John Massier's new suite of photographs, Kingdom: Selections From The Early 21st Century, on display at Birch Libralato in Toronto, is prompting an intriguing online debate – one that, once you cut through the art-chat clutter, boils down to this: With millions of photographs available via the Internet, on all subjects, by people who identify themselves as artists and those who do not, is there any point in presenting a traditional, gallery-based exhibition of photographs?
To me that's like asking if, given the vast array of frozen foods available, there is any point in going to a restaurant.
Not to equate Internet-based or Internet-presented art with processed food – not at all, let me be clear – but rather to make an equation with the experiences. Eating readymade food at home is one kind of delight (comfortable, casual, solitary if desired); eating prepared food at a restaurant is another kind (social, consciously ambient, indulgent). To paraphrase the old adage from the real-estate game: What sells is context, context, context.
Many of Massier's photographs do indeed remind the viewer of a particular kind of image popular on social networking sites – the "look at this weird/sad thing I saw" kind, the so-called "fail" image. And Massier himself has posted most of his Early 21st Century series online, where I first saw them. So the artist is clearly not concerned with any hierarchical divisions between fine-art photography and mass-media image capturing and sharing (nor ought he to be, as those hierarchies were erased over a decade ago).
So why all the back-and-forth over this exhibition?
My suspicion is that in our rush to see-everything-all-the-time, we've forgotten how to see things slowly, or at least at a different pace and in a different context (that magic word again).
Works viewed in a gallery prompt inherently different responses than works seen on a computer screen. First off, there's the size. While I enjoyed Massier's online postings, I was not able to fully absorb the details his large, physical reproductions offer. Secondly, there is the mental state induced by walking into a gallery and choosing to view works: Unlike imagery encountered online, people rarely find images in a gallery randomly or by chance (which is too bad, and why they don't is a whole other bag of problems); viewers don't stumble onto art with the same point-and-click (or point-and-click-off) rapidity that online viewing encourages.
I would further argue that online viewing is itself a unique form of art viewing, one that privileges immediacy and disposability over more active forms of choosing and discarding. I attach no value judgment to these distinctions: Immediacy and easy access do not equal a lesser visual experience, just a different sort of experience, one that is fulfilling exactly because it's fast, free, and endlessly variable.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the gallery context changes how the work is read. Galleries, however much one either appreciates or deplores this reality, still feel to most visitors like something between a church and a library. They are hushed, contemplative spaces (no matter how noisy an individual exhibition may be).
Whether that reality needs an upgrade or not, I'll leave for another time. But as someone who visits dozens of art-exhibiting spaces every month, I can tell you that unless the joint is packed with kids, who get shushed anyway, you can park yourself on a bench and read Proust without interruption.
Under these circumstances, Massier's photographs are transformed from quirky gotcha snaps (again, also lovable) to meditative, slightly abject reflections on North America's unquestionable decline.
Massier lives in Buffalo, N.Y., a city that has endured more than its share of economic hardships, and he finds evidence of the proverbial decline of the empire everywhere.
A tiny parking-lot-attendant box/security station is ridiculously over-guarded by waist-high, bright yellow fencing in post-Sept. 11 overkill. Abandoned furniture is propped against rotting housing with the word "Kingdom" spray-painted on the cladding (one guesses the space is somebody's kingdom). A tombstone is marked "Lies" (an unfortunate last name). A snow sled is left at the bottom of a tall mound of filthy, coal-black dirt, evidence of a kid's plan gone wrong. An uninviting old shed is counterintuitively tagged with the words "Inner Worlds." Fencing made from a crumbling crate slat, knotted-together chain and a torn bit of orange snow net attempts hopelessly to guard a grimy passage.
Looked at collectively, slowly and in big-screen-TV sizes, Massier's photographs create a singular mood, one of abject resignation mixed with gallows humour, that cannot be as easily replicated on an image feed. The metaphorical and imagistic connections one makes (all that rotting wood!), one would be less inclined to see online. If anything, viewed in sequence online, the images are more likely to provoke a removed, far less sympathetic response, because the eye would be drawn to the brightest or loudest portions of each image.
So, there are (at least) two John Massiers at work here, the artist who feeds a digital stream and prompts a specific, but just as valid, set of responses (primarily, sardonic laughs), and the artist who hangs the same work in a gallery and induces another set of responses (melancholic rumination).
The digital-versus-tactile debate is thus a non-starter. The question is not which is better, but which format produces which responses.
AT OTHER VENUES
Harding Meyer: New Faces Galerie Lausberg, 326 Dundas St. W. Until Sept. 4
Meyer's luscious paintings of models found in fashion magazines carry an unnerving over-current: On top of the perfect, symmetrical faces, a nervous, cutting stream of paint is knifed onto the surface, destabilizing both the image and the false promise of perfection.
Heather Carey & Ian McLean Loop Gallery, 1273 Dundas St. W. Until Aug. 14
Last chance to see Carey & McLean's separate but blended sets of paintings. Carey mixes abstract forms with architectural details – buttresses and blobs. McLean recreates mid-century luxury homes but paints them as if they've been dunked in acid. Clearly, home is where the (broken) heart is.
Julie Moon: Pretty, Strange Narwhal Art Projects, 680 Queen St. W. Until Sept. 4
Imagine taking your granny's Royal Doulton floral ceramics, a trove of dollar-store figurines and some failed clay-throwing projects, tossing the lot into a hot kiln, then reshaping the melted conglomeration into creepy-cute, post-Surrealist sculptures. Or let Moon do it for you.