The first thing I encounter upon entering “The Accursed Share” at Artspeak is a scent. “A fancy grandma’s house,” my gallery companion assesses. The scent emits from Aleesa Cohene’s You, Dear (2014), in which a large bunch of faux grapes is placed on the floor. Upon closer inspection, the decorative fruit is something much more elegant—in fact, it’s opulent.
Each grape is made from the semi-precious stone onyx—and more likely to be a jewel on the neckline of that fancy grandma. Together, the bunches form a palette of milk, pale green, and bands of auburn that obscure a device diffusing the indistinct scent. As a talisman, onyx is considered a protective stone that absorbs and transforms negative energy (specifically, melancholy) to preserve your personal energy, providing both stability and security. Given grapes, we are presented with a symbol of antiquated hedonism—a theatrical form of relaxation or indulgence. Instead of a soft bulb, the hardened onyx begs to be swallowed to metabolize negativity. Fancy grandma is now New Age grandma; either way, they’re both wealthy and need the stones to sustain their passions.
Deborah Edmeades’ curriculum of invented mysticism contains titles that sound right out of the esoterica section of a used bookstore. Divination, Chance & Character: Tools for the Extension of Sensibility (Index) (2016) is a series of works on paper that includes eight illustrations against soft pink blobs. The composition is divided into panels like a set of arcane motivational posters. Depicting epistemic subjects like books, color wheels (one drawn in the place of Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel), an artist, and spiritual teacher, each illustration is accompanied by a cryptic phrase like, “THE FOUNTAIN/GOD IS WET/(OH MY GOD!)” and “YEARNING/MEDIEVALISMS, LANDSCAPE/FOLKLORE & PROPAGANDA.”
One of these phrases is the title for an adjacent sculpture, Blinking and Other Involuntary Portals, a complex assemblage of technology and natural elements. Two pairs of eyes face each other across a canyon of black cables and dainty modules. With color wheels for irises, the eyes blink and swing, rocking back and forth on a skinny fixture. Their motion is powered by the physics that propel corporate desktop kitsch, like Newton’s cradles or drinking birds. Each set of eyes directly faces a camera and monitor that feeds back footage from the opposite side.
Edmeades’ harnessing of natural and technological forces is something to behold. Couched by her visual markers and vernacular of the posters, the cables forged between blinking eyes convey the impression that New Age rhetoric and science are slyly holding hands. It’s a bit like looking at a brain. We might know how it works, but trying to reconcile what the meeting of signals and neurons might express socio-politically results in an uneasy dynamic between scientific knowledge and our pursuit of profundity. Perhaps we prefer conjecture when it comes to observing our human nature.
On the gallery walls, Derek Dunlop’s suite of soft-hue monochromatic and color-block paintings conjure the sublimated spirituality of 1940s and ’50s color-field painting. These works are seemingly possessed by the customary immanence that hearkens that moment in the history of painting. Dunlop’s coherent occupation with color, its application, and aim for affect takes strides from the intellect amassed between Yve-Alain Bois, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Clement Greenberg. Though I don’t recall Georges Bataille being invited to that particular cabal, he wrote The Accursed Share around the same time.
The quotation marks in the exhibition’s title, “The Accursed Share,” might serve to present Bataille’s concept as a citation—a segregated grain of thought—prescribing critics and viewers to revisit the essay, but this critic will confess that she protests this homework. Each individual work occupies its space in the gallery with a well-articulated, separately forged modus operandi of its own. In conjuring such a canonical text, the exhibition draws the risk of strong-arming the artwork next to a distinct program of intellect, and creates the unnecessary obstacle of deciding whether or not it is connected to Bataille in a more profound way.
The artworks share a lack of specific attributes that would demonstrate an urgent relationship to the philosophy. Nonetheless, the works are curatorially assembled here to recuperate the notion of art as a form of expenditure (“Art is useless to practical or instrumental concerns”) by positioning it as the activity and arena where our humanity can unravel (“and yet it is an essential sign of what it means to be human”). The desire to convert our proclivity for squandering into a discursive art practice is much like the artists mining the holistic forces and energy conceived around gemstones, aromatherapy, abstract paintings, or physics, by treating ideas as amulets, or vice versa. Their commonality is simple and irrefutable, but the philosophical backdrop takes us on a grand and extraneous detour away from what each artwork is really doing, only to return to the general feeling of art as life-affirming.
“The Accursed Share” is on view at Artspeak in Vancouver through May 21, 2016.