JOHN ABRAMS: REMIX MODERNE
by Carmen Victor
Remix: multiple perspectives on the same theme derived from elements of the original.
Moderne: An eclectic coexistence of traditionalism and modernism.
At first it may seem that the works in John Abrams’ Remix Moderne function primarily on a formal level where sculpture and paintings of sculpture, photography and film are installed in response to architectural elements of the gallery space. Indeed, the objects are placed with intent to guide the viewer, however, through slightly closer examination, a compendium emerges indicating clear aesthetic and political rigors.
What are we to make of this assemblage of materials? These fragmentary tropes raised on pedestals occupying the edges of three-dimensional space? Upon further investigation we discover that the forms themselves are derived from imagery by abstract contemporaries Jean Arp and Alexander Calder. The choice to emulate those particular artists’ forms is an interesting one, and provides an entry to the other works in the exhibition.
Jean Arp, a founder of the Dadaist movement, moved to Switzerland in 1915 because of the country’s neutral position in WWI. War, of course, was a catastrophe for Dadaists. More of an attitude rather than a definable style, it was Dada’s goal to torpedo meaning and to expose the culture of death, destruction and senselessness of Western society. Calder and Arp met and worked together within the avant-garde cultural ecology of mid-1920’s Paris before Calder returned to New York in 1933. It was Jean Arp who termed Calder’s stable mobiles as ‘stabiles’.
In Abrams’ Star and Butterfly an inversion, of sorts, occurs through the reanimation of Arp and Calder’s forms. The forms were filtered thorough a photographic process then subsequently reanimated as sculptural objects in Abrams’s studio. This process of reanimation suggests an analogy to the leitmotif, seeing as the manipulation of abstract forms while drawing attention to the materials used is characteristic of modernism. These are not pristine bronze casts, but rather hand made objects that reveal the wood grain and adhesive material underneath.
Two paintings appear in the orbit of Abrams’ Star, Iceberg 1 and Iceberg 2. They are small paintings where the inversion seemingly occurs in adjustments made to scale. On some level these idealized natural formations contribute to notions of collective national identity. The image of an iceberg resonates through cultural production at least peripherally, even if most of the Canadian population inhabits the region nearest to the southern border and may never have seen icebergs firsthand. What is Abrams indicating by inverting the scale of these arctic behemoths and then doubling them? They could be well-rendered painterly representations of a fading national identity. Conversely, the simple gesture of playing with scale and then subsequent doubling of the image reinforces the issues and consequences facing us while alluding to the diminishing status of environmental issues. Thirdly and even more awry, these miniature icebergs could point towards melting ontological floes of modernism.
Complicating the juxtaposition of dual abstract tropes with twin icebergs, are monochrome portraits of two men in 1950’s style thick-rimmed glasses. These are not hipsters, but rather members of the Quebec paramilitary group the Front de Libération du Québec, the FLQ. Abrams was born in Montréal in 1959; the FLQ’s activities were certainly present in his consciousness as a young man. Modernism considers itself revolutionary, privileging fragmentation versus order, approving of disruption and rejecting realism. The FLQ were Marxist-Leninists, advocating for Québec separatism, and used violent means to carry out their agenda.
George Schoeters, whose portrait by Abrams appears in the exhibition, was a leftist founder of the FLQ, and supported the idea of armed revolution. It is somewhat fitting that a painting of an explosive device appears in Remix Moderne, in proximal relation to Georges Schoeters. The bomb is a painting made from a film still from Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 war film The Battle of Algiers. The narrative in The Battle of Algiers concerns itself with the organization of a guerilla movement based on occurrences during the Algerian War against the French government in North Africa. The film serves as a commentary on urban guerilla warfare and the methods used to annihilate it by a colonial power. The Battle of Algiers focuses on activities between 1954 and 1957, though Algeria gained independence from France in 1962 the end of the film leaves a narrative ambiguity characteristic of New Wave films. The Battle of Algiers is considered a precursor to New Wave cinema.
It is Abrams’ Breathless – Mirror Image, a representation of a film still from Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 film A Bout de Souffle that forms the crux of the exhibition. A Bout de Souffle was highly influential in French New Wave cinema, notable for filmic experimentation, engagement with political movements and extensive use of the jump cut; elements apparent in Remix Moderne. Furthermore, Abrams refers precisely to the jump cut; abrupt visual fragmentation that self-referentially articulates its’ constructed nature, by offering shifting perspectives and asking us to consider the implications of narrative ambiguity. Questions that arise are not answered in the end.
Remix Moderne expresses political views, articulates a knowledge of history and references earlier works. Abrams’ reanimation of abstract imagery, depiction of dual icebergs, twinned members of the FLQ and doubled mirror images parallel modernist interests of self-consciousness, revolutionary tendencies, the approval of disruption, and the privileging of fragmentation over order.
1 Abrams has certainly depicted icebergs in his earlier work but everyone from Lawren Harris, to David Blackwood, to Doris McCarthy and Katie
Bethune-Leamen have represented icebergs
Hal Foster, Yve-Alain Bois, Rosalind Krauss. Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism. 2nd ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2005.
Art historical information regarding tenets of Dada and Modernism credited to a lecture by Brian Grosskurth Toronto, York University, March 21, 2013.
Carmen Victor has an MFA from the University of Victoria, B.C. She has taught at OCADU, the University of Toronto, and at York University. She has held curatorial positions at the Blackwood Gallery and was Coordinator of Education at the University of Toronto Art Centre from 2010-2012. Currently she is Assistant Curator at the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives and lives and works in Toronto.