C Magazine


Issue 130

Close Readings: Brian Jungen Close 51 Catriona Jeffries, Vancouver January 22 – February 27, 2016
by Richard William Hill

Close Readings is a much discussed column that art historian and curator Richard William Hill debuted in the Spring 2013 issue of FUSE Magazine. Responding to an imbalance in the number of Indigenous curators relative to Indigenous art critics, Close Readings aims to offer honest assessments of exhibitions of contemporary Indigenous art. FUSE Magazine, known for its incisive analyses of politically engaged art and culture, was published from 1976 until 2014. We are grateful to FUSE Magazine and FUSE’s final editor, Gina Badger, for permission to continue Close Readings within C Magazine.

I especially like discarded things that are not useful. When you go to anyplace on the street and you see something that was so badly made it’s no longer useful, it’s really comforting … If they’re allowed to be useless they are free and they are the world in front of us. And then all sorts of meaning can happen at any time, or change at any time.1
—Jimmie Durham

Not long ago my three-year-old niece had a bad dream. When something upsets her, she likes to talk and be reassured. The first time she told me about it, I heard: “I dreamed I was following an eagle along by a river and I fell in the water. I was in the water and it was scary.” At this, my brain went off in two directions. My first priority was to be a consoling adult. But some other part of my brain also hared off, considering the momentous significance of dreaming about eagles. It felt culturally weighty. Eventually I reminded myself that my view of dreams falls closer to a psychological model than a mystical one. Still, I went on wondering why she was dreaming of eagles.

A few weeks later, I was talking to my niece again and she was obviously still working through her anxiety about the dream.
“I had a scary dream,” she told me.
“The one where you were following the eagle?”
“No,” she said, and told me again. Again I heard, “I was following an eagle beside a river and I fell in the water.”
“You were following an eagle?” I asked, confused.
“No!” She gets frustrated when people can’t understand her. “Can you say it again?”
She did, and I finally heard it correctly: “I was following a seagull.”

My interpretive powers faced a similar bruising in my encounter with Brian Jungen’s recent exhibition. I arrived knowing only that the works would be made from Nike Air Jordan shoes. Jungen’s breakthrough work was the Prototypes for A New Understanding series: masks made from re-assembled Air Jordans that somehow manage to be reminiscent (and not) of Northwest Coast masks. I therefore entered the gallery with expectations, yet each encounter with a specific artwork seemed to challenge my wish to project significance onto a resistant object. For me, that process became what the exhibition is about: a test of both the desire for meaning and the way in which over-scripted meanings assert themselves.

Because the power of the work resides so fundamentally in the challenging process one goes through to make sense of it, I have chronicled my version of that experience rather than providing a purely retrospective analysis.

I learned about Jungen’s new exhibition from an email. At the top of the message was an image of Nike shoe components stitched together into … what? Sections of shoe soles make a neck-like base, but is this a mask? Has he returned to making masks from shoes? I can’t tell from the image. Perhaps the object is only intelligible in three dimensions? I skim the rest of the email for help. There’s no title given, but there are three paragraphs of press release text. They tell me that he’s returned to using Nike Air Jordan “trainers.” The design and colour of the shoes have changed but “so has the artist’s strategy for using them as representational objects of colonial and First Nation art histories merging with contemporary collective imagery.”2

I read that last sentence again. It’s vague; the thing we want to know – the terms and character of this “merging” – are left to our imagination. Fortunately, the Prototypes are so fecund with meaning that they have inspired much excellent analysis. I hope it won’t seem a travesty if I reduce it to a few points that I had in mind as I saw the new show. As Raymond Boisjoly said recently in a brilliant talk at the Or Gallery, the Prototypes are not so much Indigenous art as they are art about Indian art. They are the site of a collision between two types of objects that have become the repositories of more significance than any object can perhaps legitimately bear: the Air Jordan as ultimate global consumer brand and perhaps the ultimate symbol of Indigenous alterity and authenticity, the Northwest Coast mask. The Prototypes, which both succeed and fail in their mimesis, implicate that apparent authenticity in a global economy that is all too eager to market and consume its “primitive” other. This might suggest that the power of the Prototypes is purely negative; that there is nothing left to admire. But perhaps when the negated Nike brand and the negated category of Indian art collide they cancel one another out. What is left? As Boisjoly suggested: the pure possibility and potential inherent in the material manipulation itself. Many of us are so deeply estranged from the processes of mass production that manipulation of these materials seems almost the act of a magician. The process of misrecognition and failed mimesis creates space for the emergence of new possibilities.

Returning to the press release for the current show, I see that the final paragraph begins to explain just how the new works are different from the Prototypes, so I stop reading. Recently I have made a point of seeing new exhibitions cold and then doing the scholarship later. I never talk to the artist or curator. I want to see what I can make of an exhibition on its own terms first and then by using the information that is publically available about it. In this case, that approach made all the difference. If the exhibition will test your desire to find patterns in abstraction, that experience is all the more revealing if you do not start out knowing that in advance.

