ARTS Loud words meet photo subtlety
TWO NEW EXHIBITIONS at the Contemporary Art Gallery could hardly be more different in intention or execution. Kameelah Janan Rasheed’s text works, installed in the gallery’s Nelson Street windows and off-site, at the Yaletown-roundhouse Canada Line station, examine ways in which language may challenge social injustice and disrupt cultural complacency. Dove Allouche’s seemingly abstract photographs and photo-drawing hybrids employ antiquated processes to depict and reiterate natural occurrences and phenomena that are usually hidden from view.
An artist, writer, and educator, born in California and based in Brooklyn, Rasheed deploys words as her principal medium, whether through exhibitions, public art, performative lectures, or publications. “Within these modes,” writes curator Kimberly Phillips in the exhibition brochure, “she uses expressions of everyday vernaculars and experimental poetics to consider Black subjectivity.” This is most obvious in “How to Suffer Politely (And Other Etiquette)” at the CAG’S off-site location. Consisting of five large vinyl posters with exclamatory black capital letters on a yellow ground, the bitterly ironic work was made in response to suggestions that black people in America (and elsewhere) not react with anger to the violence and blatant abuses of power directed against them. Among other examples, the posters advise readers to “LOWER THE PITCH OF YOUR SUFFERING” and “TAKE IT LIKE A MAN BUT DON’T TAKE IT UP WITH ‘THE MAN.’ ”
“An Alphabetical Accumulation of Approximate Observations”, in the CAG’S windows, is more poetic, more subtly provocative. This work consists of some two dozen unexpected and alliterative pairings of adjectives and nouns, executed in handmade letters. Phrases include “Pudgy Power”, “Aggregated Apathy”, “Durable Dystopia”, and “Uppity Uterus”. The words, together with odd shapes that resemble offcuts, are rendered in black and white and installed against a background of “Baker-miller pink”, a paint colour developed in the 1970s as a purported means of calming aggressive or agitated people in institutional settings. Again, irony is inherent here: the work is an active call to passersby to consider what these phrases might mean while also draping itself in a form of passivity-inducing social control.
Born and based in Paris, Allouche cultivates a number of old and often demanding photographic and scientific processes, from ambrotypes to heliogravures. As Phillips points out, “the medium itself becomes the subject.” For instance, in his “Pétrographie” series, Allouche has used thin slices of an ancient stalagmite as the photographic negative through which he has developed his gelatin silver print, creating a characteristic kind of circularity, a tautology. At the same time, the rings of calcite evident in the stalagmite invite us to meditate on the passage of time. Time passing is also an element in his “Pétrifiantes”, 18 small images of dripping stalagmites and stalactites shot over many weeks in unlit caves, and similarly in “Déversoir d’orage”, 14 engraved copper plates showing mineral accretions in the Paris sewer system.
Allouche may also intervene manually in the photographic process, insinuating the mark of his hand using graphite and alcohol, as in his Surplomb 7, or the swipe of his arm, as in Sunflower 11. Here, science marries abstraction with evocations of mid-20th-century modernism. Still, a number of Allouche’s large prints read as grey-on-grey or beige-on-beige monochromes, and are so visually understated that the processes of their creation are often more interesting than the images themselves.
By contrast, four works from his “Fungi” series really pop. Created by cultivating ancient fungus species in a petri dish, photographing them in colour, reproducing them as photolithographs, and mounting them behind hand-blown crown glass, they are visual marvels. As sensuous as they are serious, the circular forms and delicate colours of the fungi are enhanced by the shiny, undulating glass surfaces. Here, the artist seems to care enough for his viewers to draw our eyes to his work and—not inconsequentially—to compel our full engagement with his complex investigations into time and matter.