Robert Orchardson, Endless Façade (detail), 2011, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Robert Orchardson, Endless Façade (detail), 2011, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Robert Orchardson

Robert Orchardson, Endless Façade (detail), 2011, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Abstraction’s star has risen once again, if not reached a peak over the last round of biennials. However, institutional exhibition value is not tantamount to resolving the crisis of legitimation that has trailed practitioners of abstraction almost since its inception. That legacy is not lost on Robert Orchardson, who seems to thrive on the search for motivation. While many contemporary artists exploit the tension between logos and form (consider Tauba Auerbach’s Alphabet motifs) or try to press the gray area between design and abstraction into some kind of socially active site (Liam Gillick’s platforms), Orchardson descends into the contingent materiality of even the most saccharine and nostalgic of citations.

In the 1910s and ’20s through the ’60s, abstraction was rationalized in several ways: as a declaration of new horizons in Malevich’s 1915 Black Square; as a movement motivated by the conditions of viewing in El Lissitzky’s 1926 Cabinet of Abstract Art; as a supercession of the aporias informing lived experience (Mondrian), origins (Miró), limits and ipseity (Stella), radical empiricism (Ryman), and on and on. Orchardson, for his part, is happy to turn on a cultural memory that is both fueled and destroyed by nostalgia.

In this exhibition, a single installation, Endless Façade, 2011, fills the room with a ceiling-to-floor treatment that alludes to such iconic aesthetic elements as the furniture of Jean Prouvé, Brancusi’s sculpture, and a wall installation pining for Miró’s chromatic schemata. At one point, a yellow element protruding from the wall evokes both Karl Ioganson’s structures and a coat rack by the Eameses. Elsewhere, a pink dot seemed to cite Paul Klee, and the way it related to the arc of the aforementioned piece inspired by Prouvé recalled the object groupings of Blinky Palermo. It evoked IKEA too—a screen redolent of Noguchi, accelerated to meet twenty-first-century tastes. However, with so many references in play simultaneously, these elements were not so much knowingly hackneyed readymades as blanks, their historic symbolic value rendered moot. Here, the space of exhibition was something other than a site of reification or of intellectual self-reflexivity, and repetition proved less interesting than difference, of which, via a number of formal operations—and perhaps owing as well to the vision of CAG executive director Nigel Prince—there was a great deal.

Entering the institution’s B. C. Binning Gallery through a triangular corridor, visitors first arrived at a classic white cube that immediately shed its classicism. Integrated into the installation, two walls of the space imitated the compressed concrete that is ubiquitous in Vancouver, yet emerged, simultaneously, as a soft and velvety pressed-wood-like substance bearing triangular shapes that—like so many modernist forms lassoed into becoming Christmas cards—also called to mind birds in flight. On the far wall hung the obligatory modernist-Minimalist cube, the kind that could just as likely be taken for some club-scene decor, if not trendy architectural jewelry. To one side stood a curved piece textured by trapezoids that threw shadows over the cold floor and patterned wall. In rhythmic accordance with these shadows (which rapidly changed over the duration of a half-hour visit, marking the passage of embodied time) was a piece of brightly saturated red felt featuring long, oval cutouts—the stasis of their negative space set against the dynamism of the “real” cast shapes. Such shadow-play choreography could even be linked to yet another “master of modernism,” Hans Arp.

At first take, every corner of this show should have reeked of cliché—and a self-indulgent one at that. The material was shoddy without hypostatizing its shoddiness as such. For instance, the Klee-like pink circle (affixed to the wall with a screw, splotches of fiberglass matting everywhere) revealed its backside as you drew closer. But if the slap-dash quality of the installation’s fabrication delivered the overall work from kitsch and camp, we can, in the same breath, say it also situated Orchardson’s practice squarely within the idiom we might best call “domesticated abstraction.”

Jaleh Mansoor