Material Departures

This Place of Departure, Pat McDermott's latest exhibition in the project room at the Union Gallery, is best understood with a material analysis. One that argues for the importance of substantive presence and stresses the way in which 'stuff' itself -- matter, fiber, substance, material -- embodies any directly experienced encounter with reality. Although there is nothing figural or representative about McDermott's most recent collection of nine wax reliefs, they are clearly derived from a painting tradition while at the same time recalling a set of ancient Egyptian stone tablets or even an assortment of hanging wall textiles. In fact, if it weren't for their subtly sweet aroma and dull smooth surfaces, one would be hard-pressed to identify the reliefs as having been constructed almost entirely of wax, at all. McDermott's use of lightly undulating biomorphic forms -- created mainly by the effects caused by the molding of the wax -- shifts the emphasis from representation to the physical reality of the materials themselves. Although there is great attention to surface construction in McDermott's reliefs, perhaps the abstract painterliness found here is more in line with one of the ripped and punctured canvases of Lucio Fontana's Spatial Concepts, than with the conventions of Expressionism, Minimalism, or even Modernism.

Like McDermott, Fontana stressed the 'total reality' of his canvases as material objects which were, nevertheless, intended to transcend their own materiality in favour of a more metaphysical 'real', yet still abstracted, concept (Jonathan Fineberg, Art Since 1940, 2000, 152). In other words, Fontana sought to shift the emphasis in painting away from representation and towards physical reality (Ibid). However, this is not to argue that form and substance are totally absent of any contextual, or even narrative, relevance in Departure. After all, there are traces of actual, everyday objects in McDermott's works as well - a human hair curled in the center of gone from night, for instance, or the rounded indentation of a coffee cup in by weight of cloth and fact. Perhaps there is also an element of the spiritual and the emotional in the physicality of McDermott's materials. Set into the small, shallow space of the project room, the translucent pieces of Departure tend to reflect the surrounding light in a subtle manner that blurs the edges of a rectangular composition in a sculptural performance of opaquely bleeding surfaces. There is a ghostly luminescence to the display, which evokes the kind of sacred hush found in the inner sanctum of a chapel of the quiet, brightly lit minimalism of a vacant hospital room -- emphasized all the more by the two small, blood-like red circles at the top of in through the front and out through the back, by the thin red vein of thread hanging by a sewing needle in this bright clarity, and by the dark red stain leaking through the top left corner of this place of departure. In fact, where Fontana's canvases act like 'spatial environments' aimed to launch the viewer into a metaphysical journey, McDermott's reliefs act like 'material departures' that throw the viewer into a suspension of reality, only to pull them back into the tactile presence of their own corporeality.

Works Cited

Fineberg, Jonathan. Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being. 

Second Edition. Prentice Hall: New Jersey, 2000.


By Riva Symko, PHD

Currently, Dr. Riva Symko is Head of Collections and Exhibitions and Curator of Canadian Art at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Previously, she held posts with institutions such as the Kimura Gallery, University of Alberta Museums, [ x]curated curatorial collective, Nuit Blanche Edmonton, Modern Fuel Artist-Run Centre, and ArtLab Gallery. In addition, Dr. Symko has held a number of academic positions including Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Alaska Anchorage and has taught at the University of Lethbridge, Memorial University, and Queen’s University.