphic impact. The rest of her contributions consist of a series of biologically-derived gestural motifs: painted "molds"; "spores"; "cells"; protozoa; chemical reactions, subatomic particles busily tunneling away inside space-time. Her drawings and paintings are aggregations of these standard units–blobby molds, big, fat earthworm-shapes built up out of graphite crosshatching–lumped together on top of each other, spilling willy-nilly across the surface of a piece of paper or a wooden panel. There are also a few watercolor drawings of jagged symmetrical forms–crystals? Big Bang residue? –that are noteworthy because of their presencelessness; they are barely there, like whispers punctuating the more cluttered works' brassy exuberance.

I like Schmidt's drawings' largely restrained color, and the quieter, more airy works, in which passages of unpainted paper or flat white acrylic "negative space" define a few well-chosen forms. It's harder to draw distinctions between the more heavily collaged drawings, other than to note that they seem to lose force the more built-up they become. The best consist of just graphite, and maybe one or two other colors—white, plus some green watercolor, the color of swamp murk, of pond scum, or seashore ooze. These drawings feel tenuous, but in exactly the right way—they carry abstraction's long history in every gesture.

In the 1980s DC comic Swamp Thing, written by British wonderkind Alan Moore, a bunch of chemicals and scientist Alec Holland go into a swamp. Out comes the Swamp Thing, a botanical group-mind trying to pretend it's a man. Schmidt's paintings seem to me to aggressively rework the Swamp Thing narrative, with abstract expressionism playing the role of Alec Holland, and postmodernism's "notorious lightning" playing the role of the chemicals liberating Holland's consciousness even as it burns his body away. Or, to put it differently: late Greenbergian criticism's requirement that abstraction purge itself of all connections to the world was not well-received by painters, who, ever since, have been trying to sneak little pieces of the world back inside abstraction, as if folding fillings into handmade ravioli. Schmidt's biomorphic abstraction is another step in this multi-decade attempt to reconcile abstraction with representational painting, and a successful one at that.

Ken Roux's light projection is subtler than Schmidt's paintings and drawings; so subtle, in fact, that I missed it on the way in, despite the fact that it was deliberately pointed out to me. But I took a good look on my way back out, and could hardly leave for looking. A huge bulky black shape hangs from the ceiling of the transitional gallery: an agglomeration of cardboard boxes, painted black and held together with duct tape. Grilles have been cut into the cardboard, allowing light from bulbs concealed inside to leak out and strike the gallery wall, where they form a series of patterns: a curiously doubled comet shape; a crystal spray; a series of short horizontal lines resembling a diagram of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Light, being free, has hardly the same provenance as more traditional art materials like bronze, or oil paint, or rag paper. This makes it easy to miss Roux's work at first, or to mistake his projections for stray drifts of sunlight leaking in through the room's high windows. But once you trace the light back to its source in the huge projecting box overhead, you realize the work’s subtlety and originality. I have never seen anything quite like Roux's installation before, and I admire it both for its serene beauty and severe economy of means.

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