Though he's used photographs in his work for over 40 years, Garry Neill Kennedy isn't a much of photographer himself.
Of the 700 or so images blanketing the walls of his career-spanning exhibition at Platform Centre, the Governor General's Award-winning conceptual artist and painter took only a fraction himself, and even these -- expressionless snapshots of street signs and subway posters -- aren't much to look at. The rest include newspaper clippings, black-and-white publicity stills for schlocky westerns, posts to online message boards, even his own fourth grade class picture from 1948. Each photograph, regardless of who shot it, is as seemingly insignificant as the next.
Grouped in tidy grids according to source and subject matter, the ordinariness and monotony of Kennedy's images belie his astute powers of observation. With time, the surprising patterns that he's has spent a career teasing out begin to emerge, some of them funny, others unsettling, and many falling somewhere in between.
A 1980 sequence of Polaroids, Recent Plants, documents potted palms and ficus trees in the galleries of 15 Toronto art dealers. By highlighting the décor (which wouldn't be out of place in a dentist's waiting room or a hotel lobby) at the expense of the artworks themselves, Kennedy takes a gentle jab at some of the art world's priorities and pretensions. Special Presentation strikes a similar chord, amassing over 300 newspaper photographs of people being publicly "presented" with things -- trophies, cheques, commemorative plaques, etc. With repetition, images of these easily overlooked (but evidently newsworthy) rituals start to look ridiculous, even strange. Operating on the same principle, another series documents dozens of identical advertising posters featuring a mugging Jerry Lewis. The photos, hurriedly shot in the Paris Metro in 1995, engulf a section of the gallery like absurd and vaguely disturbing wallpaper.
Elsewhere the tone is more serious: 2004's Streets of Stephenville points to the legacy of American military presence in a small Newfoundland town, the site of a decommissioned U.S. air force base, by documenting the numerous signs for streets named after American states. Moving Stills, from 1991, is a tilted grid of black-and-white photos promoting "Cowboy and Indian" moves, each tinted deep red. In this case, Kennedy's unrelenting repetition underscores the entrenched racism of Hollywood's stereotyped depictions of aboriginal characters.
Spotted, from 2009, echoes this format and offers the some of the exhibition's most chilling observations. This time coloured an intense, sumptuous sky blue, the photographs show small jets and propeller planes taking off, landing, or idling on the tarmac. Found using information published by human rights groups and taken by aviation enthusiasts who post them to dedicated "plane-spotting" websites, the photographs show aircraft used by the CIA for so-called "extraordinary renditions," where individuals detained as terror suspects are transported to countries known to employ torture for additional, unrestricted interrogation.
The piece starkly highlights the scope and gravity of what we're able to overlook, and, like so many of the works in this wide-ranging and immensely rewarding exhibition, it demonstrates Kennedy's cogent and effective use of photography to bring these things to our attention.
The show offers a rare look at over four decades of lesser-known work by a distinguished Canadian artist, one whose unfaltering cleverness is matched by evident compassion -- a distinguished Canadian artist who, like the rest of us, can't seem to figure out the flash settings on his camera.
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer, and educator.
Garry Neill Kennedy: Photoworks, 1969-2011
Platform Centre for photographic + digital arts
121-100 Arthur St.
To April 20