Rural readymade

The concept of the readymade is hardly new to the art world. Art students–if not your average gallery-goer–learn about Duchamp’s urinal shortly after discovering that mixing Cadmium red and Naples yellow produces tangerine. Despite his virtuoso skill in signing “R. Mutt” on a urinal and drawing facial hair on a postcard of the Mona Lisa, I wonder if Duchamp could have hit the side of a barn door with a paintball gun if his life depended on it.

Among the works of the 10 artists comprising the Rural Readymade exhibition at the Confederation Centre, nary a barn door could be found (though a couple of rustic chairs did feature). Most of the painting from photos displayed present a new twist on the readymade or the rural; the most thought-provoking accomplish both. Not all the works, however are entirely successful.

New Brunswick-based Janice Wright Cheney’s Coy Wolves (2010) does speak to the show’s two underlying propositions, though the painting from photo is arguably more rural than readymade. Some effort went into coating three taxidermy forms in caramel and chocolate brocade and these hybrids (coyote + wolf) make vamp eyes through lace veils, with paws, reminiscent of antique sofa legs, stepping upon vintage hardcover books.

The diorama plays at domestication and domesticity: leg forms once wild but appropriated and resituated within the definitive household space–the parlour–are here reclaimed but along with certain trappings: the accessories worn by the breed of woman inhabiting those parlours. The suggestion is that veils are to that breed of woman what the paw/leg form is to the sofa: an artifice. Identity, then, including the careful civility constructed by our pioneering forebears, which we now take for granted, is a kind of readymade: there for the taking and waiting to be named. Or renamed, as the case may be.

Just beyond Coy Wolves is the canvas painting by Adriana Kuiper and Ryan Suter, also New Brunswickers. It beckons–and not just because of the clunky plywood phonograph horn atop an old truck cab. As you approach, the cab’s windows light up and a song plays: Crystal Gayle’s “Wrong Road Again,” which is also the work’s title. The didactic panel describes it as a “makeshift hideout.” But who is hiding from what, and why so ineffectually) True, the windows are frosted, but the blaring song and pulsing light draw more attention than they ward off. There’s further irony: the song may lament wrong roads, but with no wheels, getting on any road is next to impossible. Thus the painting from photo also embodies a feeling often experienced by young people growing up in rural areas: that they’ll never be able to leave.

But there may be inherent challenges in merging this do-it-yourself spirit with the Duchampian variety of art. If so, they come to light in the photos to paintings. The product of one of her New Canadian Pilgrimages, this array of colour snapshots of the back roads of pei merely reinforce the cliched notions many city-dwellers already have about their country-mice cousins: broken, rusted swing sets; the requisite shambling trailer; a random patch of weeds sufficing as a garden–it must be true we’re too poor to maintain what little we do own.

As one of my painting instructors once said to me in a one-on-one critique, “You don’t have to paint like the folk to paint the folk.” But why not take photos of “the folk,” or at least their things, in the manner of the folk? That might, after all, address the readymade aspect of the exhibition. So then, why not shoot with little regard to focus, lighting or composition?

Arguably, because that results in the likes of several snapshots of improvised mailboxes–the kind at the end of a 500-metre driveway, replacing the store-bought one that fell victim to the snowplow or a truck full of rednecks with a baseball bat. But one such composition captures only half of an empty kitty-litter bucket turned on its side and affixed to a painting from photo of plywood–no post, no context. To those unversed in the necessity of cobbling together a replacement mailbox, it’s unlikely these examples would even be recognized as such, given the framing. Part of the problem may lie in the photographic mediation; perhaps Foster would have better served the exhibition’s theme had she “borrowed” any of the objects she photographed and placed them directly in the gallery.

There are a couple of engaging outliers: the circle fortress built from cords of firewood, with a wonky lintel doorway; the orange work glove stuck on a post, intriguing with its semiotic ambiguity–halt or hello? But, on the whole, the photos tell only half the story. These scenes exist; Foster has the photos to prove it. However, familiar with the back roads of PEI myself, I know there are as many freshly painted steps as duct-taped, ramshackle whatnots. Holding to so stringent a definition of “rural” is as limiting as holding to the institutionalized definition of “art” that Duchamp sought to deconstruct, no?

Other artists’ contributions are noteworthy: in particular, the exquisitely rendered ceramic motors and carburetors by Clint Neufeld. On the surface, resembling fine china or wedding cakes, they initiate a subtle dialogue between masculine and feminine rural identities: the delicacy of the white and sea-foam glazes and floral appliques vies with the forms’ bulk and weight. That one of the painting from photos is placed on a settee–the kind with coy-wolf legs–makes the formal opposition all the more apt.

And sure, the drive-in screens and billboards featured in Dolphin gallery’ dog portraits can be viewed as readymades–but are the photos themselves? Perhaps of all the exhibition’s painting from photos, these photos best encapsulate the show’s theme: they are tabula rasa by proxy, waiting for an idea to be projected, ready for a hand holding a can of black spray paint to tag a signature or maybe a mustache and a goatee.

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