An art exhibit becoming an experience

At the McIntosh gallery, the black-and-white picture of Brenda Wallace was captured while she was smoking a cigarette, dressed darkly, dark hair tied back; her eyes betray a glimmer of profound creative vitality. One should think she spoke vigorously, enlivened and enraptured, gesticulating her cigarette as sharply as insight would permit, but also that she spoke softly at times, perhaps in her reclining years, released of the eager impatience her early adulthood wouldn’t have been able to stifle.

Following her training at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts School of Art and Design, Wallace taught in Germany, Canada, Austria and Japan before holding positions at the Institute for Art and Urban Resources in New York, the Canada Council for the Arts and the National Gallery of Canada.

When Wallace came to London she worked alongside and compelled a book titled Passion and Panache from Judith Rodger. Rodger, referred to by Alexandra Jesus at the conclusion of her essay “Incandescent Leadership” as “A one-of-a-kind, incandescent essential character within the London art community,” has worked at what was at one time the London Regional Art and Historical Museum and is now Museum London for more than a dozen years.

After a fruitful relationship with Rodger, Wallace died at the age of 80 in L’Île-du-Grand-Calumet, Quebec, donating part of her private collection to the McIntosh Gallery, the official gallery of Western University.

The creative hands responsible for the 40 works contained within this exhibition, donated from Wallace’s personal collection in 2009, include those of Claude Tousignant, Jerry Pethick, Stephen Andrews and Aganetha Dyck.

Most of the works are conceptual in nature, as in the case of P+L+P+L+P=VSI, VSI Formula No. 10 by Lain and Ingrid Baxter, which is simply a piece of typewriter paper with the words:

“a photograph
becoming a lithograph
becoming a photograph
becoming a lithograph
becoming a photograph”

Many of the pieces contain words in combination with images, sketches or photographs which compel one to think and feel.

William Burroughs once said, “The job of the artist is to show people what they know and what they don’t know that they know.” Whether they know it or don’t know it, the audience of each of these works comes away smiling, perplexed, unified, devastated, none or all of these at once.

Other pieces compel one to question and prod, such as in the case of Wyn Geleynse’s “We Never Knew Her Past Than Through Her Photos,” which contains a series of five pictures. One in particular is the image of a conservative looking woman of perhaps 45 years standing before what is evidently her collection of pans hanging neatly in a row as if on display above her stove and oven. She is smiling, evidently proud to have amassed such a worthy garble of steel and aluminum. With this picture, Geleynse is perhaps showing us that feminism is only as subtle as you allow it to be.

At first Greg Curnoe’s “Self Portrait in Banff Mirror” strikes you as a sketchy portrait of a peculiar, unassuming man one concludes is a prisoner, indicated by his striped garb. But when you begin to dig deeper you see above his face rendered in dark strokes the words “here it comes” written backwards. The title strikes you — ah, “In banff mirror”. And if you look closer still you see also written backwards, but much smaller, the words “razor blade used,” and you begin to see what Curnoe saw and what he evidently aimed to express.

Whatever imaginings one attempts to prescribe to Brenda Wallace without having had the privilege to know her diminish when compared to her history which — at least pieces of it — is alive and wondering still behind the red door here on campus.

The exhibit Passion & Panache: Remembering Brenda Wallace runs at McIntosh Gallery until November 16. A public reception is being held on October 6 from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.