Before launching into my impressions of the current show (Oct. 26, 2013 – March 29, 2014) at the Rennie Collection (located in Vancouver, Canada) I’m providing an excerpt from the Wikipedia entry on the word grotesque (Note: Links have been removed),
The word grotesque comes from the same Latin root as “grotto”, which originated from Greek krypte “hidden place”, meaning a small cave or hollow. The original meaning was restricted to an extravagant style of Ancient Roman decorative art rediscovered and then copied in Rome at the end of the 15th century. The “caves” were in fact rooms and corridors of the Domus Aurea, the unfinished palace complex started by Nero after the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64, which had become overgrown and buried, until they were broken into again, mostly from above. Spreading from Italian to the other European languages, the term was long used largely interchangeably with arabesque and moresque for types of decorative patterns using curving foliage elements.
Since at least the 18th century (in French and German as well as English), grotesque has come to be used as a general adjective for the strange, fantastic, ugly, incongruous, unpleasant, or disgusting, and thus is often used to describe weird shapes and distorted forms such as Halloween masks. In art, performance, and literature, grotesque, however, may also refer to something that simultaneously invokes in an audience a feeling of uncomfortable bizarreness as well as empathic pity. [emphases mine] More specifically, the grotesque forms on Gothic buildings, when not used as drain-spouts, should not be called gargoyles, but rather referred to simply as grotesques, or chimeras.
While my understanding of the word is rooted in its meaning since the 18th century, I couldn’t resist the look backwards to ancient Rome and Greece. In any event, the heading for my post abut the Rennie Collection’s current exhibition concerns the grotesque which is “strange, fantastic, ugly, incongruous, unpleasant, or disgusting” and which “invokes in an audience a feeling of uncomfortable bizarreness as well as empathic pity.”
The entry to the show (main floor) gets the experience off to a deceptive start. The Rebecca Warren (she’s a sculptor) piece showcased here is a series of three vitrines (boxes) with plexiglass covers protecting the artwork within. Arranged in a row, they are small, oblong boxes mounted at about 5 ft. (?) high on the wall. Rusty nails protrude at odd angles from the boxes, electronic devices of some sort are mounted below the boxes and there are bits of found objects and relatively unshaped clay on top of the boxes, as well as, twigs, more found objects, a neon object, and clay objects inside the boxes, behind the plexiglass covers.
Samantha (or Sam), an Emily Carr University of Art + Design student, sculptor, and our guide (one visits the Collection as part of a group at a prearranged time), provided some context for viewing this piece and the rest of the show. She was very illuminating and, unfortunately, it has been some weeks since I viewed the show and retain only bits and pieces remain (somehow this seems reflective of the vitrines). The one piece of information that I retain about Warren’s first piece is that the middle box has a layer of dust covering the objects within. Sam noted this is deliberate and the artist has specific instructions about how much dust there should be on the objects and on the base of the middle box in the row.
One moves deeper into the first floor’s display areas to view Brown’s first piece, a painting, a rather strange painting. It had a weirdly yellowish cast and it’s main feature looked like a skull to me but others saw something else, a bit like Rorschach test where everything is open to interpretation.
We proceeded upstairs to a glorious room with dizzyingly high ceilings where the rest of Warren’s pieces were shown,
Rebecca Warren sculptures. Courtesy: Rennie Collection
I don’t think the photograph, which shows three of the eight (?) sculptures in the room, quite conveys the impact of walking into a space occupied by these lumpen things with twisted and partial spinal columns, breasts in peculiar places, and other oddities shaped out of a type of clay that is fragile and obviously deteriorating.
The exhibit has a contrasting piece, one made of bronze and cast in a square of sorts. Interestingly, Warren likes to work with pom poms and there are two rather small examples, one each affixed to two different pieces. As I recall, Sam told us it was meant to be humorous and Warren keeps a large supply of pom poms on hand for when she might want to add one to a piece.
