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Indepth Arts News:

"Shirley Wiitasalo, Candida Höfer, Christine Davis"
2000-12-09 until 2001-03-04
Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery
Toronto, ON, CA

During the 1970s and 80s, Shirley Wiitasalo's reputation as a gifted and original painter was based on a solid body of virtuoso figuration. In the first half of her career, she deployed an impressive repertoire of painting techniques on a complex and unpredictable series of subjects that all but ignored the medium's traditions. For example, she preferred to make direct reference to the ephemeral imagery of photography, cartooning, and television rather than contribute to civilizations' vast reserve of portraits, landscapes, nudes and abstractions. Sometime around 1990, though, her work took an extraordinary turn.

In one sense, after 1990 Shirley Wiitasalo simply reduced her variables: the paintings have become noticeably smaller, her colours fewer (often to the point of monochromy) and what she paints can usually be summed up in a single word: the name of the thing painted, which typically provides the work with its title. She has also reduced the graphic impact of these works by shortening the distance from which their surace complexity reveals itself. You have to get close to see them or they vitrually disappear as representations. Indeed, unless you actively look at these pictures with the intention of seeing something, most of them will remain silent rectangles of colour.

If it is still impossible to say with any assurance what a typical Wiitasalo subject might be, trying to predict what she will paint next has not become any easier either. Most painters have a restricted and reliable repertoire of subjects, but this artist does not. Consequently, a certain pleasurable anxiety awaits art audiences who are more attuned to savouring relatively subtle refinements of theme and variation. With almost every new painting, Wiitasalo performs a re-articulation of her thematic ideas to accommodate a constantly expanding repertoire of subjects.

Although her already celebrated skills and confidence in the medium have increased exponentially over the period covered in this exhibition, nothing could be less obvious to an eye unfamiliar with the development of painting over the last century. Like the works of some of her most celebrated predecessors (Cezanne and Matisse, for example), these pictures seem to make only negligent attempts at representation. But the fact that we could say the same thing for every one of Wiitasalo's paintings over the last ten years should be a strong indication, even to a neophyte, that her work is the result of an intentional and controlled effort.

Pictures like Shore, Shape, and Broken Building have their own unique way of dissimulating the maturity of their maker's craft. Although she never compromises the integrity of the traditional picture plane (i.e. its two dimensions and its flatness), unlike nearly anyone in the field today, Shirley Wiitasalo makes objects that look like paint well before they look like painting, which is an impressive accomplishment within a representational mode.

With time, it becomes clear that the artist wants our first impression to be of paint applied with no other concern besides random convenience. With extended viewing, however, what seemed like an effortless, high-speed chase with paint becomes a slow and deliberate illusion. What looked like only one or two colours from the corner of your eye turns out to be almost a dozen in a variety of analagous tones and hues. More astonishingly, what appeared to be an indolent doodle is, paradoxically, an accurate and economical description of something you too have seen. As art critic Barry Schwabsky points out in his catalogue essay for this exhibition, a world opens itself in these paintings and it does not feel imaginary.

No turn can be foreseen, no truth foretold as each painting contains an element of surprise. Simple and straightforward at first, once these paintings have your attention, their store of information builds to a point of saturation. Slow to reveal themselves, these pictures won't draw you in against your will, but they are hard to leave once you get inside, where you never feel quite welcome. They are about the impossibility of either hanging onto or catching up with things like first impressions, innoncence, humour or beauty. Most art is about stopping time; this work is about letting it go.


Shirley Wiitasalo
Poison, 1994.
oil on canvas,
91.4 x 121.9 cm.
Courtesy the artist and Greene Naftali Gallery, New York.
Image courtesy Susan Hobbs Gallery, Toronto.
Photo: Robin Collyer.

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