Story by Christina Wong
Photos courtesy of Esker Foundation
A world made of lines, grids, and wires: it almost sounds like a page out of a science fiction novel, filled with boundaries and rules and neon lights. While it might seem fantastical, it is the surreal world created by three Canadian artists at the Esker Foundation for their Fall Exhibitions. On the fourth floor of the Atlantic Avenue Art Block, we are treated to the mind bending works of Tammi Campbell, Agnes Martin, and Sarah Stevenson, who whisk us away to a place filled with constructs that are not what they seem.
Entering the main gallery, we are presented with 85 letters addressed to Agnes Martin from Tammi Campbell, and we are given the rare opportunity to be a part of this wordless conversation. The contents of each letter are composed of a series of lines in various arrangements and weights and each letter is carefully placed within a light wooden frame and hung in a curiously imperfect grid. It is this imperfection that starts to call into question what we see hung on the wall, and with it, we begin to wonder if there is more to what we are seeing than we think.
These questions become increasingly complicated with the most mind-blowing pieces on exhibition: a series of five paintings that appear to be still in their packaging. Bubble wrap, corrugated cardboard, and plastic wrap appear stretched across a canvas and hung on the gallery’s walls, and can be easily dismissed when making your way through the exhibition. What could possibly be interesting about these pieces that haven’t even been unwrapped before hanging them up?
Yet, further observation reveals that these pieces are made out of acrylic paint, manipulated in a way to assume the look of a completely different material. Between the graphite letters and these artistic wonders of paint, art begins to alter what we perceive as permanent and real.
This play on our understanding of truth continues as we move through the gallery, where we are greeted by oversized vases and strings of diamonds seemingly spun out of thin air. This is Sarah Stevenson’s work, where these delicate skeletons are suspended for all to see from the very wires of their creation. Along the walls of this section are drawings of these same objects, marked and measured as if they were diagrams from an old botanist’s journal. Experiencing this collection of works is a constant push and pull of questions about how the world around us is built and understood.
Occupying the heart of the gallery is a collection of works by Agnes Martin, comprised of 42 screen prints and three paintings, a combination never before assembled for exhibition. Her portfolio of 30 prints, On a Clear Day, is spread out across two of the gallery’s rooms and introduces us to the works collected here. It is described by Martin as a study of the innocence of the mind best consumed with no thoughts or opinions save for an acknowledgement of the feelings invoked through observation. While it seems impossible to suspend our opinions about a series of works determined to deconstruct the perfect squares of Japanese rag paper with rectangles of varying sizes, Martin’s advice on consuming her work is essential to experiencing it. In experiencing the work, more questions are raised: are we seeing the study of the innocence of the mind played out on paper? Or are our interactions with the pieces the true study of how innocent the mind can be?
In the midst of all of these questions about reality and our understanding of it, is an opportunity to check our preconceptions of the world at the door and just observe. You could dismiss art as a thing where absolute understanding of what is shown is essential to its enjoyment, but once again, the Fall Exhibition at the Esker Foundation does away with all of that and shows us that the most important thing is to simply take in what you see. By letting go of any preconceived notions and assuming the role of the observer, space suddenly becomes infinite, possibilities endless.
Yes, paint can become corrugated cardboard or plastic wrap or bubble wrap. Yes, a vessel can be an object for holding space while also being held within space. Yes, the innocence of the mind is something achievable through the examination of rigid constructs. Yes, it is possible for shapes, lines and grids to be more than they seem. And yes, by not forcing yourself to understand the art immediately, you are able to understand it just a little bit better.