Paul Petro Gallery, Toronto, July 13th – Aug 11th, 2007
By Rosemary Heather
Many people were struck by the confounding elegance of Eli Langer’s latest exhibition in Toronto. Like much contemporary art, you could ‘get it’ in an instant – but what you ‘got’, that was less certain.
A powerful florescent light eliminating all shadow enhanced the dazzling white ground of a painting hanging in the gallery’s window vitrine. Floating against this whiteness were a couple of insouciant washes of oil paint in purple and blue, the lines intersecting in the work’s upper right hand corner to make a 45 degree angle.
That this work has been described as both “Zen-like” and “baroque” gives an indication of the freshness of ground that the artist marks out with this exhibition.
In a media environment that thrives on monotony, shock, and repetition (this is what celebrities are for!) it is exceedingly difficult to create a visual frisson of the new. Much worthy art founders on exactly this rock of seeming overly familiar. Langer’s work in this show has the opposite effect; the artist combines familiar elements to free us from tired habits of looking.
A case in point is a sculpture leaning against the gallery’s back wall in the shape of a large but skinny black ‘x’. Attached to the axis where the two intersecting pieces of wood meet is a small black and white photograph. In it two women stand with their backs to the camera. Doubling the vista they contemplate is the vanishing point conjured by the ‘x’. Like the show as a whole, the work makes for a simple and yet highly sophisticated configuration of the problems of representation.
Across the room a companion piece leans against the wall. Titled, ‘Rum De Dum’ (2007), it features a tightly cropped photo of a woman’s face affixed to the top of a slender black piece of wood. Because the girl in the photo floats above the viewer’s head and touches the floor, the work enacts a literal disembodiment.
Langer speaks about these sculptures as “props,” as a way to position the image. They also serve a related function, as a means to reduce the referential power of the images. This is a canny double maneuver, pushing the show towards abstraction, but keeping it anchored in the real.
The two other paintings in the show echo the window piece’s minimal sensualism. It is the artist’s lightness of touch and assured aesthetic intelligence that allows for his extravagant use of pastels and wash. It is weirdly risky to create works that are this ethereal and pretty.
Although the people in the photos are key figures in Langer’s life, his work here is decidedly non-biographical. Like the disembodied girl’s face, small in scale, dreamy and distant, the artist seems to be pointing his audience in a direction away from humankind’s destructive self-absorption. Of a piece with the whole installation, the girl in ‘Rum De Dum’ is anonymous, just a part of nature. Her subjectivity, like the artist’s is in the work itself.
In this show, Langer uses modest means to deliver euphoric effects. In his return to the fine sensitivity of fine art –a practice long developed by the artist–he presages a massive cultural shift that seems all but imminent.