Ottawa

Roland Poulin

National Gallery of Canada

From the Minimal, cast-cement enclosures in the ’70s and early ’80s such as Quadrature, 1978, and Void Form, 1980, to the symbolic, polychromed wood sculptures such as Thresholds, 1993, and Before Us, the Night, 1992–93, Roland Poulin seems to do nothing but rework the same formal issues. This 15-year retrospective of Poulin’s sculptures and related drawings revealed an artist who recycles Minimalism only to arrive at the obvious symbolism afforded by sarcophagi, tombs, and crosses. Poulin’s works are most interesting when considered in terms of their social context and their attempt to wrestle with both the psychological and material aspects of the work of art.

Inspired by Paul-Emile Borduas’ automatist canvas Black Star, 1957, Poulin decided to pursue a career as an artist and soon began to create Minimalist works out of industrial materials such as plywood, cardboard, wire, and cement. The rigid orthodoxies of Minimalism provided an oddly elemental substitute for the hierarchical symbolism of the Catholic church, which had been virtually extinguished by the early ’60s during Quebec’s “quiet revolution.” The minor imperfections of the early pieces such as Place, 1980, unsettle our initial reading of them, while the geometrical configurations of Poulin’s latest sculptures have a density that seems to offer no point of access. The brooding intensity of the dark sculptural masses and accompanying object elements depends as much on the dense patina and barely noticeable added colors as it does on the formal elements themselves. The lines and shapes of separate elements never collide but, rather, seem to be submerged in their environment.

Poulin attempts to explore the meaning of death and the afterlife. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his elegiac abstract sculpture Threshold, 1993. A tomblike, horizontal block of darkly patinated wood sat apart from two vertical crosslike shapes, one almost completely submerged in the gallery floor and the other a somber icon of atemporality. It is as if the blocks of wood that project out of the side of the main block/tomb are about to be released.

While Poulin has arrived at a language of matter, density, and structure, the symbolic weight he ascribes to it seems to always get in the way. To arrive at such an elemental, archetypal figurative language bespeaks a state of isolation. The universal symbols and meanings propounded by Poulin in his latest work may end up being nothing more than an exquisitely executed dead end.

John K. Grande