WHAT IS VISIBLE: Robert Lemay’s 20th anniversary show
Douglas Udell Gallery, Edmonton
Until October 15, 2005
By Gilbert A. Bouchard
Our postmodern era’s love of historic juxtaposition has proven to be a challenge for visual artists.
Suddenly freed from traditional constraints of highbrow art conventions, artists can now move between graphic realities and genres, copying and commenting from any and all visual art references — from sketches taken on a trip to Europe’s historic great galleries to lowbrow comic books and advertisements to images lifted off of the TV.
Ironically enough, many artists have reacted poorly to this surplus of sources. Traps include falling to pastiche, surface quotations or simply ignoring the aesthetic possibilities arising from wild visual choice and sticking doggedly (or even dogmatically) to a single, albeit limited, vocabulary choice, be it high modern abstracts or highly mannered pop culture collages.
Then you have artists like Edmonton’s Robert Lemay. This longtime, still-life painter represented by Douglas Udell Gallery (his 20-painting-strong 20th anniversary show What is Visible on exhibit October 1 - 15) manages to make the open-ended possibilities of postmodern/poststructuralist quotation work for him, but in a surprisingly subtle and beautifully old-school fashion.
Lemay deftly works in his wildly contrasting visual touchstones — paying homage to the brilliantly naturalistic (Baroque) art produced between 1600 to 1750 as well as to contemporary interior design — in a way that contains the contrasts in a highly crafted and highly mannered series of work while giving his sources enough intellectual room to develop on their own.
History lives and breathes in an engaged 21st century context in these high-veracity works while the modern touches are all lovingly grounded in their respective historical contexts.
Of course, this genre-busting reality is not totally an invention of our era. Lemay himself notes that his interest in the Baroque has everything to do with the fact that it was the time period when all our modern artistic genres emerged as separate realities along with the artistic dialogue that has defined their reality since.
Hence, understanding Baroque genres and quoting them in enough clarity in a pomo context is an easy way of deconstructing the core idea of genre in full cross-history context, or rather allowing the work to gently deconstruct itself. (This theoretical layering sits in the title of the show: a quote from the writing of John “Ways of Seeing” Berger, a commentator who asserted that Baroque painting was a great leap forward in depicting the hard and fast realities of an increasingly materialistic 17th century world. It doesn’t take too much of a stretch to see how cleanly that great paradigm shift applies to our own object-oriented and complex era.)
While past shows of Lemay’s have riffed off of openly consumer-oriented Baroque traits like the deployment of luxurious draperies and table covers matched by exuberant, overflowing mounds of cut flowers and produce, this particular show sees him playing in a more openly self-referential manner.
These are far more ‘dramatic’ works boasting simple arrangements of dramatically lit flowers, vases and fruit on stark brown-black backgrounds. The effect is as if the objects were being lit in an artificial black-box theatre fashion, creating work-aware-of-being-work (after all, what is more ‘staged’ than a still life) that revels in its modern esthetic owing as much to contemporary photography and fancy design magazines as early Spanish still-life artists.
These stark and pared-down compositions — some with only a single blossom — also embrace the self-awareness of spirituality, aiming both for the ideal of Zen simplicity and controlled contemplation as it does the more Christian-friendly concept of the religious altar-piece and the deep western interconnections between theatre, visual art and religion. (Again, connections that just wait to be plucked from the work rather than being forced into being: Lemay’s work while endlessly eloquent pointedly skirts the didactic.)
Lastly, Lemay openly addresses the postmodern in a newish array of highly contemporary fragmented images he calls the "Matrix" series: simple still-life compositions of flowers or fruit daringly (for him) broken up over six to 12 smaller canvases. This process calls attention to the painterly reality of the work by eschewing any easy naturalism and allows more-abstract-than-not effects (Lemay opens up the work to maximum viewer participation by inviting the future owners of the work to experiment with different hanging arrays).
Ultimately all still lifes, heck all art, is created in the viewer’s mind, an issue Lemay forces — in his typically low-key fashion — with these Matrix works. Truly this underlines both his radical openness vis-a-vis influences as well as demonstrating his ever-growing self-confidence as an artist.