Scream: Ed Pien and Samonie Toonoo

Samonie Toonoo, Missionary Man, Stone, antler, fur 9” x 8.5” x 2” (2007)

Ransacking the past, while denying any knowledge of it, has always kind of been the program for artists. Suppression of your antecedents is a good way to create a neat little package from your own historical moment. This was also true of pushed-to-the-sidelines non-Western traditions in art. A recent show of Picasso’s work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, for instance, gave viewers an eye-opening if perhaps not entirely intentional look at adjoining rooms full of his African and Oceanic source materials.

Not that it matters much at this point. Our own historical moment has a rather more pressing need to seek out continuities with the past and other artistic traditions. Motivated by this impulse, Scream helps to dismantle another long-standing partition, between Inuit art and contemporary practice. Scream is a companion exhibition to last year’s Noise Ghost, which featured Toronto’s Shary Boyle and Cape Dorset artist Shuvinai Ashoona, and takes a similar approach, pairing Ed Pien with Samonie Toonoo, artists who reside in the same two respective locations. Resonances in their work begin with an interest in the figure; it is a common denominator that points to a primordial intelligence always at work in art. Curator Nancy Campbell makes this reading explicit by titling the exhibition after the famous painting by Edward Munch. She connects three points on a map rendered in space and time. As the show makes apparent, once these connections are drawn, certain assumptions start to become undone.

Ed Pien, The Offering, ink and Flashe on paper, 152.5 x 171.5 cm (2009)

The expressive potential of the figure is powerfully put to use in Toonoo and Pien’s work. Toonoo presents stone carvings, embellished with detailing – of a fur fringe on a hood or a face, sometimes a skull, carved in bone. Each carving tells a story, often tragic. Pien’s drawings are created through a process he calls monoprinting. Taking quickly drawn sketches in coloured ink, he creates overlapping compositions with the wet ink applied to fresh paper, often placed on top of other drawings, or cut out and collaged together. Combined into large densely layered composite pictures, the effect is mesmerizing.

By strictly adhering to the elements of line and color, but at the expense of volume, Pien creates drawings that look stencil-like, and further evoke the ancient art of Chinese brush drawing. Pien is an Asian-Canadian who immigrated to Canada from Taiwan at the age of 11. While reminiscent of Chinese art traditions, the artist reports he developed the monoprinting process in the course of his art practice. The technique is entirely his own. Born into a family of artists, Toonoo has deep roots in the artmaking traditions of his people. He adds embellishments to traditional-looking stone carvings, such as a figure brandishing a wooden hockey stick, or cross hung around the neck of a hooded figure, to clearly place his work in the contemporary world. Detailing allows Toonoo to align obdurate stone and Inuit carving techniques with drawing, and drawing’s aptitude for editorial commentary.

Loss of a need for boundaries, between not only artmaking epochs but also artmaking traditions, suggests we have arrived at a historical moment free from pastiche. Instead, artists are seeking out the terms for a deeper kind of renewal. Once again art proves its relevance as a prognosticator of what is to come: a loss of dominance for the West in a Globalized world.

By Rosemary Heather

This text originally appeared in Hunter and Cook, Issue 07
Scream was presented by the Justine M Barnicke Gallery, University of Toronto from June 10 – August 21st, 2010

Ed Pien is represented by Pierre-Francois Ouellette Art Contemporain, Montreal
Samonie Toonoo is represented by Feheley Fine Arts

Collage: The Shock of the Newspaper

"I think photomontages function like dreams," says Kirstine Roepstorff.
Kirstine Roepstorff, Pink, 2004, Courtesy Galleri Christina Wilson

In his famous text Collage, written in 1959, Clement Greenberg talks about the “shock value” of the technique. Somewhat shocking in itself, the remark harkens back to a time when mere artistic innovation could have the power to be troubling. Little did Greenberg suspect that the alarm was justified. By introducing fragments from the outside world to the surface of the painting – real things like bits of newspaper, or oil cloth – Cubist period Picasso and Braque helped to predict the demise of old world aesthetic standards, a protracted process that art continues to undergo to this day.

An avant gardist himself in his critical practice, Greenberg was contemptuous of the then commonplace idea that the extraneous elements used by the Cubists represented the necessary corrective of “reality” in the face of the growing abstractness of Analytical Cubism.” Scoffing at the suggestion that things glued onto a painting’s surface were any more “real” than those depicted within the picture plane, he went to all but extraordinary lengths to prove why this might be true, and invented a theory of modernism in the process.

At the time, Greenberg’s argument that the cubist technique of “depicting flatness” – a painterly method of self-cancelling 3D illusionism – represented the salvation of the medium did have some persuasive value. In the 1950s, the class divide between high and low regimes of taste was readily apparent. It was a cultural climate that gave credence to one of the American critic’s more outlandish ideas: the notion that medium-specificity adhered to rigorously enough could make painting immune to the influence of the wider culture. But as with any self-regarding elite, whether persons or art practices, an insularity practiced to this extreme is in itself a kind of death knell.

What I am referring to here is not of course that perennially popular– and maybe finally over – conversation about the Death of Painting, but rather the connected event of the death of necessary skill or technique in art practice.

This was the future that was augured by collage. After all, when Braque stuck, as Greenberg says, “a very un-cubist graphic depiction of a tack with a cast shadow” onto his 1910 painting Still Life with Violin and Pitcher, he was not only placing it there as a reminder of the medium’s illusionistic past, he had also discovered an entirely new category for the practice of art, one that would go on to almost swallow the discipline whole: the readymade.

Although Duchamp’s innovation in this respect was roughly contemporaneous – and it was the French artist who made the possibility explicit – the Cubist choice of the still life as the genre best suited to their radical form of artistic experimentation looks, from the perspective of today, like nothing so much as the readymade’s foreshadowing.

Contrary to Greenberg’s argument, so elegantly rendered, about continuity of the aesthetic ideals that his version of modernism ensured, collage represented the first puncture hole in the visual arts’ commitment to the principles of classical culture. The moment of deflation that is collage, the implications of which Greenberg tried so hard to resist, was nothing so much as the noise of real life rushing in. Listen for it now and you can still hear the whooshing sound.

By Rosemary Heather

This text was commissioned for Fleur du Mal, 2007 (Daddy III. A project of Peres Projects, Berlin). Guest edited by Kirstine Roepstorff, Fleur du Mal can be purchased here.