Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Richard William Hill

A key work in the Kamloops Art Gallery's recent "Custom Made/Tsitslem te stem teck'ultens-kuc" was Amy Mabeuf's Jimmie Durham 1974 (2014). Here, the younger artist took an oft-quoted statement spoken by the elder Durham in 1974 (as contained in my review of the exhibition), broke it into lines and, using blue plastic beads, centre-justified these lines onto a blue plastic tarpaulin. The effect is like that of a poem found at a memorial, or a roadblock backdrop. (The image above shows the work's earlier installation at the Art Gallery of Alberta, the image below includes a roadblock backdrop.)

Although it is clear that Malbeuf takes issue with the sentiment expressed in Durham's statement, it is equally clear that she respects the artist and understands the historical and social context in which this statement was made. As such, I see Jimmie Durham 1974 operating as a significant artwork -- an artwork based as much in (positive) critique as it is in formal and material intelligence (note how the monochrome is used, how the finished and unfinished wood together provide a "frame").

I bring up Jimmie Durham 1974 because Richard William Hill has posted the first of what will be a series of monthly posts on the Canadian Art website. In a prefatory note, the ECUAD scholar hopes that these posts will allow him to "think out loud in public about questions and controversies arising from [his] recent research for a book about contemporary indigenous art from 1980 to 1995." For his first post, Hill asks, "Was indigenous art better in the early 1980s and early '90s?"

A provocative question, of course, one that had me responding to Hill at the level of language (for example, what is the measure of "better" and "best" and "good" and "bad" art?). In response to my response (at the bottom of his post he provides his contact info), Hill wrote to me:

"[F]or this column I thought I’d put my cards on the table: bad art is conservative and tells us what we already know in forms we are already familiar with, good art opens up new possibilities and helps us understand the emergence of new ideas or perspectives. I didn’t say so, but I think we can identify the "best” as those works that fundamentally changed how we see things. These words are blunt tools, but in a short column designed to be provocative I am happy to be blunt. After three years working at the AGO I developed a pretty good sense of the perils of connoisseurship, but these days I am more worried about the timid “post-critical” culture we seem to be in than anything else, and I would rather err on the side of having an opinion in public, assuming that it is provisional and will be sculpted and refined in response to other, differing opinions."

Thank you, Richard, for taking the time to respond to my questions, and to Canadian Art for committing to what I am sure will be a generative and long-lasting conversation.

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