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

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 a 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.


By Riva Symko, PHD
Head of Collections and Exhibitions
Winnipeg Art Gallery