My Breath, My Gravity: My Anishinabe Indexical Opens, Pops and Riffs
The Paintings and Their Process
In the series there are five 5 x 6 foot oil paintings on canvas, ten 18 x 24” acrylic and oil canvases, and 30 gouache and acrylic paintings on white and grey paper presented as three forms of interactive installation. The paintings are installed on the gallery’s walls, stored within a small stylized cedar house or piled upon a studio work table. The vertical stripe is a structural motif to explore how paint can be applied using different objects and brushes in varying colour combinations and sequences. The methods of applying paint are broken down into two groups: the gouache/acrylic paintings use strips of painted wood, plywood and Plexiglas to make repetitions of mono prints upon the paper’s surface, an index of my body’s gravity and the pressure I exert. The acrylic/oil on canvas works juxtapose masked out flatly painted stripes with broken imperfect drags of paint, an index of my breath: I drag the brush down breathing slowly.
Why the Stripe?
Much of my work comes from my personal history and experience of being a First Nations woman living in an urban context. In representing this life, I try not to reveal every detail or present the latest version of a “Native American experience.” The stripe was a method to pursue my interest and involvement in studio work, to explore colour, invent new ways of applying paint and try hard-edge painting without flagging a First Nations theme.
Initially, the vertical stripe was an appropriation of 60s Minimalism. In this I am drawn in agreement to Robert Morris’ rebuttal of the transcendental verticality within Formalist painting. His rejection of metaphor, narrative, and valuable artifact via minimal structure and expression I translate into the vertical stripes and lines that foreground process and imperfection. For me, the vertical line becomes a source of freedom from representing a “First Nations” narrative, where the gesture is minimized to its sparsest delineation. This is me, this is my breath influencing the quality of my mark making. Imprints on paper and drags of paint on canvas speak simply as presence. My work is not Frank Stella’s stripes where he casually declaims: “What you see is what you see.” Instead, my Anishinabe Kwe existence is alive within each mark to state: I exist on this earth and come from my ancestors.
I felt a need to re-name the stripe in order to claim it and re-contextualize it as my own. As the work progressed I began to see “pops,” “opens,” and “riffs” of colour. Sharper stripes using masking tape and vertical motions of downward drags became clearer and more pronounced. Repetitions of vertical drags become a recorder of controlled and uncontrolled steadiness of my hand, allowing both to exist as assured and imperfect. Within the play between masked-out painting and free-hand drags, presence resounds as “opens.”
Within “opens” my presence takes precedence over trying to perfect a hard-edged technique. The seepage of paint beneath masking tape is left uncorrected. Free-hand drags wobble and stutter down the canvas making the masked area’s lack of crispness less noticeable, almost camouflaged. Ultimately what I want to be visible is the methods and process of their making as coming from my body. The “Open” can be hard or soft-edged, handmade or masked-out, flat or brushy just as long as there is presence and life within it.
The contrasts between the stripes often pulse and pop, cutting into one’s vision. As one’s attention scans the surface of the painting, some contrasts and combinations become more vivid than others. Combinations of cool and warm hues such as green and red, blue and orange, yellow and blue black seem to pop out from the surface of the canvas, and are named just that, “Pops.”
My choices of colour come from varied sources and influences. Within the gouache paintings on grey paper, the colour choices come directly from a gouache paint set. For both small and large canvases, the palette origins are inspired by memories from childhood of 70s Tupperware, a yellow Sports Walkman, a turquoise ring, a Caucasian flesh tone crayon, a public school gym uniform of maroon and ochre, my father’s brown wool sweater, masking tape green, pumpkin orange, Barbie doll pink and a deep Indian red pencil crayon. Furthermore, underlying all these influences is the impression made on me at a young age by the vibrant totemic animal paintings by Norvel Morrisseau . Although in mentioning these sources I don’t want to present a personal narrative, colour still plays an important role in anchoring my memories of the past. My memories of being raised in a non-Native neighborhood in East Toronto apart from my birth community in northern Ontario can still be represented purely through colour. The highly saturated colours I employ vibrate and bounce off each other much like memory and emotion. The conflicting colour combinations or “riffs,” as I call them, work with and against each other. Conceptually they represent conflict between memory and a declaration of being - a declaration of being “Nish” or Anishinabe within the present. While I acknowledge these colours as having come from aspects of mainstream material culture, I still assert they are simultaneously Anishinabe in presence and expression.
