Critical Distance

Dark O’Clock: Stephen Andrews, Doug Ischar, Mathew Jones, Wanda Koop, Glenn Ligon
January 17 – February 18, 1995

a response to the exhibition by Alison Gillmor

When I started to write about Dark O’clock, I had to check the spelling of the word “glamorous” (g-l-a-m-o-u-r-o-u-s? g-l-a-m-o-r-o-u-s?). The Collins Concise told me that the word comes from an 18th-century Scottish variation of “grammar,” meaning a magic spell, because the occult was associated with learning; the magic spell eventually evolved into the idea of alluring charm, leading to our contemporary notion of glamour as a slightly supernatural force, an aura of beauty, sexiness and power that allows certain people, certain objects, to draw us in. 1 Glamour and grammar, sex and ideas — recently these two things have not been much connected. The puritanism of a lot of 60’s and 70’s radical art and politics banished glamour, seeing it as shallow, distracting and frivolous. Manuel Puig’s 1976 novel, Kiss of the Spider Woman tries to re-integrate radicalism and pleasure, ideas and sex, grammar and glamour — as an earnest, bearded Latin American Marxist, shares a cell with a gay window-dresser, who adores the over-the-top melodramas of the 40’s and 50’s. 2 A lot of art in the 90’s, like the work in Dark O’Clock, recognizes the need to turn away from the joyless, sexless daytime clarity of “sociological” art, toward a night-time dynamic of darkness, intrigue, desire and danger. Dark O’Clock artists don’t lose radical content; they use glamour to make me want it even more.

Some of the works in this show are literally dark — Doug Ischar’s video giving off that cool, silver glow in the gloom. Others possess a metaphorical darkness; they ask for a kind of self-imposed blindness (the kind that, as in Greek myth, paradoxically allows the blinded one to see). Mathew Jones’ braille mural wants me to close my eyes and touch. Glenn Ligon’s work refers to photographs that are not present; I can’t see them physically, but I can re-create them with the inward eye of desire. Stephen Andrews’ lost lover shivers in and out of focus, poised digitally between black and white, dark and light, disappearance and resolution. Wanda Koop’s work is a strange inversion of the idea of “sight-seeing”. She offers diffused, indirect images of Japan; this fragmented vision gives me, paradoxically, a more complete sense of the whole.

The darkness of Dark O’Clock is also conceptual. Avoiding the full-glare certainty of Socialist Realism and its derivations, these artists work with contradiction, paradox, irony, ambivalence, ambiguity — all of those difficult uncertainties that have, at certain historical junctures, been read as politically evasive or irresponsible. (Take for example, Mathew Jones’ criticism of the ACT UP campaigns in Australia, campaigns which were in many ways effective, but also imperialistic and over determined, and the counter-criticism his art provoked. Jones, however, was not denying the political aims of ACT UP, or retreating into easy, passive irony; he was questioning the wisdom of exporting American-style activism without thought to cultural specifics.) 3 Jones, Andrews, Ligon and Ischar all deal with issues of queer representation and queer politics, but none of them reduced his art to monolithic declaration.

I had seen one of Wanda Koop’s video scrolls before, in the Canadian Council Art Bank collection, lovely but forlorn in its pristine, framed isolation. To see a room of scrolls is very different. It’s not just that there are more; they have a cumulative effect I hadn’t predicted. Unframed, pinned to the wall, hanging at slightly ragged heights, they suggest the open-ended potential of contact sheets. Koop juxtaposes iconic images of transnational culture (Coca-cola, Visa, jets), Japanese kitsch (lotus blossoms), with more quotidian views (industrial districts, a block of ice, the graceful nape of a neck). This makes me question the idea of sight-seeing. When I visit a different culture, how much of what I see is only what I expect to see? Can I separate stereotypical views from “real” vision? Is there a tourist Japan and an “authentic” Japan?

