“The Nature of Your Oppression is the Aesthetic of Our Anger”
March 8 – April 13, 2013
Clint Roenisch, Toronto
The month before Niall McLelland’s “The Nature Of Your Oppression Is The Aesthetic Of Our Anger” opened at Clint Roenisch in Toronto, the penny was officially taken out of circulation in Canada. Inflation had rendered the coins unworthy of the bulk they expected pockets to bear and the time they took to retrieve after dropping; the gesture of discarding them betrayed only the slightest privilege. The federal Finance Minister’s official statement on the phase-out noted the nuisance of copper clutter on dressers; the penny’s materiality had become both impractical and uneconomical. Now, stores round prices up or down when a customer pays with cash. Everyday physical exchanges proceed according to a different scale than do invisible (credit or debit card) payments. Cents persist as units, but the value of their physical signifiers is largely metallurgic, and nostalgic.
Against this backdrop, McLelland’s work continues to unfold squarely in the physical register. Economically, it’s more complicated: the exhibition convincingly knots privilege and scrimpery, salvage and waste. Luxury palpates, for example, in the jewel-toned saturations of pigment leaked onto Japanese paper by toner-cartridges in “Stain.” The dense excess of the colour gives the work its character; McLelland’s process might be the “positive squandering” that Georges Bataille held to be art’s force. Opulence also glitters in silver paint on linen panels that cover one gallery wall. The shapes evoke sunlight through tree leaves, though McLelland used fluorescent light tubes, broken onto the linen, to stencil them.
As this unconventional technique suggests, the artist is preoccupied with the vicissitudes of contact, but is not quite a printmaker. It’s a relatively unregulated economy of impressions that governs each composition; the works are singular, like paintings. This exhibition feels particularly keen to establish singularity, conspicuously failing to acknowledge that McLelland often works in series. The linen panels comprise ten works, but are displayed and titled as one piece; “Stain” is a part of a series, but stands alone as an excerpt. The gallery, as a result, feels not unlike a showroom.
It is nevertheless not an exclusive but rather a thrifty sensibility that underwrites the show. The glass fragments used to make the linen piece(s) are resourcefully re-distributed as their own work, an unnamed apocalyptic floor sculpture. We learn from the show’s press release that the pricey toner cartridges used in “Stain” were found behind a mall. The fact of this pillaging – which isn’t hidden, but celebrated – changes things. Squandering, after all, means something different when the material is scavenged. The title of the linen work hints at this meaning, identifying a stance at once destitute and particular: “Too Poor to Paint, Too Proud to Whitewash.”
Early graffiti artists were similarly proud, and called stealing tools from stores “inventing.” Norman Mailer admired such committed crime: “what a doubling of the intensity of the artist’s choice when you steal not only the cans but try for the colours you want.” In his own looting, McLelland maintains an artist’s standards. Indeed, his colours further the intensity of the artist’s choice by replicating a printer’s Cyan-Yellow-Magenta-Key (CMYK) scheme. The palette is one of many loans McLelland takes from printmaking, while leaving behind the medium’s methodical (and often, now, digitized) techniques.
But what the artist might most owe printmaking is his grasp of taking and leaving; he works beautifully with negative space. This shows up most radically in McLelland’s wall-mounted sculpture of a found railing hung with the abandoned locks and deflated tires of stolen bikes: “We Lost the War.” It reads at first anomalous, but is perhaps only an exaggerated iteration of McLelland’s concerns. Indeed, the work is a stylized, sculptural print of an urban scene, re-invented from what theft leaves over. It cites the street as a store of materials, and makes the city a satellite gallery, strewn with unwitting stencils, where the value of the rusty and obsolete continues to be negotiated.
-Contributed by Heather White