My first encounter with the work itself is at the opening, which, like all openings, is more a social event than an opportunity to look at the art. I know before I arrive that I will be back to really look when the gallery is less crowded. But it is a chance to see whether or not the show is something I would be able to write about. In that case, I will be back with my notebook.

Entering the gallery, I am looking to identify faces in the artworks and in the gathered crowd. I’ve only recently moved to Vancouver and I’m a little anxious that I will be slow to recognize a new acquaintance or colleague. As quickly as I can, though, I make my way to the work that I remember from the email. I want to see if it will be intelligible in person. I try it from every angle. Nothing. I look for a label, but remind myself that I’m not in a museum and can’t expect to find a title near at hand. I start gazing around at the other works. Are they all impenetrable? That one might be a Plains headdress. That other one looks like some sort of bird. Maybe. That other, a distorted face. As I’m doing this, I start to become conscious of the fact that, even in this crowd, I can see all the work because the plinths are unusually high. If modernism ended with sculpture shunted from its monumental plinth into an expanded field, as Rosalind Krauss famously argued,3 these tall plinths have reinstituted these objects as elevated monuments. These plinths, glaze-painted white so that the grain of the fir plywood shows through, are part of the work and are included in its dimensions. They evoke an austere yet materially luxurious modernist sensibility that characterizes so much of Jungen’s work. By this point, I know that I want to write about the exhibition, not because I know what I will say about it, but because I don’t and want to find out.

When I return a few weeks later, I have the gallery to myself, with the exception of the woman minding the desk. I ask for a list of works and she hands me the press release and gallery floor plan with the locations of works indicated by numbered circles. I start at number 1, in case sequence matters. It happens to be the work reproduced in the email. I see the title is Broken Arrangement, (2015–16). So something was arranged and then broken? Or is it an arrangement of broken things? In either case, we are presumably seeing the aftermath of some damaging event. Is what’s left a pure abstraction? No, there is a semblance of a head sitting on a neck. The neck is made of vertically sliced sections of soles stacked, bolted together and set upright from heel to toe. These elements provide a rigidity and structure that is absent in the face area, which is made from the portions of the shoe above the sole. These offer a range of colours not available with the older Air Jordans: dark blues, reds and blacks, and not nearly so much white, except for the soles. Highlights of bright, almost fluorescent red.

There is the suggestion of a mouth gaping at the bottom and shoe parts are pinched together with a rivet in the centre to create the suggestion of a nose ridge. The upper right side of this face is composed of the entire right side of a shoe, sans sole, positioned right side up. The left side appears to be made from the other side, also sans sole, attached upside down. This creates an inverted (broken?) symmetry from side-to-side. Vertical symmetry is so characteristic of faces that we almost take it for granted. This inverted symmetry therefore both compels and resists our interpretation of the object as a face. Also, blue shoe tongues loll out across much of the “face’s” surface, interrupting its profile. A surplus of tongues suggests the bestial or monstrous, or at least a surfeit of oral sensation.

Can I infer that it is a mask? Perhaps the show is challenging me to take the object on its own terms? If so, I lean away from mask and toward portrait bust, just by virtue of its placement on the high plinth. But then I look at the work from the back. It is concave. Like a mask.

I move on clockwise to the second work: The Nameless Fear (2015–16). The palette here is restricted to greys and blacks, with a few instances of contrasting white or red. Two elements stand out against a chaotic grey jumble of shoe parts. They are two whole black shoe tops, soles removed, that have been folded into distinctive shapes with their open bottoms facing forward. Because these shoes are black inside and out, except for a ring of white material where they were once connected to the sole, they grab our attention, the white edge defining a dark void within, all of which stands out against the grey. The black shoe on the left is pinched into a figure eight while the shoe on the right seems also to have been put into a figure eight, but then the bottom loop has been folded up and under, making the larger upper loop gape wider and the smaller one disappear. Some part of my mind desperately wants to read the smaller top loop on the left and the larger loop on the right as eyes, but it is a little more than I can do. Then I imagine tilting the object ninety degrees clockwise. Now I can easily interpret what would be the top figure eight as a pair of silly monster-Muppet eyes and the bottom, distorted figure eight as an equally comic snarling mouth. I suspect I’ve gone too far: from nameless fear to the Muppets. That can’t be right. I move around to the rear, where I see a chaos of shoe parts resting atop a neat, sturdily bolted arrangement of sliced shoe soles.

