The materiality of images, objects and forms has been a locus for artistic contemplation for centuries, which can be traced back to when the Mannerists of yore contorted the human anatomy to produce an illusive sense of pictorial elegance. Since then, Robert Morris has injected a slowly enveloping sense of process into the minimalist sculpture canon, while performance artists such as Chris Burden took extreme measures to emphasize the corporeality of the human body through the consequences of affliction. While not as severe as Burden’s conceptual engagements, Birch Contemporary’s latest exhibition, Soon Comes Night, sees Steven Beckly, Martin Bennett and Sarah Sands Phillips conceptually re-imagining the potential of their media.
Martin Bennett’s painterly works, uniquely placed in niches along the walls of the gallery, directly address curator Rebecca Travis’s particular concerns through this group show. The monochromatic images are quaint in showmanship and do not dominate a viewer’s consciousness individually; rather, when viewed in succession or as a collective, each painting acts as a distinct piece within an abstracted whole. Bennett’s images, which undergo rigorous treatments, locate themselves around the fringes of perception, teetering on a purely liminal viewing experience that moves further away from quotidian referent.
Martin Bennett,Timed Expanse Painting (7), 2014, 48″ × 36″, oil and acrylic on canvas (left) and Timed Expanse Painting (8), 2014, 48″ × 36″, oil and acrylic on canvas (right). Courtesy of the artist and Birch Contemporary
Sarah Sands Phillips’ oeuvre is represented through a more multi-media approach, as her creations on paper and video help diversify the formal preoccupations within the space. Akin to Bennett’s works, Sands Phillips presents her efforts monochromatically, albeit in a more pensive manner. Her images rely less on empirical associations and a construction of concrete images, but instead, lend themselves to a practice in manipulation and plasticity; what is left are slightly unhinged compositions of geometries presented with a deconstructionist’s touch. There is an inherent tactility within the artist’s work, as if her hands and mind have equally labored over the formal possibilities of her chosen medium. Furthermore, the video companion piece within the exhibition invokes a Brakhagian transmutation of film reels, but at a more meditative pace.
Sarah Sands Phillips, Untitled No. 12 (Photographs of Canada), 2015, 15″ × 12″, manipulated found photographic print on paper. Courtesy of the artist, Birch Contemporary and General Hardware Contemporary
Sarah Sands Phillips, Under Sun, 2015, 8mm film transferred to digital, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist, Birch Contemporary and General Hardware Contemporary
Removed from the unicolor contributions of his peers, Steven Beckly’s brightly hued images fiddle with perception. “Tree of Hearts” (2017) dominates its designated space of viewing with a haziness that never quite congeals into a succinct photograph. It remains removed from time and place, which allows its formal trickery to dominate a viewer’s senses, as if Beckly was replicating a sunbathed eye straining for clarity. On the other hand, “Curling Horizon” (2016) utilizes the power of installation to render an oceanic view indecipherable, literally folding the image onto itself as if to disguise its wholeness. There is an inherent irony in Beckly’s use of colour transparencies as a vessel to showcase photographs that are depraved of clarity.
Steven Beckly, Curling Horizon, 2016, 28″ × 19″ × 13″, colour transparency (left) and Tree of Hearts, 2017, 56″ × 40″, colour transparency (right). Courtesy of Courtesy of the artist and Birch Contemporary
*Exhibition information: Soon Comes Night: Steven Beckly, Martin Bennett, Sarah Sands Phillips, July 27 – August 26, 2017, Birch Contemporary, 129 Tecumseth Street, Toronto. Gallery hours: Wed–Fri 10 am – 6 pm, Sat 11 am – 5 pm.