Representation. Well, there’s a loaded term if ever there was; a veritable minefield. It has myriad meanings, associations, connotations, what have you. So let me narrow it down – quite a bit, actually – to what I’ll call “standing in place of.”
By that I basically mean the displacement of something – in this instance, aesthetic displacement – and that shape of the consequent void being occupied by something “other,” something, well, something “standing in place of.”
I choose the automobile as that “something,” that massive cultural, economic, social, environmental, and technological game-changer that completely defined the course of the 20th century, and I choose the artists Shelly Rahme and Jannick Deslauriers as the aesthetic displacers, the fillers of the subsequent void with something decidedly other. And they are both artists who have worked with sculptural incarnations of the veritable automobile.
Rahme is an Ontario-based artist (while she no longer maintains a website for her work as an artist, examples of it can be found on-line) who studied at the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design in Halifax, and obtained her MFA from Southern Illinois University (Carbondale). She’s exhibited widely across Canada, including the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Toronto, and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, and her work is represented in private and public collections. Rahme turned away from the art world and is a farmer now, living and working in Northern Ontario (www.northernharvest.info).
Full disclosure: I curated a two-person exhibition that included Rahme in 2011, and it’s one of the pieces she showed that I want to focus on here. It’s called Front End, and at first glance appears to be a bit of a dog’s breakfast. It looks like an enormous snarl of vines and branches – vegetative detritus, really, that, outdoors, would handily make for the constituents of a backyard brush pile, with a bit of odd wire thrown in for good measure. It’s unkempt, it’s messy, it’s… a truck.
Well, the front end of one anyway, minus most of what might constitute the shell of bodywork. We’re talking about the technological guts of the thing, here: the tires (or rather gnarly aesthetic signifiers of such things, anyway), an engine of sorts (is that a carburetor up top?), radiator, front bumper, and even the steering wheel.
It’s 1:1 scale, or as close as you can get when dealing with the kind of abstraction that inevitably extrudes from the untidiness. And it’s something akin to a sculptural whirlwind; the twisting and tumbling of material carries with it the powerful suggestion of unarrested motion (it is a vehicle, after all). It’s even evocative of painterly brushstrokes rendered three-dimensionally.
And it’s important to note, here, that the piece is based on Rahme’s truck. This is personal, not aesthetically distant. There’s a sort of kinship to what we once called cargo cultism. It’s not that Rahme is fashioning a simulacrum of her vehicle as a form of distorted wish fulfillment, as a means of somehow magically willing a transformation of this sculpture into the real deal – into a consumer product. Rather, she’s manifesting quite the opposite: a thing of mass production become a one-of-a-kind, a thing of decades of technological innovation reverse engineered into something decidedly biotic, wires and pipes become branches and roots. With Front End, “transmission” ceases to be the noun it has evolved into.
Jannick Deslauriers (www.jannickdeslauriers.com) is a Québec-based textile artist. A graduate of Concordia University in Montréal, she’s shown throughout Canada and Europe. Like a number of other textile artists (Toronto-based Dorie Millerson who’s taken lace-making into the sculptural realm comes immediately to mind, but there are of course many others), Deslauriers has been using fabric and thread to create large sculptural pieces. At a glance they look a wee bit like soft sculpture, like something akin to one of Claes Oldenburg’s pieces. But this is work of an entirely different order.
There’s nary a hamburger around – this isn’t Pop in any way at all – and Deslauriers’s aesthetic interests orbit objects like a handheld drill, a sewing machine, a household trunk, an industrial crane, a house, a power pole, a…tank. Like soft sculpture, these pieces flop and are crooked and have trouble standing upright. They look wobbly and insubstantial. And they rely on outside help: Deslauriers suspends them from a gallery ceiling to hold their shape. Like the aforesaid tank.
Tank Textile is a piece comprise of white crinoline and thread. Nylon lines run from the ceiling to hold the work in three-dimensional space, as lumpy and saggy as it is. But it’s definitely a tank, alright, barrel and all. Beyond the armature of nylon lines that provides the sculptural to this work, it’s apparent that Deslauriers’s piece is in fact a drawing, albeit one rendered three-dimensionally. In our digital age, that’s nothing new, but Tank Textile is in no way a digital rendering. This is a thing of the hand, and while we typically regard thread as a device for joining things together – as structural – Deslaurier utilizes it aesthetically, thread as drawn lines. The juxtaposition of white crinoline and black thread makes this overtly apparent with Tank Textile.
Less so with a work in the recent exhibition Sentence, soufflé et linceul (literally translated as Sentence, breath and shroud). Tank Textile, despite it’s malevolent form had a benign quality to it, its lumpiness and sagging draining away the evil of the thing it replicated. But this, the central element of this show is so very much darker. It takes the form of an automobile – a smashed-up automobile. Laid out on a long plinth, it has an “Exhibit A” quality or aura about it, as if it were part of a display comprising a cautionary tale of what could happen if (if you drove too fast and recklessly, if you drove drunk, if…). The sagging and lumpiness of the textile form doesn’t drain away tension, here. Rather, it heightens it. A relatively benign form that is an everyday object achieves real malevolence. It’s the anti-tank. The doors are almost torn entirely from the body; the front end twists and sags in damaged ways; hub caps are entirely separated from wheels; the engine has fallen from its mounts and sits below the car… All of it wrought in fabrics and threads. And the work has a strange, overall sense of decay, as if it has been sitting somewhere for some time, being overgrown by vegetation.
But that’s all overt. What about subtleties? This piece might very well speak of the rise and fall of technology, of a society economically, socially, and politically structured around a kind of consumption in which the new means the abandonment of the old. We’ve all seen it: abandoned technology littering the landscape (cars, refrigerators, what have you). It’s the hollowing out of our world, its utter degradation courtesy the “something” of unfettered consumerism.
Works by Shelly Rahme and Jannick Deslauriers stand in place of, displacing (however briefly) the “something” of the engines that power unleashed greed. This is what art can do.
Long live standing in place of. And long live the displacers.
By Gil McElroy