Ontario College of Art & Design’s professional gallery space, Onsite [at] OCAD U, is raw and industrial. Its warehouse-like ambiance is enhanced by the cinder block walls, industrial piping crisscrossing the ceiling, and bank of floor-to-ceiling windows facing the street. These features present a number of restrictions when mounting an exhibition, a challenge for artists and curators in this unconventional gallery setting. In No Dull Affairs, the current exhibition there curated by Lisa Deanne Smith, each artist experiments with the concept of site specificity in a way that complements their individual aesthetics and bodies of work. While Jillian McDonald’s video Valley of the Deer (2012) responds heavily to the landscape and cultural mythology of Dufftown, Scotland, the site of her 2012 Glenfiddich International Artist’s residency, Karen Lofgren and Vanessa Maltese respond directly to the gallery’s architectural elements.McDonald’s video installation Valley of the Deer (2012) is a lush, dense narrative. The saturated colors and digital effects give the vast Scottish landscapes something of a tilt-shift effect due to variations in focus and depth of field. As a result, some of the scenery resembles model landscapes, an effect heightened by the appearance of surreal figures (locals from Dufftown and workers from the Glenfiddich whiskey distillery, who sway back and forth while wearing various animal masks, taxidermied heads, and skulls). McDonald created the costumes and masks on site in response to the landscape and incorporated local folklore into the piece, primarily relating to the mythological stag featured in Glenfiddich’s iconic logo. The title of the piece also relates to Glenfiddich and the rural Scottish location; the translation of Glenfiddich from Gaelic to English is “valley of the deer.”
Much of McDonald’s recent video work, including Valley of the Deer, plays off classic horror movie tropes. There is an underlying uneasiness in the video installation, heightened by the droning vocal backdrop composed by Dave Roberts and sung by Ealeen Strathdee. While macabre in tone, the video serves as a romantic testament to the Scottish landscape. The combination of sights and sounds leaves the viewer consistently on edge despite the piece’s languid progression and the fact that nothing particularly horrific happens. By creating an affective experience that speaks to the camp qualities found in many horror films, McDonald highlights the type of visceral yet predictable experiences that continually draw audiences back. Minimalist and conceptual, Lofgren’s Pole Extrusions (2012) and Stabilizers (2012, 2013), placed throughout the gallery space, stand in stark contrast to McDonald’s work. Pole Extrusions consists of playful and texturally rich cylindrical silicone forms that extrude from industrial pipes made of copper and aluminum, mirroring the piping that runs along the gallery’s ceiling. These marbled silicone constructions appear to be forcing their way out of their confining structures, visually evoking the core samples that geologists extract from the earth in order to measure its solidity and composition. Lofgren’s Stabilizers are particularly successful in expressing their intended site specificity. Some have been constructed prior to the exhibition, while others were constructed specifically for the gallery, adhering themselves to the space almost parasitically. If you don’t look carefully, you’ll entirely miss Stabilizer #3 (2013), nestled by the ceiling in a recessed corner, camouflaged against the monochromatic gray concrete blocks and silver-gray electrical conduits surrounding it. Similar to Lofgren’s successful Gold Flood (2009), the Stabilizers play a trick on the eye—they appear to look like a cast molten metal—but are in fact meticulously constructed out of expandable foam and coated in automotive paint. These pieces open up a dialogue with both the formalist aspects of sculpture, particularly weight and texture, and the spatial construct of the white cube gallery. Like Lofgren, Maltese works within the minimalist tradition, though her pieces are strikingly intricate and methodical. Maltese, 2012 winner of the prestigious RBC Canadian Painting Competition, has gained recognition for her complex paintings that play with the formalist aspects of the medium with a particular focus on the concept of framing. The installations in this show continue the natural trajectory of her work over the last couple of years: a transition from paintings with sculptural elements to paintings based on sculptural constructions to hybrid sculpture-paintings. Although the work in this exhibition could be classified as sculpture, this sort of strict label doesn’t do justice to the precarious, delicate balance between painting and sculpture found in Maltese’s work. The majority of Maltese’s pieces featured in No Dull Affairs respond directly to the gallery itself and display her signature ability to isolate patterns and shadows. Maltese was given her own set of keys and visited the site often in order to develop the work on display. The most evident nod to site specificity is found in Variation of a Baseboard-Pipe Track (2013), a vinyl “track” circling the gallery that mimics an overhead pipe. Within the context of an art gallery, this reference to an often overlooked architectural detail provokes questions about the ways we view objects within the gallery space and serves as a cheeky critique of the white cube. Her other assemblages are delicately framed and modestly placed within the confines of this vinyl border, further probing the constructs of the representational frame of the gallery.
While each of the works in the show is site responsive in some way, the connection is subtle, particularly in the instance of Maltese’s installation. In order to fully appreciate the exhibition, visitors should move through the space at an unhurried pace, allowing the nuanced complexities within these highly resolved pieces to reveal themselves.
No Dull Affairs, curated by Lisa Deanne Smith is on view at Onsite [at] OCAD U, in Toronto, through October 12, 2013.