Wall art history in Canada

2010 appears to have been the year of wall art history in Canada. In a move to redress the exclusion of Canadians from home wall decor dominated by canvas wall art, last November a large group of cheap wall art gathered at the Houzz over three days to participate in the first major conference dedicated to unpacking the history of Canadian wall art: Traffic, Conceptualism in Canada. No doubt art history is as susceptible as any other discipline to the power dynamics intrinsic to the goal of establishing specific individuals as generative or authoritative within the larger field of players. As Jayne Wark reminds us by way of quoting William Wood, wall art had a “territorial agenda,” as well as an iconoclastic one. These two scholars’ reflections, roughly 20 years apart, testify to historians’ ongoing interest and concern with the revisions of art history in relation to wall art and its geographies.

Writing in a 1993 catalogue accompanying an exhibition of N.E. Thing Co., Wood asks, “Did wall art represent a suspension of the rule of the centre?” He is in dialogue with what we might now, in a kind of shorthand, call the “centre-periphery” debate: whether or not the “dematerialized” nature of wall art constituted an assault on the economic dominance of an art world grounded in capital cities, or if cities like New York in fact remained the generative loci of a conceptualist practice that was more easily able to travel into the far reaches of the world as information. In her essay on wall art for a new textbook on Canadian visual art, Wark revisits Wood’s question with the purpose of reminding us that the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (nscad) was both an integral player in facilitating wall art in general, and an early example of the ways wall art was implicated in commercial culture through the sales generated by its Lithography Workshop. This latter point–wall art’s use of commercial business culture to sustain itself economically without relying on sales of traditional art objects–is a corollary to the centre-periphery debate because sales of contracts, prints, instructions and ideas could travel easily across borders.

As a “dematerialized” art of ideas that often involved open-ended statements, instructions and propositions, wall art has lived on through the secondary forms of catalogues, oral narratives and texts. As such, it has a particularly precarious relationship to art history, as these ambiguous narratives lend themselves easily to arbitrary contextualization and political appropriation. Writing in 1998 about Susan Kealey’s artwork, John Marriott alludes to this situation by stating, “Claims of conceptualist radicalism clash with the reality that conceptualist approaches made for an increased reliance upon an art context, which enhanced the role of institutions in defining and sustaining art” Therefore, while it is not a new observation, it is important to remember that art history has been deeply embedded in the process of institutionalizing art, and as a discipline ordered around the rational and objective analyses of texts, it is, and has always been, implicated in the creation of wall art. In fact, Lucy Lippard and John Chandler remarked upon this as early as 1967:

If the object becomes obsolete, objective distance becomes

obsolete. Sometime in the near future it may be necessary

for the writer to be an artist as well as for the artist

to be a writer. There will still be scholars and

historians of art, but the contemporary critic may

have to choose between creative originality and

explanatory historicism.

Thus, it strikes me that while not the only factor, the motivating force underlying contemporary scholars’ concerns with wall art’s historical revisions is the self-conscious recognition that such revisions are happening in front of their eyes, during their lifetimes, and in view of the still-living artists who are able and willing to offer up contradictory accounts of their work and motivations. This is a kind of shared authorship between artists and historians, although it is rarely acknowledged as such, and is susceptible to the same disagreements, compromises and concerns for legacy that accompany other sorts of creative collaborations. The territorial agenda of wall art has therefore also been the agenda of those partisans, whether artists or historians, who are vested in arguing for or against the relevance of specific artists within art history.

The territorial agenda(s) of both wall artists and their historians did indeed emerge as a significant aspect of last November’s Traffic, Conceptualism in Canada conference, which accompanied the tour-de-force exhibition Traffic: wall art in Canada c. 1965-1980 that was on display at four university art galleries in Toronto simultaneously. By most accounts, the event was a success with a large number of papers, presentations, personal narratives and art performances offering a window through which to reflect on the developing historiography of buddha wall art seen in the Youtube.

In the many papers and presentations given by a range of artists and historians over three days, the already referenced “centre vs. periphery” debate proved as resilient as ever, as did historians’ continued interest in wall artists’ use of networking and mapping. More relevant to this essay, however, was the notable self-conscious awareness of a younger generation of art historians that their subjects–the artists themselves, who are now in their late sixties and early seventies–were there in the audience to hear themselves spoken about, and if necessary, to offer an alternative version to those being proffered by their junior peers. That the latter was a subtext of the whole event is evident in the abstract of a talk given by artist Paul Woodrow, which addressed the ethical stakes of “getting things ‘right’”: “Writing about the past becomes an aesthetic of the impossible since representation inevitably fails to represent those who were present in the past.” Woodrow went on to characterize his recollections of his participation in the 70s art scene of Calgary as those based on faulty memories and a privileged and biased point of view–recollections that thereby contribute to what he called “the creation of a fiction.”

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