Abundance Abound: Some Thoughts on Art’s Boundaries and Lack Thereof

by Catherine LaRivière

Hello friends!

If you found yourself clicking on this link out of procrastination, know that this article was written under similar circumstances. It’s essay season and everything’s due all the time. C’est la vie, mon kiki.

A week and change ago, our beloved FDG saw its “Boundaries & Frontiers” show mounted in SSMU during McGill’s Nuit Blanche. There was art, and wine, and stickers, and a good time was had by all – the usual. But what never fails to fascinate me is the way in which artists all differently approach the same theme, and so I thought about it some more – also, the usual. (And now you get to read about it – more usual happenings, friends.)

Boundaries and frontiers are recurrent in both the macro and microcosms of life, the universe, and everything; they’re physical, mental, literal, figurative, political, imagined, constructed, geographic, and so the list goes on. With this ever-growing list of occurrences comes the exponential permutations of artistic response whose list is always somehow longer. In a sense, if art has a boundary of any kind, it’s a chain-link fence; it’s a physical interruption of space, but nonetheless can be seen through, climbed over, and manipulated as a person sees fit.

My own photo got selected for this particular exhibition, and my approach to the theme was simple enough: a photo taken while out on the Pacific Ocean near Washington, in a spot where it was legally considered the US but I had managed to get Canadian cell signal. In this particular spot was an odd little house, and I couldn’t help but think of where they had to go to get their groceries being 4 hours off the shore of a city. The boundaries here were all but clear: both Canada and the US, both home and not home, both estranged but populated, all contained within the seemingly boundless Pacific Ocean.

A few of the artists who showed at the “Boundaries & Frontiers” show approached the theme from a similar perspective. Sophia Schmidt’s photos looked at the great beyond of both the medium of photography and the wide world around us. Similarly, Joe Kroese’s photo on Vik Beach in Iceland blurred the lines between sand, waves, water, and sky, but also photography and painting by resembling Rothko’s compositional style. Chloe Rowan’s painting of mountains and drips recalled the erosion of soil that melts away the sturdy boundaries that mountains provide us with. Usamah Khan’s photo manipulation and its outward-looking subject recall Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, but with a hint more of uneasiness and a lot more vastness, having used images from NASA as their references. Kenzia Dalie’s plyboard piece following the travels of her friends and family across the globe reminds us that the barriers of nation-states and continents are all but fixed, and that one person’s experience in this seemingly big world will never quite mirror anyone else’s. Jordan Kasarjian’s photos took nature as their subjects and looked at the transience of boundaries between air and clouds, and between water and sky, countering how Justine Touchon’s photo collage looked at photos and their subjects within contained, inaccessible spaces.

Other pieces looked internally, at the boundaries we place or have placed by others within ourselves. Avery Shoemaker’s painting looked at the body as a permeable membrane and as a mirror of the environment around us, visually referencing oil spills and the way that they both mix with water and still remain separate from it. Hannah Dolin looked at the boundaries between the apathetic and engaged subject, capturing the towers of fire’s smoke from a situational distance. Jacob Côté followed a similar path, looking at the distance between subject and artist in his photograph of an intimate moment between a mother and child. Yanqiu Chen’s painting of a Chinese bride looked at the boundaries of tradition and culture and how they mix, featuring a woman in traditional Chinese bridal wear but a Western ring on her left hand’s third finger, especially symbolic for the artist themselves as a Chinese-Canadian who has spent half of their life in both countries. Alejandra Morales’ painting examines the boundaries placed on female sexuality, examining the surreality and excess of its visual representation, engaging with the strength that can come from it. Erika Kindsfather examined the self as a figure bound in time in their self-portrait, but also crossed boundaries with their embroidery piece, questioning the frontier of art and craft. Michael Rozen’s self-portrait was equally thought-provoking, drawing the viewer into the space of his monochrome self to contemplate themselves.

One piece that was arguably one of the most enticing of the night was Joe Kroese’s interactive installation, close to you: using an Xbox Kinect, a computer, and a projector, this piece invited viewers to approach the sensor and see what happens. As the person would get closer, they would shrink in size, but as they got further away, they would grow. The role of boundaries in its physical sense seems fairly clear here, looking at the proximity and distance of figures, but a more intriguing perspective comes with looking at the boundary between art as a serious practice and something to have fun with. Many if not all that came to visit the exhibition spent a good minute dancing around in front of the camera and watching their projected selves move, getting a good giggle out of it. Behind the scenes was some manipulation of computer code and a few everyday tech objects, making the seemingly serious practice of art boil down to a handful of machines and a fun experience for viewers. 

I recently checked out the “Mnemosyne” exhibition at the MBAM, and it recalled this theme of boundaries, its premise being contemporary artists’ responses to art bequeathed to the museum in the Hornstein donation for the Pavilion for Peace. One piece looked at the Dutch still life painting tradition from a more engaging perspective, projecting images onto a holographic, prism-like surface that forced me to move around it to see it in various lights and colours, breaking the boundaries of acceptable museum behaviour much like close to you did. Other pieces like Rebecca Bellmore’s Mixed Blessing and Dan Brault’s Lingering in Time’s House (Vanitas) looked at the boundaries of Western tradition and contemporary culture, the former engaging with the apathetic distance between most Western people and the indigenous community while recalling the visual tradition of the Pieta, and the latter converging the styles of street art and trompe l’oeil into a modern day vanitas painting.

Having spent a weekend in Boston with some fellow FDG folks, I got to contemplate this theme further with the change of perspective that comes with seeing new museums and their collections. Emblazoned in neon at the top of a main staircase of the MFA Boston was Maurizio Nannucci’s sign whose message need not be forgotten: All art was once contemporary. The history of art is always rife with change and responses to change, and even the revered and respected traditions of the Sistine Chapel ceilings and Dutch still lifes were considered ground-breaking in their day and were met their fair share of criticism. But at the end of it all, what characterizes art is the inherent fluidity of its boundaries; they’re constantly being questioned and pushed, if not dissolved altogether – it’s what drives art to be its complex self and to keep growing.

All photos by Catherine LaRivière. 

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