After “after the gleaners”

after the gleaners: Kay Cherniski
May 19 – June 10, 1995

a response to the exhibition by Michael Boss

The exhibition:
17 paintings (8 original and 9 copies of works by Vermeer, Daumier, Corot, Millet, da Vinci and Van Gogh) juxtaposed with the plates in the books from which the copies were made.

The subject matter:

genre; including flowers, portraits, landscape and animals.

The reaction:
Controversy: Why?

I believe it was because of the pervasive prejudices that this presentation confronted.

“What is this? What is the difference between these paintings and the paintings of any other copyist? I could understand if they were ironic, but where is the irony? Where is the originality? Where is the challenge? Where are the current issues? How can you consider these subjects, this approach, this attitude credible today? And, even if you can argue compellingly on behalf of the exhibition’s validity, how much of the credit can you attribute to the artist, and how much to the curator? Is the curator not merely projecting her own ideas onto work that is not related to those ideas?”

Such were the responses from viewers of this unusual and provocative exhibition.

I walked into Ace Art to view this show as a friend of both Kay, the artist, and Sigrid, the curator. Over the past several years I have become familiar with the work that each of them has produced. I was, however, pleasantly surprised to discover aspects of both that were new to me, or that I had forgotten. The exhibition afforded me an opportunity to both re-discover the respectable craftsmanship and personal perspective inherent in Kay’s work (some of which I hadn’t seen for several years) and to once again appreciate the quality of thought and sensitivity evident in Sigrid’s work – although this time it seemed to be rooted in territory that is less familiar to me. The exhibition was an unusual collaboration between artist and curator; one which delved beyond the obvious to explore many common assumptions that seem to underpin prevalent values in the contemporary art world.

What interested me most about the exhibition was the fact that in intention and execution it clearly stood outside the mainstream/maelstrom of issue-oriented art. The points that were so eloquently made by both Kay and Sigrid in after the gleaners were so fundamental and vital that they could be missed by those who were unable to check their expectations at the door. Apparently, many people who did attend the show were unable to accept or understand what they saw because of their pre-conceived ideas.

What was before us? To begin with, the exhibition was comprised of a series of paintings that demonstrate a technical proficiency and reflect a life experience that is found in far too few art school graduates. Yes, I admit, the Mona Lisa and the other reproductions are not likely to be mistaken for the originals (although the gleaners and irises give us a run for the money), but they exude the care, effort, idiosyncrasies and charm of their painter, and those qualities in themselves are worthy of attention. Their worth is not dependent on how faithful they are to the original, but rather on the intensity and clear thirst for knowledge from which they have sprung.

These works, by the way, were executed without the support net of a class of peers, the attention of a series of full-time professional instructors, an intensive four-year immersion into an art program, an extensive library of thousands of slides and thousands of art books, and access to the quantity and quality of contemporary and historical art available to people who live in urban centres.

These works were produced by Kay Cherniski, a self-taught artist from Brandon, who, over the past 12 years, has learned how to paint in a traditional, realistic manner by ‘gleaning’ as much information as possible from every book on painting that she could lay her hands on, and by attempting to replicate famous paintings from reproductions that have caught her eye. Kay reads voraciously and paints prolifically. Due to both practices she has acquired the substantial knowledge that has formed her style; a style that is both identifiable and resonant.

In the exhibition, the books that are juxtaposed with the copied paintings are evidence of Kay’s fervor. They are old, dog-eared and yellowed, well-thumbed and smeared with paint and masking tape residue. It is as if the artist has wrung the information out of each and every page. She has clearly pored over them with the sort of thoroughness that is hard to find in this age of instant gratification and short attention spans.

What is so compelling about the context and presentation of these books is that they chart the path the artist has taken in her personal quest for knowledge. They reverberate with the history of Kay’s journey and provide us with a metaphor for the artist’s passion to create that we can all relate to. After all, how can objects that are so well worn fail to reflect the character of their owner?

