The oldest paintings we know about are 40,000 years old, and people are still making new ones, so the art-world cliché that "painting is dead" might be shortsighted (or it would be, if anyone actually believed it).
Still, it's fair to say that painters have had plenty of time to explore their options: there's probably no way to put pigment on a surface that somebody, somewhere hasn't already tried.
The idea that it's all been done might discourage some artists, but for Winnipeg's Robert Taite, it's a provocation. To judge from There Is Here, his giddy, freewheeling installation of "sculptural paintings," in fact, he takes it as a carte blanche.
A century ago, abstract artists rejected the idea that paintings had to be illusionistic "windows" onto distant scenes. In the 1960s minimalists finished that thought, reminding us that paintings aren't "pictures" at all, but three-dimensional objects that occupy the same space we do. Since then, paintings have been pared back to their most basic elements, literally torn apart and put back together, flipped over backwards, burned, shredded, stacked, chopped and screwed in every way imaginable.
Imaginative, irreverent, beautifully crafted and genuinely lovely, Taite's installations of radically reconfigured canvases and panels revisit many points in this history of painterly experimentation. They nod to the exploded canvases of Sam Gilliam or Frank Stella mand to the supports/surfaces micro-movement that emerged in late-'60s France, but Taite seems equally inspired by "real world" referents like cabinetry, lawn chairs and architectural detailing. Conceived of as a single environment, There Is Here is more than the sum of either its references or its constituent pieces, however. Taite breezes across boundaries between painting, sculpture, architecture and even performance, and the results are pretty magical.
Taite finds countless ways to recombine and reimagine the basic materials of painting: nearly everything in the formidably diverse exhibition is built from canvas, wooden frames and panels coloured with mis-tinted house paint from the hardware store. Long, plank-like canvases lie like baseboards along the walls, climb up and lean against pillars, or contort themselves into freestanding portals. Other paintings feature built-in alcoves that spew forth torrents of shredded canvas, contain bulging, blob-shaped wooden panels, or (in one case) open onto holes cut through the wall.
Elsewhere, an angular shaped canvas hangs from a tripod-mounted amplifier unit, meant to be wielded in space to "shape" and deflect the sound emitted by the speaker. It's a novel gesture, one that echoes the show's prevailing sense of fluidity and responsiveness and Taite's own interest in experimental noise and sound art.
I had the chance to preview the exhibition last week, when Taite was only halfway through the two-week process of mounting the dozens of individual pieces that make up the show. In a real sense, however, his installations are never truly "fixed" or "finished." At the time, works were still being produced on-site. Taite completed others during a studio residency in Quebec City earlier this winter, but even these "older" works have been extensively reconfigured and remixed for the show.
If anything, it seemed appropriate to witness the show as it was just coming together, a controlled chaos of paintings, tools, dropcloths, paint trays and canvas scraps. That day, the entrance to the work-in-progress was obscured by a giant black curtain. There Is Here promises to be one of the year's standout exhibitions, and I'm as excited as anyone for Friday's big reveal.
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator