Why Can't Minimal
For the average person, Minimalism, a mid-20th century modernist genre, has a reputation for being coldly intellectual, abstract, or hard to understand. Why Can't Minimal, curated by John G. Hampton, both challenges and engages the critiques of minimalism. In his hands, art history is witty, candid and speculative.
John Hampton explains: "Why Can't Minimal mines minimalism for its humorous side by pointing to a latent absurdity hiding beneath its cool demeanour. The exhibition rejects the assumption that minimal art requires solely serious, solemn contemplation, and embraces the more intuitive, jovial, and personal pleasures that occur when one has fun with the comically utopian ambitions of unitary forms. Playing with the forms, traditions and incongruities of multiple levels of minimalism, the presented works elude rational comprehension, repositioning conceptual value to make room for the types of recognition made possible through levity, play, humour and sentiment."
John G. Hampton is the executive director of the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba in Brandon, Manitoba.
Why Can’t Minimal is organized and circulated by the Art Museum at the University of Toronto and is made possible in part by a grant from the Ontario Arts Council’s National and International Touring program, and the support of the Canada Council for the Arts.
The Minimalist art genre has always stood for me as a physical manifestation of artists giving form to some of Modernism’s reductive and simplified philosophical ideas. Notions of how we might garner meaning from simple geometric shapes, and the act of reducing art production down to its most basic process, were inspiration for me to contemplate stacked boxes of cold steel, and to get lost in vast wall canvasses built wider than my peripheral vision. In my own art historical memory, minimalist works were an exercise in full body philosophy. I was encouraged to use my mind and let it set the tone for what I was physically going to feel.
The works in Why Can’t Minimal hold true to their provenance, providing very little decoration or flourish to dazzle and impress the local art lovers of landscapes and opera crescendos. They do however, as curator John G Hampton would have it, say more than just the logical phenomena of their predecessors. Why can’t minimalist-inspired art also be funny and witty and emotionally charged? Why can’t it get in your way, physically grabbing at your sweater, like one of John Marriott’s pigeon-proofing spikes in Through New Eyes? Or make you watch your step and not fall into the veritable quicksand of Jon Sasaki’s Slab, Base for a Future Monument? What else is occurring in your mind as you watch John Wood & Paul Harrison slide and jump around on a photo stage maneuvering their bodies awkwardly in and out of a white box in Six Boxes? You are physically in the gallery yourself, walking around within a larger white box, snagging bits of Tammi Campbells masking tape trompe-loeil from Pre Post-Paintery (After Stella), smirking at the actually badly rendered rainbows of Liza Eurich’s, Bad Rainbows, and confused by the seagull choir joining Louise Lawler’s male artist name bird roll call in Bird Calls. It is amusing. It is funny. John Boyle-Singfield’s plexiglass box showcasing the condensation of Untitled (Coke Zero). That is funny. You do need to think about it, and let the pieces fall into place. But, you don’t have to read Heidegger to get it.
The works in this exhibition push the door wide open on the general assumption that the minimalist genre of visual art is only for the logical part of your brain. As Hampton suggests in the catalogue text, the works in this exhibition are exploring a sense of abstract humour, and are putting the viewer into “a ‘funny’ or ‘preposterous’ situation.” In the exhibition's design, this is exactly what Hampton has helped to illustrate, the works engage you on many levels. Some are physically obvious, like Jon Sasaki’s postal worn white cube (A Minimalist Cube Shipped with Minimal Effort and Expense), while others are more preposterous, like Ken Nicol’s hand-cramping repetition of typewritten cards (Carl Andre Drawer Piece). The layers of meaning build-up and the artists clever nuances fill-in. Hampton has managed to activate the logic of minimalism’s past and provide a portal for contemporary artists to laugh at how much work it takes to make something seem simple. The works fool your eye and your gut. They make you think while you laugh.
-Doug Jarvis, 2016