Janice Gurney

Wynick/Tuck Gallery

The silent-film stills and the turn-of-the-century archival photographs that Janice Gurney reproduces in her work carry a lingering sentimentality. So does the way she crops her images and formats her text, recalling old snapshots mounted and captioned in Victorian albums. These contribute to a comfortable, bookish feel in her work. The format of image and text—no stranger to appropriation art—evokes the act of reading and invests textuality as an alternate world parallel to primary experience. The polemical edge common to the genre is perhaps a result of this. Theory substitutes for performance, acquiring an aggressiveness that compensates for its detached and abstract relation to the real. Gurney’s work runs no risk of this tendency to stridency, as the models for her work are diaristic, not didactic. They offer a contemplative framework—armchair poetics rather than classroom polemics.

This inward cast can give her work an awkwardness, as if it doesn’t belong on the wall and might be better off in a book. Until recently, it has seemed somewhat shy about declaiming its content in a public space at an easily readable size. One got the feeling that wallhood trespassed on some of the subjective elements in her work. It implied the encroachment of practicality, brute signage, and brash self-assurance onto delicate concerns about memory and identity—a friction between presentation and the conceptual life that sustains the work.

However, with last year’s show and now this one, Gurney has found a solution to this problem by taking on the role of artist/curator. She arranges for other artists to create the images, her job being to collect and structure them (a strategy that John Baldessari had pioneered in the late ’60s with his “Commissioned Paintings”). With this she gains a detachment that reads not as cool or semiotic but as a matter of personal choice. Although appropriation has always involved an implicit curatorial process, Gurney’s selecting and isolating of images—and now actual “art objects”—should be regarded more as an affirmation of these collectibles than a challenge to their representational mode of ideological status. They are subjective anchors, abstractions akin to such constructs as history, family, and friendship.

This close-to-home sensibility is what counts in the eight recent mixed-media works and two dry points shown here. The subjects range from domestic interiors and family history to images of screen heroines from the silent era to the ’60s. In Searching Black Miners for Diamonds, 1987–88, the largest work, an antiapartheid statement turns into something narrower and, oddly enough, more complicated. It consists of a combination of two archival photographs, text, and three paintings. The photos are turn-of-the-century images showing some black miners being subjected to intrusive body searches—i.e., of their mouths and rectums—by white-helmeted cops. Although the images are unforgettably powerful, they are marginal in the sense of being merely an accompaniment to the three paintings on the theme of South African oppression, which Gurney commissioned from Andy Patton (her husband) and friends Joanne Tod and David Clarkson—all well-known Toronto painters. The theme of black exploitation is linked to Gurney’s friendly “exploitation” of the artists she knows. The paintings complement the photos and pull them into a contemporary framework; in this way, the passage of time becomes part of the poignancy of the political statement. And it is mostly in this small-scale political sense that the work speaks. Images of blacks, whites, and diamonds fall into place against a background of husband, friends, colleagues. This pared-down context is what Gurney wants to underline: it is from a sense of home and community that we share the pain of the blacks in the photographs and empathize with their political goals and aspirations. The world grows small—that’s why these things matter. It’s also why Gurney’s inclination to smallness and domestication turns into a surprising strength.

Richard Rhodes