The other major achievement in this exhibition that is due to sensitive curating, is the combination of copies with original works that have grown out of the lessons Kay has learned from her ‘apprenticeship’ with old masters. Paintings like Conversation, Caught in the Act and Cold Kid – After the Swim are informed by, but not copies of, the previously executed reproductions. In her original work, Kay’s use of paint, lighting, colour, composition and form demonstrates a thoroughly digested knowledge and appreciation of her mentors’ work, which Sigrid was perceptive enough to recognize as subtle indicators of Kay’s self-directed education. She was also thoughtful enough to present them in a manner that would clearly emphasize this fact to the audience. What Sigrid has presented us with in after the gleaners is an alternative to the narrow, linear understanding of how knowledge is acquired and what constitutes sophistication. Most of us who attend exhibitions at artist-run centres, I would venture to say, belong to a class of people who have been university educated and, likely, university art educated. What we sometimes fail to recognize, because of our training, is that as much as we like to think of ourselves as liberal and free-thinking, we are products of a particular education system; one that has prejudices and hierarchies and is, all to often, convinced of the superiority of its values. For instance, how many of us reflexively refuse to consider wildlife as valid subject matter for ‘serious’ art? Could this be due to the fact that is does not correspond to the canon that we inherited during our post-secondary indoctrination?

It does not take long to determine that Kay has not been formed by that education system. Her art is the product of other values. It reflects her attitudes, interests and background. We, as sympathetic viewers, are compelled to accept her work on its own merits and critique it according to the rules she has engaged. Other rules don’t matter. Our expectations of the work must be based upon a game the artist and curator are playing. And according to that game, these are rich and wonderful paintings. They are sincere expressions that clearly indicate the artist’s knowledge of her craft and understanding of the language of visual communication. The particular themes she has chosen to address and the perspective from which she addresses them are not at issue. What is at issue is how capably she deals with the concerns she has raised.

Now, although the exhibition is a collaboration, the idea behind its final presentation really rests with the curator. Sigrid intended to enter into a dialogue with her audience, and this is exactly what a curator ought to do. She has employed (not appropriated or exploited) Kay’s work to set the stage for discussions. Again, this is a curator’s role. What is interesting to me in this case, and has been a sore spot with some members of the audience, is that the artist herself would not likely have raised these issues and, perhaps, may not have been aware of their existence. Kay is not necessarily acquainted with, or interested in, the finer points of deconstructivist doctrine and aesthetics, yet Sigrid’s presentation seems to suggest that the work is deconstructivist in nature. This raises an interesting question about the curator’s role; her power to direct interpretation and understanding of the artwork. Although I know that it is not uncommon for a curator to assume an authoritative stance and to guide understanding, in this instance the curator is as much of a participant as the artist. She is not claiming authority over anything other than her own perceptions. What this collaboration has made me realize is that theory and practice can simultaneously co-habit in a body of work, and yet can also occure quite independently of each other. More simply put; Kay’s images can be used to demonstrate a theory which she herself would not claim to subscribe to. This really shouldn’t be too surprising however, because upon examination isn’t that the way we find theory generally works; as a synoptic glance at what has been, or is being, practiced?

In the end, the exhibition is provocative and thoughtfully presented. It intentionally confronts our prejudices and challenges us to re-evaluate our assumptions about the nature of art. Similarly, we are compelled to examine the role of the curator, for the curator and artist have become symbiotically intertwined in an extraordinary manner; a situation which makes the end product difficult to categorize. In fact the viewer may be required to create a new category in order to justly acknowledge the curator’s and artist’s achievements.

The paintings, which were the catalyst for the exhibition, serve as evidence of the role that honest, direct painting continues to play in our society. It is interesting to note that even given the apparent simplicity of the artist’s intent, the paintings are able to provoke complex responses and become the focus of a provocative debate. Therefore, the germ of these ideas must somehow, in some way, be contained within the work itself. Ideas are not generated in a vacuum; they require a catalyst. Kay’s work clearly, but unexpectedly, provides one.

Perhaps what is most important, after all is said and done, is that these paintings and this exhibition exemplify Kay’s resourcefulness and sincerity and the persistence of her vision. This exhibition reminds us of the inevitable fact that alternative approaches to art (and life) always exist, but that they are only as viable as we allow them to be.

Michael Boss is an artist and writer living in Winnipeg