Though it's easy to overlook, the influence of Bauhaus design is evident in everything from apartment blocks and public sculpture to sans-serif typefaces and flat-pack furniture. Operating in Germany between the wars, the school championed a unified, modernist esthetic, favouring clean lines and stark functionality, one motivated equally by practicality and idealism.
Beyond architecture and design, the school sought to erase boundaries among disciplines, inviting distinguished visual artists such as Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee to serve as lecturers. In Re: Build Them, his exhibition at the University of Winnipeg's Gallery 1C03, Ian August draws examples of Bauhaus and Bauhaus-inspired architecture back into the realm of fine art, investigating how the structures and the ideas behind them have held up over time.
Foremost a painter, the elaborate preparations that go into each of August's canvases distinguish his approach. Working from both observation and imagination, he begins each piece by building a detailed architectural maquette or diorama, three of which appear in the show. He photographs the scale models from different angles, sometimes creating the illusion of real-world scenes, other times stepping back to expose the setup. The photographs, which aren't exhibited, provide source material for large-scale oil paintings.
Condo shows the featureless corner of a room: bare floor, simple moulding, a light switch and that's it. Cobbled together from scrap linoleum and what appear to be cheese graters and shower-curtain rings, Opera House/Casino is a charmingly jerry-built imagining of a sleek 1930s atrium. In both the gallery and the accompanying painting, the model is propped up on sawhorses, quoting a work by contemporary German photographer Thomas Demand, who also builds and photographs scale models.
Though a skilled painter in many respects, August's matter-of-fact sensibility and perfunctory handling mean that the paintings themselves don't do much beyond describe appearances. With the models on hand just a few feet away, they become oddly superfluous. Still, August is concerned with the more elusive qualities lost and gained in the process of translating from architecture to sculpture to photography to painting.
Two large canvases present a straight-ahead view of a graffiti-scarred loading dock. It's possible to regard the paintings almost as windows onto a real (if run-down) space, but again the actual subject is a maquette, this time loosely based on a 1920s Berlin factory. Cleverly, August ensconces the model behind a gallery wall, viewable through a brass peephole that forces an elevated, slightly unnerving "security camera" perspective. The illusion is striking, and together the works neatly encapsulate August's exploration of viewpoint, perception, artifice and scale.
Just as Re: Build Them seems poised to disappear down the rabbit hole of its own redundancy, we arrive at Airport, the exhibition's only video and its most unselfconsciously gratifying work. For four-and-a-half bumpy minutes, we circle a blinking model airport pieced together from plastic junk and Christmas lights, which spreads across the floor of August's darkened studio. A miniature airplane wing strapped to the front of the camera completes the effect.
It's a useful reminder of the underlying playfulness of August's practice and a wry nod to the glittering optimism behind the austere surfaces of Bauhaus design. Eighty years after the school closed under pressure from the Nazis and with the buildings beginning to show their age, it's an optimism that can seem as distant and dodgy as a runway control tower made of takeout containers.
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.