Doug Ischar’s work takes place in a dark, quiet room. The work centres on two images — a photograph of Che Guevara (not the glamorous, blacklight-poster revolutionary of my adolescence, but Che disguised as a comical bourgeois, preparing to sneak into Bolivia); and a video still of a cat, its face distorted by shifting computer digitalization. A textual piece near the door recounts a gay-bashing killing that the police call a case of “mistaken identity,” and also writes of the rabidly homophobic Castro sleeping with a comrade on a cold night. but to say Ischar’s work is about these things, about the ideas of disguise and identity, is wrong. the pictures become starting-off points for a strange, hypnotic experience. At first I resist the austerity of this room; my impulse is to check the fast-forward to see if anything else will happen. But soon I give myself over to the luxuriousness of stillness, eventually finding a kind of abandon in it, as I lie down and listen to the daylight sounds of the building filter through. It’s the same kind of feeling as hearing life going on around you through a high fever, and I begin to understand John Paul Ricco’s notion of “Hypnagogic Images. visualizations that typically exist in a moment just after or in the wake of sleep…” 4

Mathew Jones’ 25-metre mural, A Place I’ve Never Seen, looks a bit like happening 70’s wallpaper, with its riot of black, grey and white balls. Like so much of Dark O’Clock, its surface belies its content. These physical objects are in fact a text, a text that must be read through touch, through the hidden language of braille. The polystyrene balls spell out sweetly dirty phrases of longing, speaking of that moment when desire is simultaneously located and dislocated, when it becomes impossible to tell whose body is whose:

THIS PHOTOGRAPH OF MY LOVER COCK LOST IN A PLACE I’VE NEVER SEEN THIS PHOTO OF HIS ARSE OF MINE DISTENDED BY COCK WET WITH CUM YOU CAN’T SEE

Jones’ use of braille suggests the subtexts of queer desire, historically hidden within a more visible straight narrative. The coded language, sensuously released through touch, suggests what have often been (for legal, social, and political reasons) the forbidden rituals of queer recognition and attraction.

Glen Ligon’s work also deals with a place I create with my eyes closed. The Red Portfolio consists of terse verbal descriptions of Robert Mapplethorpe’s “forbidden” photographs — “A photo of a man urinating in another man’s mouth;” “A photo of a man with a bullwhip inserted in his rectum.” (Ironically, these phrases are borrowed from a fundraising mailout by ultra-conservative American politician Pat Robertson, whose sensationalist tirade against NEA funding suggests that if Mapplethorpe didn’t exist, Robertson would have to invent him.) Ligon’s words are matted and framed to give them the same isolation and focus as photographs, but this scrupulous attention to detail tends to underline rather than eliminate the gulf between text and image. Ligon seems to be exploring some of the underlying debates swirling around censorship, porn and art — do people need to be protected from their own dark thoughts: does “sin” originate externally or internally, in image or in mind: why are pictures dirtier than words? Is there a wonderful and perverse bond between Robertson and Mapplethorpe, with the demonized, kinky, gay artist serving as the necessary dark counterpart to Robertson’s vision of America?

Stephen Andrews’ Picture This recalls the slightly archaic form of the elegy, a genre reminiscent of the 16th century, but sadly suited to the age of AIDs. It’s a carefully structured lament for the dead — an act of memory that is consolation and pain at the same time. Drawing on Shakespeare’s Sonnets and the numerical system of 17th-century Jain art, Andrews constructs a digitalized image of a lost lover framed by poetry that is strategically whitewashed to underline references to love, loss, blindness and sight. The work possesses a tender and poignant poise — between the expression of pain and its controlled containment, between revelation and concealment, presence and absence.

Notes:
1. Collins Concise Dictionary (Glasgow: Williams Collins and Sons, 1989).
2. Manuel Puig, Kiss of the Spider Woman (Toronto: Random House, 1976).
3. Wayne Baerwaldt, “A Voice I Am Not,” in Dark O’Clock (Winnipeg: Plug In Editions, 1994), 49 – 53.
4. John Paul Ricco, Wake: Doug Ischar (Toronto: Mercer Union, 1995).


Alison Gillmor is a writer living in Winnipeg.