The 5 x 6’ works are installed approximately one foot off the floor on the gallery walls, allowing a more human scaled presentation. The viewer is able to see the progression of how the work was painted, beginning with its brushy stripes, then to its masked out flat stripes and finishing with layers of free-hand lines over top. Keeping the process of the work’s creation visible, I am keeping my actions and decision making visible. First Nations presence resonates as contrasting “pops” of colour beside free-hand drags of blue “opens” to entice and confront one’s vision within the luminous multiple layers of paint.
In the second installation, 30 gouache and acrylic paintings on paper lie on a studio work-table as a tactile hands-on archive. The viewer can handle and shift the work around on the table in order to experience the work. When leafing through the paintings, a progression and development is evident: the archive as a source of ideas translated into the large finished canvases. The casual-looking pile of work displayed on the studio table extends the active work-oriented environment into the exhibition gallery space and into the hands of the viewer.
In the third part of the installation, a cedar house storing smaller paintings builds upon my thinking about the work of R.H. Quaytman. A conceptual painter based in New York City, her abstract works are created in repetitious series she calls “chapters.” Her work critiques the cultural, societal and architectural positioning of contemporary painting, as she presents it in a series of site-specific storage units inside the gallery’s exhibition and storage space. Her units often mimic the shelving of the gallery itself, such that her paintings become part of the gallery’s organizational make-up. She further cleverly invites the viewer to take her paintings out of the unit and hang them on available hooks on the gallery’s wall. I too wanted to include this type of interaction with my work as a method of recognition of place and self-awareness for the viewer. Dissimilar to Quaytman, my cedar house exists as a self-standing structure visibly occupying space within the gallery. As a structural reminder of the Longhouse of the Coast Salish in the Lower Mainland, the house can also represent an East Van bungalow, an architectural model, or a house in mid-construction. By placing my work within the cedar house I am metaphorically placing my work within the Coast Salish territory and the greater indigenous network of the Northwest coast’s cultural expression and history. It is a transitional space to organize and shelter my work in the future, and a space that invites the viewer to place a painting upon its roof, acknowledging they too walk upon a territory and use this network. How is our presence and experience framed, sheltered or overshadowing within the established history, culture and economy of this territory?
Transitivity and Relationality
A central goal of "My Breath, My Gravity" is to create a level of awareness through physical engagement of the audience. In the past I have used performance as way to encourage audience participation, with sculptural works set-up on display table in a marketplace environment. Presenting objects within a performance context creates a more interactive and social environment to be experienced rather than solely observed. Nicolas Bourriaud similarly describes the role of art and its reception as shifting away from the isolated viewing position dictated by a traditional gallery space. In Relational Aesthetics, he argues that an artwork’s meaning must be created amongst a group of people as a collective experience in the social world.
"Relational art produces inter-subjective encounters. Through these encounters, meaning is elaborated collectively, rather than in the space of individual consumption."
In relation to my painting practice, I began thinking of situating my painting in a similar interactive environment much like my display table. As a concept similar to the goals of relational aesthetics, David Joselit introduces the idea of “transitivity” in his article, “Painting Beside Itself.” Transitivity is a “form of translation,” wherein painting enters a new method of creation and reception as an inter-subjective encounter that is further extended beyond the walls of the gallery or museum space.
"Transitive painting arises, therefore, as a dynamic equilibrium between two types of passage: those that are internal to a canvas, including mark-making and the delineation of motifs; and those that are external to it, encompassing the work’s location in space, its position within a particular constellation of institutions, its relationship to art history, and the social connections established between author and spectators."
Transitivity and relationality as concepts have influenced the installation of “My Breath, My Gravity.” As an Anishinabe Kwe artist, I exist in the urban environment observing the invisibility of First Nations people through the eyes of mainstream culture. Cultural objects for sale in tourist shops are sold on the value of a cultural affiliation and not from the life of an actual person. At this level, I think a concept like transitivity is significant in order to establish a connection between an artwork and the identity of its maker, recognizing the context of where First Nations art is shown and sold within the history of colonialism. In my installation and the paintings therein, Bourriaud's and Joselit’s concepts allow my “Nish” presence to be at the heart of the work. Beginning with the surface of the paintings, vivid “opens,” “pops,” and “riffs” activate beacons of First Nations presence wherein the stripes become more than just stripes- they become indexes of my life and my body. The cedar house further invites a physical interaction as an inquiry between the work and the observer, focusing on culture, economies and territorial presence.
Titles of Large Works
Everything Is Broken Up and Dances
157 Hammersmith One O’clock Jump
Floats Beneath Dragonflies Mating
Drags of Blue Over My Feet
Little Green For L.J. Vickers