Susan Schelle, Mark Gomes

Toronto Sculpture Garden

For the past few years, the Toronto Sculpture Garden has been a testing ground for public sculpture in the city. Its program gives younger, gallery-based sculptors a chance to show their work in a prominent public site. Although gallery sculpture has shifted toward documentary and representational issues over the past decade, it doesn’t necessarily follow that this “public” tilt translates into work that would benefit a public space. Expectations and interest have been high for the garden, yet it has seen a lot of weatherized indoor art—wrong for the site both in scale and intensity (too small, too overrefined). It has also seen work that acts as if “public” art meant permission to relax its usual conceptual concerns. All in all, it has been a reluctant prize.

This exhibition of work by Susan Schelle and Mark Gomes is a case in point. Although the show was a strong one, there was still a degree of discomfort to it. Schelle’s Literalists of the Imagination, 1988, for instance, seemed overanxious to communicate. The piece has an exemplary sensitivity to site: a half-circle arrangement of three cast-concrete benches that turns outward toward the park and inward toward an image of a spouting Renaissance fountain, silk-screened onto Plexiglas behind the park’s built-in waterfall, which itself ingeniously—and comically—refers beyond the specific site to a generic history of all such sites. Appropriation work such as this usually stays indoors, but here the piece’s imagistic nature successfully turns everything about the space into a “textuality” that meshes with the rain and the sun. The work becomes a monument of disembodied abstraction that encourages an ironic consciousness of gliding through the physical garden into a flux of history and information. But Schelle can’t resist the obvious. She carves the phrase “Literalists of the Imagination” into the middle bench and comes not only unabidably close to Jenny Holzer’s work but also close to nagging the meaning out of her own work. The phrase names the connection between the bench and the “apparitional” fountain behind the waterfall. It takes the lightness and grace of a glance and turns it into a directional arrow, a formal self-consciousness that is surprisingly patronizing.

Gomes’ Margaret’s Table . . . Remembering Margaret Laurence, 1987, a memorial to Canadian novelist Margaret Laurence, consists of nine white-oak writing tables stacked in a vertical column reaching two stories in height. It is a tower of modesty that is a wonderful homage to the writer, capturing the tone of her work and recalling the anecdote that she wrote most of her books at the kitchen table. But even this wonderful piece has problems. The Laurence references all seem to happen up close, where you can relate your body to the desks and see their chunkily tapering perspective. But at a distance, where height becomes an image, the sculpture can look like a variation on some of the anonymous minimalism that has become the dead weight of public art. Gomes might be making an ironic nod in the direction of that model, but it has not much to do with Laurence and not much to offer his piece. The work of both artists reveals that if sculpture today seems to be in an advantageous position to take issue with the traditions and conventions of public art, the role does not come easily.

Richard Rhodes