The next work, Lay Down Tender Fire (2015–16), immediately brings to mind a Plains-style feather headdress. The object composes the familiar extended upside-down U shape of a headdress from shoe halves that are white, black and occasionally a bright yellow-orange. They alternate colours, but not in a clear pattern or symmetrically side to side. The shoe halves, with soles removed, are stacked into each other, their tops facing forward, right halves on the right, left halves on the left, creating an arc in each direction. Toward the top they are widely spaced, creating a broader band of each colour, while farther down they are more tightly woven together. The soles of the shoes have been removed, creating a concavity in the centre, as with an actual headdress. After struggling with the previous works, this one seems almost too easily pinned down, although I am fascinated by the cunning material manipulation. Then I move around to the back. Now I’m looking at a completely different object. The inner edge of each shoe is visible along the line that was once attached to the sole, stacked tightly together, except at the top where they spread wider and you can look into the interior of the shoe. What’s most notably different is that the curve of the instep is repeated over and over again, creating a powerful sense of movement, like a Futurist representation of flapping bird wings, or, with the inclusion of the orange-yellow shoes, curling, rising flames. Is that one sense in which we might connect the object to the title? Yet even in the title we are torn in two directions. One can lay a fire and perhaps even imagine doing it tenderly, but laying down fire is a military phrase in which the fire in question comes from weapons. That sort of fire can only be described as tender with the greatest irony. Still, does that make this a war bonnet?

King Capra (2016) looks like an owl to me, with wide outspread wings arcing up, a wide body (too wide, really, even for an owl) and big red eyes. (My friends think a crab is more likely and I wondered that too.) Where the other works are assembled from parts, this one appears more sculpted. The wings are made from thick sections of soles that provide enough solidity and structure to be shaped by carving. Whether this actually happened, or the parts were individually shaped and assembled, the appearance of a subtractive approach remains. The only Capra I can think of is the director Frank Capra. I can’t seem to get anywhere with that. My penchant for alliteration throws up “king cobra.” A hypnotic snake and hypnotic owl eyes? Hypnotic Hollywood cinema? That seems like a stretch. And maybe it’s a crab anyway. A King Crab? It looks more like a Dungeness.

The final work, Walk This Way (2015–16), is the most shoe-ish, so to speak. Facing it, we see the bottom soles of two shoes side by side forming a kind of face and then a cascade of shoe parts arcing out and down on either side, with the bottom shoes coming to rest against the plinth. The shoes have had their soles removed and are split in half down the centre in the front. This allows them to retain a great deal of their shoe appearance – at least from certain angles – while at the same time creating a strong sense of articulated bodily sprawl. This is also the only work in which the shape and the pattern of shoe colours is balanced symmetrically between sides. It really feels as though I ought to be able to make something out here. Pleading arms stretched out at an unnatural angle? Elaborate hair ornaments? Monstrous, non-human features?

I move around to the back. The work is fairly close to the wall, but there is room to circle it. The proximity to the wall is deliberate; there is plenty of space in the gallery. Presumably the artist wants us up close on this side: all the better to see, or because we need to feel what it’s like to be in this creature’s proximity? And now that I am on this side I’m not sure anymore that the other side was the front. The “front” of the face was the bottom of the soles of two pairs of shoes, but we do not find the rest of the shoe around back. Instead there is a tight stack of soles, one atop the other, building outwards, each layer a little smaller on the top and sides and sliced at roughly a forty-five degree angle, so that the stack slopes down and inward toward the base. Is this the pointed face of an animal, with antlers arcing out behind it?

Walk this way? I’m not even sure which way is forward.

Back in my office, I return to the final paragraph of the press release. Does my experience of the work lines up with the gallery’s statement? It tells me the: “…works are less a direct representation and contain more a suggestion of animal and human faces, taking advantage of how we innately search for and recognize these particular patterns.” So far, so good, although my own experience involved the conscious and unconscious folding in of many cultural expectations to whatever instinctive powers of recognition I might have.

It continues:

This phenomena, oscillating between representation and abstraction, has historically been used in the visual representation of diverse mythologies. It could be argued that myths are always born from trauma and intertwine with the uncanny and supernatural, itself by definition unknown and indescribable.

I caught hints of this, but was not able to put it together on my own. At best, I had a sense of damaged order and occasional trauma. Allowing myself to think of these as masks or non-natural beings, I might have stretched to the mythic, but putting that all together was more than I was able to do on my own. Now I suppose it adds something more to consider.
The last sentence reads:

Considering our continued abstraction of faces and bodies through masks and dress, these works can be considered in direct relation to the diverse but unified aesthetics of contemporary global economic, political and cultural conflict.4

Here, I am lost, because the link does not seem direct to me at all. It is certainly not explicit. I need to know more about this “diverse but unified aesthetics of contemporary global economic, political and cultural conflict” and what it might mean. But perhaps my own perspective is too parochial and too desperately optimistic. If these are misshapen creatures birthed from trauma, I find their indeterminacy not monstrous but liberating. I love the way in which they compound the dynamic of misrecognition we first saw in the Prototypes. In the current climate, where meanings around Indigenous art and culture often seems fixed and over-scripted, I think that Boisjoly is right; the refusal of mean- ing to settle and the ability to admit that sometimes we just don’t know is politically charged in itself. I’m glad to have met these strange creatures, neither eagle or seagull, and to welcome their becoming into the world.