Several years ago Romano purchased the remains of a tank, more specifically, a Universal Carrier; a small, machine gun mounted vehicle used by the Canadian Army primarily in the Second World War. The artist, an experienced metal worker, took the dilapidated military vessel, dismantled it and reconstructed into works of art and/or functional objects. These objects are the focal point of the exhibition, New Work: 2014-2016, which has been broken into two separate but connected parts.
In Carrier (2014), we witness the act of the dismantling of the tank through a video that is accompanied by a whimsical waltz scored by the artist that fills the air and sets the mood for the entire exhibition. On the wall is a hand-painted movie poster featuring a donkey-headed harlequin dancing atop an anvil advertising simply, “A Film by Tony Romano”. Viewers can sit on a black iron bench while watching the 9 minute film which is played through a monitor on a continuous loop. It largely consists of HD shots of a cluttered metal shop where the tank was taken apart. We see metal being pounded and twisted into the bars and finials used for such things as iron railings and as one learns by watching the film, for the iron bench in the gallery too. The music score and editing style of the film conjures magic, beauty, and elegance that juxtaposes the brute craft of metal smithing. The physicality of the labour remains the main focus of the film but in a somewhat abstracted and disembodied way. The appearance of the artist or of any people have been avoided, there is no dialogue – the human element kept minimal. The film is focusing on the tools used, so all we see is the tools doing the work on their own accord – as if in a metal shop Fantasia.
In the hallway between the front and back galleries, there is a small black and white picture of a Vet Legion facade with a railing that Romano had been smithing in the film. Gallery owner Clint Roenisch described Romano’s method as a kind of “war effort in reverse.” During the time of war everything made of steel was collected in order to be melted down for the war effort. Here, we see these same metals being re-recycled, this time into “objects of peace and art.”
In the large gallery space viewers find themselves audience to a theatrical diorama of abstracted figurative works, titled Kissed By A Mule (2014 – 2016), the black pieces among them are the re-recycled remains of the Universal Carrier. The cast of sculpture-characters are set within a rich blue dreamlike stage, and, as in a dream, there is no direct narrative at play. The qualities of the sculptures are strongly reminiscent of the work of modern masters (Picasso or David Smith among others), utilizing the language of modernist formalism in order to build objects that seem hyper-real in their setting. The sculptures have been placed in a separate space; one that we are not allowed to enter. They are kept at a distance from the viewer. We can not move around them, breaking the tradition from the common role of viewing a sculpture by being able to walk around it in a whole circle. Like in a theatre, we are given the opportunity only to participate as observers from the opposite side.
If there is a narrative being told by “characters” perhaps it is about the mythos of modernist sculpture itself. Though the exhibition favours nostalgia for modernist formalism; the artist has successfully taken it to the next level and put together a show that does not feel out of its time and place in 2017. Rather it reconstructs new ways for the viewer to re-encounter elements of history both cognitively and physically.
*Exhibition information: January 14 – February 18, 2017, Clint Roenisch Gallery, 190 St Helens Avenue, Toronto. Gallery hours: Wed – Sat, 12 – 6 p.m.