There are two more rooms on the second floor and those housed Glenn Brown’s work,
Glenn Brown, The Ever Popular Dead (after ‘Jupiter Cloudscape’ 1982 by Adolf Schaller), 2000. Oil on canvas: 85 5/8 × 132 5/8 inches (217.49 × 336.87 cm) Courtesy: Rennie Collection
If it looks like science fiction, that’s because it is. This piece was inspired by some science fiction art associated with Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, both a television series hosted by Carl Sagan and a book by Sagan. (Note: All of this type of information was provided by our guide, Sam, who also did some extra research to buttress her presentation, which was interactive. Thank you for doing that Sam.)
This painting, along with Brown’s other work in this show, rendered me physically nauseous. There was something about the colours and swirls and, possibly, the juxtapostion with Warren’s work that left me feeling ill. (Art can have physical effects. Stendhal famously passed out when visiting Florence, Italy due to a surfeit of art. Apparently, he’s not the only one; you can read more about Stendhal syndrome in this Wikipedia entry.)
Brown’s other paintings featured ‘portraits’ of odd looking people. You could almost recognize the portrait but the person was rendered in odd colours or it was the back of someone’s head—a head which featured many eyes and other oddities, calling to mind science fiction tropes about aliens.
While Brown was referencing classical work, for the most part, he, like Warren, rendered it as a grotesquerie. He even had a picture of two dogs seated at what appears to be a table. At one time, Brown worked in one of the Tate Museum’s (in London, UK) stores and the most popular items for purchase was a print of these two dogs which Brown reproduced in shades of a bilious green.
One of the interesting contrasts in the exhibition, other than sculptor/painter contrast, is that Warren’s work has human origins where Brown’s subject matter seems extraterrestrial. Adding to that impression is Brown’s painting style. There is no sign of a brush stroke; his paintings look as if they were digitally rendered, an effect made possible by his use of paintbrushes containing only a few hairs.
There were two pieces from Brown which didn’t fit this ‘extraterrestial and inhuman’ theme as I’ve described it. One piece, which bore a resemblance of sorts to Warren’s work, was a mound of material that was splattered and laden with paint sitting in the middle of one of the two rooms holding Brown’s work. Despite its sculptural quality, Brown describes the piece as a painting. The other piece was a painting which was cantilevered from the wall, like a pop-up which mimics the shape of what it being depicted. It was the one ‘pretty’ painting of Brown’s pieces. Titled ‘Zombies of the Stratosphere’ (1999), it depicts someone rowing a boat to a forested island. The yellow in the picture reputedly gets its colour from urine. I now belatedly wonder if the first painting we saw on the bottom floor and which I described as having “a weirdly yellowish cast” also features this paint.
The Brits (Brown is from Britain) have a phrase “taking the piss” which I gather means ‘mocking’. It seems that in the one ‘pretty’ painting, Brown is almost literally ‘taking the piss’. Whether he’s mocking the art world or the fools who wander around art exhibits and/or purchase prints of dogs (considered banal subjects by many artists) from the Tate is not obvious to me. Well, it’s never good to take yourself too seriously so there’s not much point to getting my ‘knickers in a twist’ over the matter, especially since I have no way of knowing if that was the artist’s intention.
In the end and after the nausea subsided, I was left with the notion that I was looking at two possible futures, one in which humans return to dust (Warren’s work) or we cease to be human as we understand the term (Brown’s work).
There’s not much time left to see the current exhibition, it ends March 29, 2014 and last I looked both scheduled tours were fully booked. You could try to organize and book your own tour, keep checking to see if someone cancels, or go here to see some images from the show.
Finally, I’m not sure either artist could be described as trying to “invoke empathic pity” as per Wikipedia’s ‘grotesque’ but here’s a video (originally an 8mm film) using the old Kansas song, Dust in the Wind as a soundtrack, which may that effect on you,
Like Warren’s work it looks rough and unpolished. Here’s what uselessdirector who uploaded the video had to say about it,
Uploaded on May 30, 2006
Filmed in 1977 by my dad, this music video nearly became “dust in the wind” until it was restored from its failing 8mm format.