Phantasmagoria at Presentation House Gallery
Presentation House on the North Shore has a mandate to show photography and media art with a focus on Canadian content. But even within these reasonably specific parameters, they consistently manage to construct exhibitions that challenge our expectations of the possibilities that these media hold, pushing the boundaries of what photographic image-making is, or can be. Their latest effort, Phantasmagoria, is no exception and the title hints at the kaleidoscopic and illusive nature of the works gathered. The word originally referred to a type of theatre that gained popularity in the 19th century in which a “magic lantern” would be used to project images of ghosts and ghouls on a wall or screen, creating a visual spectacle of images that could rapidly shift in scale and subject matter. The term was later co-opted by the literary critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin who used it to describe the way technology and its proliferation of mass media and consumer culture affected modern life, creating a “phantasmagoric reverie.” Curators Reid Shier and Helga Pakasaar have brought together recent work by a diverse group of emerging and mid-career artists, mostly living in Vancouver, who have created collages, photographs, slide projections, sculptures and web-based projects that experiment with processes and technology to explore the nature of photographic depiction itself, recreating something of the “phantasmagoric reverie” Benjamin described.
There is some striking collage on view by Elizabeth Zvonar who offers a mash-up of references that have been removed from their original context and hand-cut, sometimes fashioned into forms resembling figures. These are reassembled and produced as inkjet prints, belying their hand-made nature. Evan Lee’s Maquette for Phoropter Collage works combine a myriad of images of the machines that are used to test vision, compiling lenses upon lenses. These intensely detailed and layered photographs of devices used for looking and testing eyesight ask the viewer to engage in this activity themselves to discern just how the work is constructed.
Abstraction is a strong presence in Phantasmagoria manifesting in diverse and interesting forms – Ron Tran’s So All You May See It, Yet None See It, 2012, is comprised of a group of delicate prints that are the result of the exposure of photographic paper to sunlight. In this work, Tran has created an image of light itself. In Three Quarter Passes (Cyan, Magenta, yellow, Black), 2012 Matthew McWilliams has used inkjet pigment as a dye on unbleached linen, creating a hybrid that uses photographic inks on a canvas-like surface to create a series of small-scale paintings replicating the colours used in the CMYK, four-colour printing process. Toronto-based photographer Jessica Eaton has long experimented with analogue strategies in her work, layering exposures and using colour separation filters to produce enigmatic works that seem to defy the parameters of their process of creation. Her works on view from the series Cubes for Albers and LeWitt are astonishing optical experiments in which Eaton paints with the additive properties of light – the results are abstracted blocks of transposed and gyrating colour that are remarkably free from digital manipulation. Dan Siney’s Expo Beautiful Taiiwan, 2012 is a large-scale black and white photograph of a densely populated forest hovering between abstraction and representation, playing with the patterning of the light falling in the foliage to beautiful painterly effect.
Perhaps the most immediately commanding of the works on view is Andrew Dadson’s monumental Black Light, 2012, which upon cursory glance might be dismissed as just a large-scale monochromatic painting. In keeping with much of his recent work, Dadson has created a monochrome, however he has used 144 fluorescent lights as his canvas; these are bound together to mimic the structure of a lightbox, a reference to the device which is frequently associated with Vancouver-based photographers. Although he has tried to deny the functionality of the lights by thickly layering black paint over them, their emissions break through minute cracks, recalling stars in the night sky. The heat the work emits is palpable as it mingles with the fumes of the impastoed paint – Dadson is unable to erase the materiality of the media he employs.
Slide projections, an assemblage and internet works are also on view in Phantasmagoria – the assembly of works in Phantasmagoria is certainly diverse but the exhibition is tied together by the artists’ strong interest in process and materials. Their willingness to divert from traditional methods and work experimentally, offers visually satisfying results that also provide an expansive interpretations of what is possible applying photographic techniques.