Between Brandon and Barbizon: What I Learned from Kay Cherniski

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

a response to the exhibition by Sigrid Dahle

“When Minimalist painting was the rage in university departments all over the country, a New York critic toured some of the major Midwestern schools. He saw canvas after abstract canvas, but they tended to be strangely gray compared to the paintings he knew in New York. Finally he realized the problem. Midwestern students had been getting their information about Minimalism from the art journals, and the gray tones represented what happened to an abstract painting after it was put through a color-separation process and was printed as a photolithograph in an art magazine.”1

I don’t know which came first: my reading of the ARTnews text cited above or my encounter with Kay Cherniski’s work. I do know, however, that over time, the two of them, text and image, became inextricably linked in my imagination. This unexpected coupling spawned a controversial exhibition whose implications and evocations continue to haunt my work as a curator, theorist and art writer. The so-called “original” event, the exhibition entitled after the gleaners, was presented by Ace Art, May 19 – June 10, 1995; it marked my first foray into performative curating as well as Kay Cherniski’s first one-person exhibition in Winnipeg.

I met Kay in 1987 during my tenure as director/curator at the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba in Brandon. Both of us were neophyte cultural producers. I had just graduated from the School of Art, University of Manitoba and Kay, a Brandon-based artist, had begun painting seriously four and half years earlier on January 22, 1983 at 9:30 am:

“I wanted to paint all my life.. and I always kept saying that some day I would paint.. and finally I decided at that point I better get with it…because I was 50 years old and recently retired (from a job as a bookkeeper and office manager).” 2

Like many self-taught artists, Kay turned to “how-to-books,” community-based painting classes and workshops 3 and joined a local painting club for information and support (just as I, a self-trained cultural theorist and art writer turned to theoretical texts, public lectures, writing workshops and artist-run centres for my development). Following an old tradition, Kay decided to make copies of “master paintings” as a way of expanding her knowledge (just as I replicated traditional curatorial approaches early in my career). Because the Art Gallery of Southwestern is situated at the end of the street where Kay lives – rather than the Louvre, Riksmuseum or van Gogh Museum – Kay worked from reproductions of paintings found in books (just as I began by working from the curatorial models immediately available to me).4

“[Initially] I was afraid to paint people. I figured if you were working in oils you have to do scenery; it’s a psychological thing, I guess. And then I copied The Gleaners and everything changed – which I intended to do all my life – which was to have a picture of The Gleaners hanging in my living room. Because it hung in the school. And when I painted that, my blood just started to boil – it was like a horse race and the horse was coming in and then I knew that I wanted to paint people.”5

In the years prior to the Ace Art exhibition, Kay alternated between forging images of her own construction and originating paintings from “master work” reproductions. In addition, she studied art history texts with meticulous care, visiting and revisiting some books on a yearly basis because she recognized that her reading of a particular text changed over time.6 It was through the work of the canonized “greats” – as mediated by photo-based reproductions and the writings of the art historians who valourized them – that Kay found the compositional and painterly templates through which to make subjectively meaningful symbolizations. For the most part, her images speak to the pleasures, sorrows, struggles and conundrums that constitute everyday life lived with other people: the wonder of grandchildren, the wearisome dignity of labour, the comfort afforded by domestic rituals, the enigma of housecats. And though Kay talks nostalgically of the simplicity and forthrightness that characterized the “good old days” of her rural childhood, an ethos she aims to embody in her painting, her images generate complex, ambiguous, intense and contradictory effects, rendering them amenable to a wide range of interpretations – including mine. In other words, Kay makes art.

In many respects, Kay Cherniski’s art practice embodies psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott’s ruminations on culturemaking:

“In using the word culture I am thinking of the inherited tradition. I am thinking of something that is in the common pool of humanity, into which individuals and groups of people may contribute, and from which we may all draw if we have somewhere to put what we find …. in any cultural field it is not possible to be original except on a basis of tradition… The interplay between originality and the acceptance of tradition as the basis for inventiveness seems to me to be just one more example, and a very exiting one, of the interplay between separateness and union.” 7

I distinctly remember the first time I spied “The Gleaners” on the living room wall of Kay’s modest home. Above the casually comfortable sofa and functional side tables; amid the cosy collection of sentimentally-evocative ornaments and keepsakes; amongst the generous display of paintings (mainly Kay’s) covering virtually every painted surface, there shone this little gem of an oil painting. I recognized the image instantly (who wouldn’t have?) – but what exactly was I looking at? I poured over it, examining its surface and visual structure. I marvelled at how the painting glowed like an orange-red late-day prairie sky. Or was I actually experiencing the light of 19th century Barbizon, France (many times removed, of course) – or some mysterious hybrid of the two, “Barbizon” and “Brandon”? What exactly was it that made this little painting – a “mere” reproduction, after all – so compelling?

