In Tricia Middleton’s Crones, an excerpt from a larger installation exhibited last year at Oakville Galleries, amorphous figures of wax seem to collapse on themselves, sagging and decaying amidst an assemblage of rocks, found objects, and detritus. Suggesting a site long abandoned, Crones speaks to the obsessive byproducts of collecting, the smattering of things and materials that remain long after the spark of interest has passed. Middleton’s labour of assembling and composing become past actions, now available in almost excavatory form, the viewer imagining the process of artistic production in addition to taking in Crones’ experiential impact. This dynamic constitutes the basis of Material Traces: Time and the Gesture in Contemporary Art at Concordia University’s Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery, a compelling group exhibition curated by art historian Amelia Jones.
Jones, a professor at McGill University and author of Body Art: Performing the Subject (1998), has organized a diverse set of works around “the fact that making and experiencing art are always social, interrelational, dialogical practices, always in process and taking place over time,” as she writes in the show’s catalogue. Featuring work mostly by American, Canadian, and New Zealand artists, Material Traces speaks to the already established yet continually ongoing dialogue between viewer and artwork. If Middleton’s installation brings attention to the material process of its production, it facilitates an equally material intimacy between bodies and matter — an intertwining of the body experiencing an artwork and the body having made the artwork.
To this end, many of the exhibition’s works respond directly to thematics of embodiment and medium, with the strongest work speaking to social contexts outside strictly formal considerations: Heather Cassils’ Becoming an Image documents a performance of the same name, wherein the artist pummelled an enormous mass of clay; Cassils connects the tiring work of art-making with the performative labour of non-normative gender expression, following her career-long interest in altering her own hyper-masculinized body. Paul Donald physically twists and molds generic store-bought 2 x 4s in Untitled (studs), cajoling the standardized commodity into a record of bodily manipulation. In his video installation FEUILLETON Berlusconi Pasolini, Angel Vergara projects news footage of a physical attack on the former Italian prime minister, overlaid with video of the artist’s hand directly painting on the screen. Avoiding the literally sweeping gestures of other direct-animation work, Vergara’s brush dabs and strokes the screen, exposing a perceptual slippage between the bloody violence “on screen” and his haptic brushstrokes equally “on screen.” Vergara questions the (im)material physicality of the projected surface, and how it processes our political engagement with the social circulation of bodies. Material Traces offers a thoughtful consideration of materiality’s volatile status in contemporary social and artistic media ecologies.