Articles and Reviews

Canadian Art, Winter 2000

White Out

What to do about white? What to do about order? The whole of art history might be construed as a series of answers to just those two questions, and the last cheeky riposte-in the form of nine works by artist Pat McDermott-was on display at Toronto's Robert Birch Gallery.

A quick glance about, upon entering that longish, narrow space, might have persuaded the distracted visitor that she had wandered by mistake into the temple of some obscure, austere (and very contemporary) sect. The works, regularly spaced, all the same size and at first glance mostly white, punctuate the gallery's plain white walls like icons of the ineffable. What they really are, of course, are icons to the rapture and radiance of the everyday.

In all but two of the works on display, Pat McDermott begins with a child's jigsaw puzzle. He puts it together, pressure-mounts it to a box he has constructed himself (each one takes many hours of careful work) and then sets about painting it with some fifty layers of gesso and five to ten layers of titanium white. The puzzle shapes never quite vanish-you sense their regular, plodding bustle deep below a surface that has the smarts to avoid serenity, the smarts to get into trouble. In a piece called "they would like to" (1998), he adds lightly pigmented wax to that surface and lets it build into a gentle fractal commentary on the possibilities of an order less rigid and less obvious than the one that lock-steps below it.

In "is, not" (1999), it is absence that delights. You see the same fifteen inch by twelve inch box, the same subtly mannered white, the same anthropomorphic puzzle shapes. But this time the artist has cut two holes into that surface-casually cloud-shaped, looking simply through to the white wall behind and of course you realize that there's really nothing simple about any of this. Seen through those holes, that plain white wall is all frisky with shadows, with grays that chase each other as you move, leading your eye beyond that toiling little puzzle on the surface.

In the two most recent works, "will you please be quiet, please" (2000) and "roughly" (2000), McDermott puts aside children's puzzles. Pigmented wax covers the entire surface of the box. Into its softness he has pressed, and then removed, a common bathroom towel. You may never, stepping from the shower, dry yourself so cavalierly again. McDermott finds an entire planet in the nap and texture of cloth (he embeds a fragment of the towel into one of the pieces, just to underscore the banality of his source), a planet that responds to shifting light quite as wondrously as our own.

This is the first solo show in six years for this 38-year old Toronto artist. He has clearly already come to terms with the puzzle that is white, and the puzzle that is order. In fact, in the world of Pat McDermott, the only puzzle still worth noting is why we so often can't seem to see the radiance shimmering just beyond and around our all-to-neatly interlocking lives.

By Gerald Hannon
Canadian Art, Winter 2000