Eight years later: the questions hadn’t dissipated; they’d only complexified. In between I’d read Andre Malraux’s “Museum Without Walls” (1965), Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936), D. W. Winnicott’s “Playing and Reality” (1971) and Roland Barthes’ “The Pleasures of the Text” (1973). I began to picture symbolizations of all sorts (art works, reproductions, photographs, exhibitions, performances, installations, texts, advertisements, conversations – the list is endless) as a kind of collective alphabet or vocabulary waiting to be found and used by eager “readers” and “writers,” the likes of Kay and myself. I imagined the contents of Winnicott’s collective cultural pool circulating like gossip; an ongoing, fragmented narrative endlessly altered and elaborated with each and every telling.

I decided to make an exhibition: 17 Kay Cherniski paintings (8 Kay-constructed and 9 Kay re-presentations of photo-based reproductions by Vermeer, Daumier, Corot, Millet, da Vinci and van Gogh). In addition, the “original” or particular reproductions8 that Kay had worked from – post-cards, art history books, a “how-to-paint” book and a photo-copy – were placed next to her painterly representations. The “originals”, the reproductions, that is, were well-used and bore smudges of paint, bits of tape and other indications of her “presence” and working processes. As an aside or footnote, there was exhibited on an inconspicuous wall, an example of the kind of textbook used to teach art history in the one-room rural school house Kay attended as a youngster.

The questions multiplied. What is the meaning of a “master painting” nestled in the home of a self-trained artist who fabricated it with the help of a “how-to-book,” an image-object that nonetheless cries out “Beauty, Truth, Genius, Civilization, Form, Status, Taste, etc.”?9 How to account for the relationship between the “original” (which neither Kay or I had ever seen “in the flesh”), the poster-reproduction that hung in Kay’s childhood school room, the image of that reproduction seared in Kay’s memory (and mine), the particular reproduction from which Kay worked, an image surrounded by instructional texts, other illustrations and reproductions – and this sumptuous little oil painting, this textured, three-dimensional object that I could hold, handle, caress and even smell (the scent of oil paint and varnish lingers for a remarkably long time)?

This painting, by its very existence, came to represent, for me, that uniquely late 20th century prairie place that generates and holds both Kay Cherniski’s painting practice and my curatorial performances. It marked, symbolically, the juncture of the social, political, subjective and cultural trajectories (one thinks of astrology) that authored what we are and do and make. I wanted to understand this space that Kay and I inhabit; to know where my production and my ideas where coming from and something of the place where I was sending them.

I decided to do an experiment: I chose Ace Art, an artist-run centre, as my laboratory. I laid a trap and like all traps, it worked by taking its subjects by surprise. Kay’s paintings aren’t the kind of work one expects to find in Winnipeg artist-run centres and in 1995 performative curating was a relatively unexplored medium in Manitoba. I aimed to give my audience pause, “…to halt them in their passage, and induce them to stand and stare….Every work of art that works is like this, a trap or snare that impedes passage; and what is any art gallery but a place of capture, set with… thought-traps, which hold their victims for a time, in suspension?”10

I wanted to see what would happen.

The exhibition happened: concerns were raised and questions asked. Was I a/m/using and misusing Kay’s work to foreground ideas that were “other” or counter to her intentions and concerns? Was Ace Art not promoting the “wrong” kind of artistic and curatorial practices by presenting this exhibition? Would the gallery’s reputation be damaged? There were standards to uphold!

Once sprung, the trap felt uncomfortable. It pressed on a tender spot: I’d inadvertently chanced upon a site of vulnerability I had no idea existed. I realize now, in hindsight, that after the gleaners raised, but left unresolved, the contentious, emotionally-invested issue of authorship and its conceptual cousin, the conundrum of the instability of meaning. We had put on exhibit two (if not more) contradictory interpretations of authorship: by proxy, that of the solitary “old master” (van Gogh, Daumier, da Vinci, Corot, Millet, Vermeer), “…the Great Artist – unique, godlike subject of a hundred monographs-bearing within his person since birth a mysterious essence… called genius or talent,”11 creator of a thousand and one timeless artworks that spring from his soul fully formed, symbolizations destined for an adoring audience whose interpretations perfectly mirror the artist’s intentions!

The other form of authorship implicitly pictured: imagine a cultural producer – Kay or Sigrid, perhaps – who playfully and painstakingly constructs symbolizations whose effects are certain to exceed her control and intentions; someone who offers her fellow citizens and cultural producers provisional interpretations, representations whose meanings are contingent on both the context of their exhibition and on the reader who receives them; a collaborator who welcomes the audiences subjective associations.

