Maggie Groat: Suns also Seasons
by Kendra Ainsworth
Suns. Moons. Seasons. The sun passing over the yardarm, the moon gibbous or crescent. Measures of time passing and being renewed, before the idea of time was made linear, abstracted and mathematically partitioned. How might we perceive, experience and think differently had these primordial, diurnal and seemingly mystical rhythms remained our standard mode of parsing the universe around us? What systems, understandings and senses might we still have access to? In Suns also Seasons at the Kitchener- Waterloo Art Gallery, Maggie Groat has crafted a quiet, contemplative space in which to ponder these questions.
Groat’s conceptual collage and assemblage-based practice has always been concerned with how images, objects, places and ideas can be recontextualized to form new or revisit old narratives, looking awry at the sometimes-unseen systems that structure our world. Perhaps the most entrenched of these systems is that of a modern, Western, teleological, progress-driven concept of time. Groat taps into the current cultural fascination with the idea of deep time, apropos at a moment when disconnect between the frantic pace of life in the digital age and the attenuated processes of the geological, environmental and biological seem both yawningly great and poised for a collision in the era of the Anthropocene.
At the centre of the exhibition sits HEXAGON for ALMANAC, a large, low enclosed form, delineated with unfinished wood beams and filled with industrial grey carpet padding. It calls to mind the area where children gather at the local library, seated in a circle, patiently awaiting Saturday-morning storytelling. It exerts a subtle gravitational pull on the exhibition, drawing us into and around it. Like the library, it is a place to gather, to tell stories, a circle cast by witches and druids long ago, the standing stones that once described its circumference long fallen, leaving only ridges in the ground. The gallery has become a sacred site with visitors making seasonal pilgrimages, each time to the same space, which has been changed in the meantime, repurposed, filled anew with objects of worship. The other large installation element of the exhibition, RISER for SET, is an altar of sorts, with three stairs leading up to meet the back wall of the gallery on which are hung small found metal elements, arrayed in an arc, varying solid and open circular forms suggesting the lunar cycle.
Orbiting this central point are constellations of Groat’s signature collage works, small sculptures, design interventions in the gallery space and a cleverly integrated selection of works from the KWAG permanent collection. The collages are spare, with muted colours and repeating forms. Circles, ellipses, squares – arcing and angling geometries forming concentric rings – hint at connections between tenets of mathematics, philosophy, physics and religion. Many of Groat’s titles reference set theory, using elements of mathematical notation, creating tension and connection between Euclidean and pagan symbolism. The use of botanical and biological forms that have strong mathematical referents – the golden ratio in the whorl of snail shell, the tessellations visible in flower centres – make understated appearances in some of the collage works, but they are most present in what is perhaps the most challenging piece in the exhibition, KIT. Its dense busy-ness almost at odds with the rest of the works on display, it initially seems to elude interpretation. A hexagonal polyhedron, constructed of plywood, it rests on the ground in one corner of the gallery. A National Geographic -like collection of images of plants and planets are arranged on the top – perhaps the wholes from which the collaged snippets in the framed works are derived from or reference. One side is open, unfurling a yellowing sheet of foam with small spherical and crystalline objects gently sinking into its surface. Is this perhaps a toolbox, revealing objects that hold the power of the earth, the crushing weight, and heat that turns ancient decaying organic matter into mineral forms which are then mined and held aloft as talismans of that eternal mystery, time?
Groat offers up a sense of order, providing a guide or codex for these new (old) ways of looking, through circular, cyclical references and the titular iterations of the seasons. The gallery’s own seasons are reflected here, with components from previous exhibitions unearthed, reconfigured, yet not quite shaking off the imprints of their previous existence: institutional history as collage. Particularly adept is how Groat has positioned SET, a grouping of nine works selected from the KWAG collection – by Jack Bush, Barbara Hepworth and Arnold Shives, among others– all in the same roseate palette, alongside a collage work that serves as an abstracted legend. In another oblique reference, the walls have been painted using leftover of paint from previous exhibitions, and the yellow bands painted vertically along one wall reference the light cast by the gallery building’s exterior windows. The colour variations suggest the slow movement of the sun across the sky, but these forms also bring to mind the patterns created by photons in the double-slit experiments demonstrating that light behaves as both a particle and a wave. Like the possible waves that interact with each other, forming quantum interference patterns, historical and formal references interact, amplifying and modulating each other.
Groat’s work, her considered collections of objects, has always been reaching for something, teasing at the edges of some inchoate realization. With Suns also Seasons, she comes closest to coaxing forth an epiphany (about life, the universe and everything? It is hard to resist the temptation to wax transcendental here), each work playing off the other, building to a harmonious resonance. If there is one piece that is perhaps superfluous it is SIX BLOCKS, a small collection of found objects sourced from the gallery. Its small size and unobtrusive placement, while a slyly humorous contrast to the more monumental pieces, makes it seem like something of an afterthought. Regardless, Groat’s subtle, poignant meditation on the unseen forces that pull us into orbit and unconsciously structure our thinking comes across as perspicacious, and it leaves us with an exhortation: to harness the talismanic power of the images and forms that shape the narratives of nature, time, science and art, and to begin again, again, again.