Bruce Grenville, weak thought catalogue essay, 2000
Renée Van Halm has a long-standing interest in the history of painting and the production of hybrid objects that blur the space between painting, sculpture and architecture. She is keenly committed to the material processes of painting while at the same time expressing a strong skepticism for the traditional terms of its construction. In Cull andCurrencies, Van Halm focuses her attention on the terms of construction. Of the a legitimate subject, and specifically on the conception of colour and its role within painting.
The painting Cull was produced for this exhibition, in part, in response to the historical context of the Vancouver Art Gallery and its extensive collection of the work of the early 20th century British Columbia landscape painter Emily Carr. In preparation for this work Van Halm culled the various existing reproductions of Carr’s paintings searching for a landscape image of suitable format and colour range. The final image (found on a postcard from the Gallery Shop) was then digitally scanned and, using Adobe PhotoshopÔ program, the pixels of the original image were averaged and reduced to 12 x 21 panel matrix of 252 uniquely coloured pixels. These pixels were output using a light jet printer. The final work is composed of 252 squares each 10” x 10” and laboriously hand painted to match the computer-generated image.
The original painting, entitled Logger’s Culls, represents a hillside stripped of trees except for a few spindly rejects that dot the landscape. While Carr’s composition has a conventional fore-, middle and background, Van Halm’s digitizing process has largely removed the subtle gradations of hue and tone that are traditionally used to define spatial depth, leaving only gross and arbitrary shifts between each square of colour. A viewer. Standing before the work, might pint to a range of colours normally attributed to the west coast landscape tradition or might recognize a rudimentary division between land and sky, but that same viewer might be just as likely to read the work as a non-referential painting composed of 252 uniquely coloured squares.
The subject of the work is strategically open-ended. With knowledge of the source of the image, one might imagine the work as an homage to Emily Carr, yet another acknowledgement of her pervasive influence on artists of this region and the necessity to translate or extend the meanings of her work through new technologies. Alternatively, it may be acknowledged as a conceptual process piece that reflects on representation and the steps of transformation from handmade object to mechanical reproduction, to digital image and finally back to handmade object.
This ambiguity around intent and the reading the object is a fundamental component of Van Halm’s work. Two distinct histories of modernist paint are folded together, but a third does not rise from it to triumphantly declare a new way to paint the contemporary British Columbia landscape or imbue abstraction with new meaning. Instead we are left with an uneasy feeling that our relationship to this object (and its ambiguous subject) is framed by our knowledge of disparate and divergent discourses – a history of BC landscape painting, the legend of Emily Carr, a history of minimalist painting, the characteristics of implications of new technologies, and the politics of museological representation.
Van Halm’s Currencies, 1996, emerges from, and speaks to, a similarly divergent rang of discourses. Dispersed in four niches in the central rotunda of the Gallery the circular discs offer a literal representation of popular colours used during selected decades – the 1910s, 20s, 30s and 70s. Obliquely, these colours refer to significant periods in the genesis of this building and its transformation from a provincial courthouse to an art gallery. But, they are more likely to elicit a conversation on the decorative potential of abstract art, or perhaps the modernist history of dot paintings from Bridget Riley to Damian Hirst. The significance of this work lie in is ability to generate and sustain a divergent and sometime contradictory dialogue on modernist painting, decorative design, neo-classical architecture, historical periodicity, institutional hierarchies, taste and fashion. Where once abstraction spoke to the emergence of a universal subject, here in Van Halm’s work, abstraction is more accurately linked to the desires of a specific cultural moment. The rhetoric of truth and transcendence are rejected in favour of a discourse on the construction of the social and the everyday.