You could say that artworks fall into one of two categories: mirrors, or windows. The mirror is reflective -- distortion may occur, but the mirror’s function is to show what is here, in front of it, around us. The window shows what is not here, what can only be seen by looking into another world. Two exhibitions this autumn acted as mirrors into our relationship with the built environment.
Steve Higgins’s show, All things considered, at the Dalhousie University Art Gallery, consisted of three separate bodies of work, two sets of prints, a group of sculptures, and a large wall-drawing. Both prints and drawing address architectural form – images of the foundations of buildings and the structure of the written page in the former and rendered description of struts, supports, towers and stairways in the latter. The sculptures consist of five tables, reminiscent of the formica-topped desks found in high-schools, libraries and archives. Cut into the top of each ‘desk’ is a trapezoidal opening, through which one has an aerial view into a model of bleak urban terrain. These consist of tiny bungalows studding what looks like strip-mined landscape, industrial buildings and raised highways carved and bisected with pipes and scaffolding. The landscapes are meticulous and precise, but the pleasure of looming over the miniature is mitigated by unease; they are unpeopled. Worse, they are monochrome, painted a matte, light-leaching black. A young artist in Halifax recently described to me the city of Sudbury’s attempts to conceal the scars of decades of mining by covering a massive slag-heap with a thin layer of bright green grass. Higgins reverses this cosmetic touch-up. The result is that while these are familiar urban places, recognisable from any highway in a North American city, there is nothing homey here. Instead there is a sense of bleakness and dismay. The tiny industrial landscapes don’t describe the disaster of a Chernobyl or a Bhopal. This looks like Canada: Sudbury, Sydney, Hamilton, the world of convenience we have created around us, a slower, more deliberate kind of disaster.
Concurrent with Higgins’s exhibition, the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington presented a large show of Anne Truitt’s sculpture and drawings. Nominally a minimalist, singular in having been approved by Greenberg (a sculptor making three-dimensional paintings?), Truitt worked for the last 40-plus years of her long career in the production of thin, rectilinear columns painted with semi-translucent layers of paint. The paint is sometimes monochrome, sometimes taking the form of vertical stripes of varying widths. Occasionally the work feels like painted sculpture, marked with entablatures and moldings. At other times, it resembles post-painterly abstraction; Albers comes to mind, as can Newman, Baer, or Ryman. At its most compelling the work hovers somewhere between figuration and architecture. In this state it participates in what Flavin called (about his own work) ‘blank magic’, no virtuosity, no special effects, instead an uncanny sense of being in relation to something both vivid and distant. By restricting the palette to monochromes: lavender, smoke-green, deep rose, and by limiting form to a narrow rectangle, Truitt seems to erase all trace of autography and intention, leaving only a shimmering column of colour. Robert Morris wrote about his own heavy, earthbound rectangular boxes of the 1960’s (about the same time that Truitt began building the boxes that are her life’s work) that they stood in relation to the viewer’s body, demanding a physical, perceptual relation between object and subject. Among other similes, he likened the boxes to coffins. Truitt’s earliest shaped works resemble picket fences, walls, even a tombstone. Gradually likeness was winnowed away, leaving the vertical rectangle – the vertical column of the standing figure, the rectilinear box of architecture, the body of architecture. One’s experience in relation to the object is both intimate and distant. These are not coffins, nor chambers nor people, yet the luminosity of colour, and the way each plane of a box continually responds to light suggests that the objects are animate.
Two artists, each addressing the question of the body and communal, or architectural space. Higgins paints the landscape black; the mirror reflecting our choices about how we shape the landscape is sharper. Truitt, stroking thin layers of translucent paint onto a thin box, makes an opaque mirror through which to see.