Robert McNealy

Sifting through the remains of history, Robert McNealy presents an inventory of images that are at once political, subjective, and presented in a nonlinear fashion. This archaeological approach has characterized McNealy’s practice throughout the ’80s, and it is the recurrence of associations, easily mistaken as random, that reveal themselves here. In Four Rooms (A Home), 1991, McNealy delves into middle-class aspirations by playing off the structure of the exhibition space—a spacious turn-of-the-century home surrounded by expansive grounds, which has been converted into a public gallery. Each of the four rooms, now stripped bare, is reappointed via metaphoric associations that the artist cues through titling.

The library (“Benevolence”) establishes the history of the site. Five chairs covered with colored sheets are restacked with assorted chairs strewn about in a haphazard manner. Suggesting a house that has been closed to inhabitants, these sheets point to the role that history plays in everyday experience. In the dining room (“Plenty”), the underside of a large table, flipped upside-down and resting on its chairs, is filled with soil in which rests an enormous steel hatchet. In the adjoining stone room (“History”), a bone, rope, and a boat are visible only through the open windows. Lifted from their original temporal context, this inventory of culturally resonant images is reconfigured here; the hatchet and bone are monumental, while the boat is far less dominant. For McNealy, the significance of these objects is based on similarities that establish them in equal and reflexive relationships.

In the living room (“Artists, Prisoners and Victims”), an atmosphere has been reconstructed that parodies the traditional social function of the room. Two seating areas have been arranged with sofas, side chairs, and coffee tables pushed together and rendered unusable. “Decorating” the space, in this parody of the middle-class home, are groupings of vases on which have been drawn (and then obscured) the faces of those with little currency in this class structure—artists, prisoners, and crime victims. Here McNealy is commenting on social structures that sustain power through the dissipation of images.

Inside, the artist has disrupted the social aims reflected in such a house, now giving the premises over to the individual viewer so that each might inscribe his or her own history through associations forged between the objects. Not surprisingly, in the end, it is the objects inside the house that define it rather than its architecture or its inhabitants. Four Rooms (A Home) is a wry comment on late-colonial attitudes toward privilege, so firmly entrenched in Ontario.

Linda Genereux