Temporary Arrangements, Robert Taite's current exhibition at Negative Space, might seem unusual for a painting show. Instead of being the finished product, paintings and their constituent parts (various configurations of canvas, paint, and wooden frames) are just the raw material.
Stockpiled canvases--squares, rectangles, and more eccentric polygons, some awash with solid colour, others left unpainted--lean against the walls with calculated haphazardness. Large paintings are inset with smaller ones, and others pierce and puncture one another, projecting out in three dimensions. Elsewhere, Taite tacks up un-stretched canvas, applies paint directly to the wall, or leaves the stretcher frames uncovered.
Thumbing his nose at convention with evident pleasure, Taite exhibits the ephemera of making and exhibiting paintings--the blocks used to keep them off the floor before they're hung, sawhorses, paint-encrusted stir sticks, etc.--alongside the paintings themselves. Some "paintings" are actually sections of faux-granite countertop, and one stretched canvas cheekily serves as a pedestal for a heap of paint-spattered cardboard boxes (and a few stray packing peanuts). The most seemingly "straightforward" paintings, featuring gestural swipes of colour and "Rorschach-test" motifs, are actually seen in reverse: Taite applies paint to the sheets of clear plastic and stretches them face-down, flipping our perspective and negating the "surface quality" so critical to abstract painting.
Taite's approach to the medium might be freewheeling and irreverent, but it's not exactly unprecedented. The earliest paintings, made tens of thousands of years ago, served as decorations, devotional images, or charms to secure successful hunting and enjoyable afterlives. As technologies of representation like perspective and shading emerged, paintings took on the added role of recording significant events and people, eventually becoming status objects appreciated for their own beauty and their makers' skill. When photography took up the task of documentation, painters began using their medium to communicate individual experiences of the world, establishing a lineage of formal experimentation spanning from Impressionist landscapes to "pure" abstraction. By the 1960s, artists had excavated paintings to the foundations: canvas, supports, and pigment. They were no longer "windows" onto distant scenes or even "optical experiences" of form and colour; they were things with history and physical presence that people had to contend with in real time and space.
With no technique untested and nothing left to reduce, it was open season. Painting was suddenly "material" like any other--anything you cared to make of it. In this light, Temporary Arrangements doesn't seem so unusual after all. The monochromes and shaped canvases strongly evoke Minimalism and related approaches, but the exhibition touches on almost every facet of painting's history: it flirts easily with abstraction, expressiveness, representation, and decoration, hinting vaguely at that other earliest painterly preoccupation, magic.
Admittedly, Taite only has so many formal "tricks," but he deploys them with a kind of rhythm that keeps you engaged and interested. The work relies on a certain amount of cleverness, but it's matched with generosity. There are plenty of artistic in-jokes if you like that sort of thing, but Taite's playfulness is infectious even if you don't. Temporary Arrangements is a smart exhibition with a complicated backstory (take it or leave it; it's your call), but it's also fun to be around.
Not bad-looking, either.
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based emerging artist, writer, and educator from Tampa, Fla.
Robert Taite: Temporary Arrangements
253 Princess St.
November 30-December 7, 2012