Text by: Andy Fabo
Penelope Stewart at Stride Gallery
A Canopy of Memory and Loss
“Now, a Gothic building is not merely a mass in movement; it mobilizes the spectator and turns an act of enjoyment into a process with a definite direction and gradual accomplishment. Such a building cannot be taken in all at once from any possible viewpoint: from no quarter does it present a complete restful view, disclosing the structure as a whole. On the contrary it compels the spectator to be constantly changing his viewpoint and permits him to gain a picture of the whole only through his own movement, action and power of reconstruction.”
Arnold Hauser, from the essay, “Dualism of Gothic”, The Social History of Art, Vol. .1, (Knopf, London, UK, 1957).
What compels Toronto artist, Penelope Stewart, to suspend a canopy of diaphanous organza printed with reconstructed segments of Gothic vaulting in a gallery on a busy downtown street in Calgary? It is doubtful that she’s responding to the architectural tenor of the city. My memory of Calgary, the city in which I was born but left almost thirty years ago, is that Neo-Gothic architecture has little visibility in Calgary because it was largely built after the love affair that Victorian architects had with the Gothic. There exists a few minor examples – various institutions of learning (the Great Hall of the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology) and the unassuming Cathedral Church of the Redeemer situated a few blocks from Stride Gallery – but they hardly warrant an artistic response.
Rather, Penelope Stewart’s installation seems to be playing on the obvious absence of the Gothic in Calgary in order to emphasize her representational strategy of displacement. This mechanism is fairly familiar to us now, seventy-five years after the advent of Surrealism. Perhaps the most memorable examples of displacement are René Magritte’s paintings in which he places giant mutants of ordinary objects such as an apple, a comb, a rose, a wineglass or a rock in a staid bourgeois room. In the 1960s Claes Oldenburg updated the maneuver by placing gigantic sculptural objects like baseball bats, lipstick tubes, hamburgers, clothes pegs in public squares and museums. Describing the shock of montage in Surrealism, the aesthetic philosopher, Theodor Adorno, has explained: “Alarmed, the sensorium becomes aware of the irrationality of the rational” [Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. R. Hullot-Kentor, (U. of Minnesota Press, 1997) p. 318] Placing a Gothic ceiling where one expects otherwise is a subtler but similarly disorienting gesture to the shocking juxtapositions of vintage Surrealism.
Indeed, relative to many recent installations utilizing the shock of the uncanny (where the ordinary is made strange through artistic intervention), Stewart’s work is deliberately understated. The images of Gothic vaulting are silkscreened with black ink on white gauze. She eschews the theatricality of Krysztof Wodiczko or Fast Würms for the subtler architectural insinuations of an artist like Robert Irwin. Stride is located in a stark Edwardian brick building (c. 1910) but the interior of the gallery does have a predominant feature left over from the 19th century. The ceiling is made of pressed tin, a vestige from William Morris and the ensuing Arts & Craft movement whose influence affected North American architecture and design well into the 20th century. When the light is right the observant viewer will spot this feature through the two slightly separated layers of printed see-through fabric that Stewart intends to install between the actual ceiling and the viewer. However, even if the stamped tin is obscured, the pitting of the two aesthetics is a significant part of the construction of the meaning of this installation.
It is generally accepted that the technological innovations of ribbed vaulting and exterior buttressing in the middle ages allowed for a new architecture of vertical sweeps, especially in Northern European cathedrals. Slender columns, peaked arches, and soaring ribbed groin vaults supported by flying buttresses created expansive spaces flooded with light from lofty nave and clerestory windows. The uplifting architecture enhanced the spiritual experience of cathedral visitors to the degree that, in spite of Gothic features having extensively incorporated in domestic and commercial architecture, a Gothic arch is still commonly seen as a signifier for a Christian church.
It is the groin vaulting – the metaphoric apex of Gothic aspirations – that Stewart inters above Stride’s viewers. The vaults are replicated from an unusual war memorial on the University of Toronto. Memorials are the reification of our discomfort with the rupture that death imposes on the fabric of our lives. In the spectrum of such terrible and jarring finality, deaths resulting from war are perhaps the most disturbing. Wars are redolent of mobilized destruction, carnage among soldiers and innocents, lives sacrificed for nationalism, ideologies and greed. Memorial monuments are commonly imposing cenotaphs or heroically scaled sculptures. The memorial from which Stewart draws is a modest edifice squeezed between two of the more imposing historical Victorian buildings on the campus, Hart House and University College. At first the structure seems protective: a portico, perhaps, or a manger recreated from a Medieval painting. It’s not until the passerby spots the names and dates carved into the back wall that the miniature colonnade’s function as a memorial becomes apparent.
Because of the subtlety of Penelope Stewart’s work, it’s not immediately how aggressively it wrestles with some of the major issues of art of the last century. The art-viewing public reacted with shock when artists like Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg began to silkscreen on canvas in the early sixties. With the triumph of Abstract Expressionism in the fifties, it had seemed that mimesis in advanced art had been abandoned once and for all. It was fine if photography, a mechanical and chemical process, became the vestige of mimesis in our culture, but it was disturbing for many when its visible manifestation returned to the domain of painting and photo-silkscreened images seemed even more emphatic mimetic than realistic painting. Critical strictures against the mimetic prevailed in this era dominated by Greenbergian precepts but there were significant dissenting voices such as Leo Steinberg and Theodor Adorno. It was not surprising that artists wished to shatter the illusion of its absence either by technical means as Warhol and Rauschenberg did or through philosophical inquiry as Jasper Johns did after the myopic assertions of late modernism.
Distant in time and set in stone, it is difficult for us to fully comprehend that Gothic architecture was marked by a provisional and dynamic energy compared to the stolid, rigidly hierarchical nature of the Romanesque and Byzantine period that preceded. Gothic cathedrals were frequently asymmetrical and inconclusive if not incomplete, belying the onerous burden of the projects. In his pivotal text, The Social History of Art, the art historian Arnold Hauser has argued convincingly that Gothic architecture wished to mobilize the viewers into an interactive relationship with their structures, bidding their visitors to take in many view points and experience the lyrical virtuosity of the architecture. Steward will anchors her images of ribbing in a casual symmetry; the ebb and flow of the Gothic rhythms moves the viewer’s body and eyes through the gallery space; the viewer contemplates the contradiction of picturing hewn stone on the softest of fabrics.
With this installation, Penelope Stewart also grapples with the place of the fragment in 21st century art. Many artists of my generation believed that we had invented the tentative and the fragmentary in response to our postmodern condition that so self-consciously became aware of while reading post-structuralist cultural theory. Nevertheless, Hauser clearly had given the notion a lot of thought by 1957 when he wrote: “ Since Gothic days all great art, with the exception of a few short-lived classicist movements, has something fragmentary about it, an inward or outward incompleteness, an unwillingness, whether conscious or unconscious, to utter the last word. There is always something left for the spectator or reader to complete.” [Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art, Vol. 1, (Knopf, London 1957) p.243] Adorno, an admirer of Hauser’s texts, had a similar insight after he examining the seeming contradictions in the interplay of expression, mimesis and construction. “Artists discover the compulsion towards disintegration in their own works, in the surplus of organization and regimen…However, the truth of such disintegration is achieved by way of nothing less than the triumph and guilt of integration. The category of the fragmentary – which has its locus here – is not to be confused with the category of contingent particularity: The fragment is that part of totality of the work that opposes totality.” [Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. R. Hullot-Kentor, (U. of Minnesota Press, 1997) p.45].
As in her previous installations, Penelope Stewart is able to use the fragment to scrutinize architecture from without. By transposing portions of monumental buildings into enigmatic veils and canopies she is able to begin to suggest the social and symbolic functions of architecture in our lives.
Andy Fabo, born in Bridgeland, Calgary, is a Toronto artist, critic, curator and educator.
Penelope Stewart was born in Montreal, Quebec. She received her BFA
from York University, Toronto and since graduating in 1989 has shown her work both Nationally and Internationally. Key exhibitions include; Traceries, Edward Day Gallery Toronto; Dictionary, Kunst & Complex, Rotterdam, The Netherlands; Sentinels. The notion of the measure Red Head Gallery, Toronto(2001), State Gallery, Vancouver (2002), Edward Day Gallery, Toronto (2003); Turning, Expression, St. Hyacinthe, Quebec (2001); Dream Ecology, the Koffler Gallery, Toronto (2000); Resident M e m o ry, Synagogue Palmovoca, Prague(1996);The House Project, To r o n t o , Ontario(1994). Stewart has received numerous grants and awards and two public commissions. In 2001-02, she was awarded the Nik Novak Scholarship at Open Studio, Toronto; 2002, an honourable mention/purchase award at the Fibreworks Biennale Cambridge Ontario; 2003, was artist in residence at the Kunst & Complex, Rotterdam, The Netherlands; 2004 honourable mention Ernst & Young Printmaking Competition. Her work is held in major Public and Private Collections; Department of Foreign Affairs, Ontario Securities Commision, Cambridge Galleries, National Library of Canada, Bibliotheque Nationale du Quebec, United Church of Canada. Penelope Stewart is based in Toronto and is represented by Edward Day Gallery, Toronto.