The discussion isn’t over. A few weeks ago, Winnipeg-based theorist and artist Andre Jodoin presented a lecture12 at the University of Manitoba, School of Art, in which he argued that the contemporary conditions of cultural production, dissemination and reception explored in the work of Andre Maulraux, Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes had implications for how artists are educated in university studio programs. Afterward, a conversation ensued. For curators and artists alike, it would appear that authorship continues to be a sore point sure to arouse anxiety. At issue is the instability of meaning and our fantasies of unmediated communication with imagined others.

Hybrids, collaborations, misreadings and mediations – the messy stuff of happy accidents that makes for creativity – are readily celebrated in theory. But many years after after the gleaners, public enactments of certain species of authorship – performative exhibitions, in particular – are still contentious. Perhaps that’s not surprising: uncertainty is most difficult to embrace when and where we feel most vulnerable. And difference and separateness is hard to acknowledge and negotiate when our anxiety leaves us longing for the comfort of an unambivalent union.

Post Script

Thumbing through a recent issue of Artforum, I chanced upon an announcement for an exhibition at the National Gallery in London that opens almost five years to the day after after the gleaners closed:

“For the ‘Encounters: New Art from Old’ exhibition (June 14-Sept. 17) twenty-four artists are producing works inspired by an image of their choice in the museum¹s collection. Appropriative and transhistorical, the concept seems strikingly au courant for this institution, but of course artists have long scoured museums for ideas, and ‘works after’ are a venerable tradition.”13

Sigrid Dahle, March 2000


1 Kay Larson, “How Should Artists Be Educated?” Artnews, 82:9, November 1983, 86. If someone were to write a contemporary version of this story, would the students’ paintings be described as exhibiting a rainbow-colored luminescent glow reminiscent of digital images viewed on a computer or TV screen? In “Monitor Goo,” an exhibition curated for Plug-In Gallery in 1998, Cliff Eyland and Peter Dykuhuis proposed the thesis that the work of a new generation of abstract painters (those born after 1960) “…has a more explicit connection to television, video games and computer graphics. ‘Monitor Goo’ is about what happens when an artist fixes abstract monitor-like images in the viscous high-art material of paint or the tactile material of paper.” (From the curators’ statement accompanying the exhibition.)

2 From a tape-recorded conversation between Sigrid Dahle and Kay Cherniski, spring 1995.

3 Kay names Diane Whitehouse, Sheila Butler, Michael Boss and Aganetha Dyck as contributing to her work.

4 It wasn’t until the fall of 1990 that Kay travelled to Europe with the assistance of a Manitoba Arts Council Project Grant

5 From a tape recorded conversation between Kay and Sigrid, spring 1995.

6 Ibid.

7 D.W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality, London and New York: Tavistock/Routledge,1971,99.

8 Kay refers to her art history books as her “friends.”

9 John Berger, Ways of Seeing, London: British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin books,1972, 11.

10 Alfred Gell, “Vogel’s Net,” Journal of Material Culture 1 (1), 1996, 15-38.

11 Linda Nochlin, “What Are There No Great Women Artists?” in Woman In Sexist Society, eds. Vivan Gornick & Barbara K. Moran, New York: Basic books, 1971, 489.

12 Andre Jodoin, “Authoring the Exhibition,” a public lecture presented at the University of Manitoba, School of Art, March 1, 2000.

13 David Frankel, “New Masters,” Artforum 38:6, February 2000, 23. According to the gallery’s Website, the exhibition offers “[a]n unprecedented opportunity to view a grand-scale exhibition of contemporary artists at the National Gallery. More than twenty established artists from the UK and abroad have been invited to choose a work from the National Gallery Collection and to respond to it with a new work of their own. The exhibition will offer a richly varied sample of the contemporary practice of major living artists who have all shown a particular interest in the great tradition of European painting as represented in the National Gallery. Artists include painters, sculptors, photographers and video artists, such as Balthus, Louise Bourgeois, Patrick Caulfield, Lucian Freud, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, Antoni Tàpies and Bill Viola. The aim of the exhibition is to emphasize the value and relevance of the Collection in the present day and in particular to living artists.”

Sigrid Dahle is a Winnipeg-based art writer, curator and theorist. Her current projects include Abattoirs by Arts (working title) for the Mendel Art Gallery and Social Contemplation, a symposium-think tank she is developing with Jeanne Randolph for the St. Norbert Arts and Cultural Centre, Winnipeg.