“The new plastics made one, above all, modern. American leisure, Frankel exuberantly proclaimed, must be ‘wrapped in cellophane!’ Leisure, the time made available by machine labor, should be aesthetically brilliant, impervious to the elements, artificial in all the best senses of the word. Fortune magazine declared that ‘the synthetic plastic… is a glamorous substance and a tribute to the powers of man’ and Frankel extorted his readers to wrap themselves up in those powers, make themselves over in a shiny new substance, and celebrate the virtuosity of a transparent plastic coating.”
– Judith Brown, Glamour in Six Dimensions: Modernism and the Radiance of Form (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009), 150.
The “virtuosity of a transparent plastic coating” lies in the power of the new surface material to affect the object or body that it covers, transforming the resurfaced thing and in so doing catapulting it into a more luscious and modern world, a consumer fantasy where the delicate meets the impervious. Like Frankel’s cellophane, manipulations of the surface conditions of art affect more than the visual qualities of the work: they also have the power to alter its status as object, changing how the viewer perceives and relates to its materiality.
In the works featured in this exhibition, radiance, that quality of projected light that we associate so often with the marvelous and the modern, is subverted by the relationship between the quality of a surface and what it covers, reflects, or contains: gilded insect wings sketch a house’s morbid geography, material treatments upend expectations of form and colour, and dollar-store detritus, sunk in resin, seems to glow behind glass. These glistening, shining surfaces manipulate the viewer’s perception of dimension through reflections and refractions, un-forming the object, like Narcissus at the pool who saw not himself but another, described by the poet Alice Oswald as “half frail, half glittering,” and died there, transfixed, unable to establish contact. They are also, as Brown points out in Frankel’s ecstatic cellophane experience, portals into the aesthetics and material conditions of late modernity.
What happens when surfaces glitter, gleam, sparkle, and shine? The artists and works featured in this exhibition use a variety of materials to generate these surface effects, from glass to gold, foil, plastic, and pearls. Each material has its own qualities of shine and reflection. The surfaces they offer are seeded with aesthetic associations from glamour to kitsch, celebration to science. For the viewer, the resulting effect of each work is a combination of material familiarity and perceptual distortion. Surface is the point of contact for the body, it’s skin and texture and touch. The contact between light and surface in these shining, sparkling works creates, variably, the mirrored illusion of extended space, the fracturing and projection of the viewer’s body, rainbow refractions of white gallery light, and uncertainty about the material limits of the work itself. How does the viewer experience these qualities as integral to the work’s wholeness, affecting the surrounding space, inviting or dissuading contact?
These works invite us to transform as they do, through interactions with surfaces that dazzle, using light to obscure or fracture the images and clarity we expect. They answer a craving for radiance, a desire to be like them, shining and seemingly limitless. They offer the promise of the object made new, but even if they speak in the same material language of the glittering and the precious, the modern, and the transcendent, they speak its opposite, too, a language of obscurity and disappearance, complicating the shining and ideal. They layer the surface substances that gloss the world we know, of festival product launches where, for all our talk of scrubbed clean sustainability, offering glimmers of a radiant reality where light becomes, not truth illuminated, but something else.
In Catherine Telford-Keogh’s work, the artist uses glass coffee tables found on Kijiji and other found objects to create visually stunning compositions. Embedded in colourful foam, the objects that sit under the glass surface of each table are a geological cross section of the randomness of domestic accumulation. Under glass, they are on display, meant to be seen, while the thickness of the foam layer that contains them holds further, unseen objects. The objects that sit on the tables, resin casts of vases, contain even more artifacts: pickles, dog food, bath balls and things picked up at the dollar store. The shine of light on table and objects holds the viewer back from all this density; seemingly presented for our view, the surfaces of the display conspire to thwart it, reflecting the outside world back at us instead of granting us access to the solidity of the interior they promise to show.
Metal and Foils
In Midnight Forms by the Broadbent Sisters, the surface manipulations that accompany each step on Anna’s journey into the mystic underworld of the self culminate in the shiny cape that she wears towards the end of the film. The cape emphasizes her transformation, referencing the polished, aesthetic female body at the center of this series of work by the sisters and its dematerialization through the character’s journey. In Katie Bethune-Leamen’s video work A Third and Final Part: Peary & Ahnighito, Peary drifts along, suspended in the air a few feet above the gunmetal waters of Greenland’s Disko Bay. Intercut with his passage are scenes in which he stares, transfixed, at the shimmering, iridescent surface of his tangental obsession, the Ahnighito meteor. The shininess of the object, repeated in the polished aluminum surface of Bethune-Leamen’s meteor-like sculpture Really It’s A Lot Bigger, A Lot Heavier, And A Lot Darker #18, is one aspect of its unknowable-ness, a quality that makes the thing difficult to fathom. It makes it hard to say when we’ve seen all of it, to judge, just from a glance, the qualities that anchor it in a world outside our perception—its weight, its density, its fixity in relation to the ground—and likewise the origin of whatever power it has.
Cloud Cell by Xiaojing Yan highlights the particulate conditions of matter and the difficulties of defining limits, creating a bounded environment where interior (spatial) and object conditions are uncertain and undefined. Tracing the surface of a cloud in pearls creates a scatter-point representation of the cloud as object, one in which the distribution of the points creates multiple spatial relationships both through and around the form they describe. The pearls themselves, magnifications of the water droplets that collect to form a cloud, further destabilize the form of the work with their iridescence, mimicking the luminosity of vapour but remaining smooth, solid, precious, and lasting. Cole Swanson gilds chicken bones and insect wings, transforming disposable bodies into precious things. Using materials drawn from ritual – gold, bone, blood, thread – the pieces ask us to question the conditions for contemplation and display. The gilded surface heightens our awareness of the object, encasing wishbone and wing in an aura of light, deepening meaning.
For Daniel Griffin Hunt, the surface conditions of the cellophane that the artist uses in Portals affect the space of the installation. The layers of plastic reduce the transparency of the material, creating a reflective screen that shrouds its interior space. The surface of these cellophane walls is not decorative or additive but accumulative, a condition of the material used in their construction and inseparable from the structure of the piece. Installed outside, the shine of the plastic changes through the day, at times translucent and at others glowing with the reflected light of streetlights or the sun. If it’s possible, we could ask Hunt to install this as an outdoor element to the exhibition.
Threshold by Sanaz Mazinani includes an installation space lined with mirrored panels cut in geometric patterns that recall the complex mosaic and plaster decorations of Islamic architecture. Reflecting video projections of explosions taken from Hollywood films, the panels produce dazzling kaleidoscopic patterns, multiplying and refracting the images beyond all recognition. As the viewer walks through the installation space, her body is also reflected, distorted, and combined with the fire of the cinematic bombs on the mirrors’ shimmering surface.