The Globe and Mail
Saturday June 10, 2006
Review by Gary Michael Dault
Renée Van Halm at Birch Libralato
129 Tecumseth St., Toronto
The fact that Renée Van Halm used to live in Toronto and then in Vancouver and is now living in Potsdam, quite near to Berlin, has led her to think about place, as she puts it in an e-mail she sent me a few days ago, “as it presents itself outside of the familiar.” To that end, this exquisite new exhibition of paintings and small gouaches on paper call Tourist bountifully explores what she calls her “preoccupation with place and placelessness.”
The paintings, which are based on her own photographs, depict isolated shards of modernist structures – what she calls “the more mundane subjects of modernism” – located in Innsbruck, Paris, Venice, Madrid, Munich and a lot of other place Van Halm has been. Van Halm is remarkable attentive to the differences historicizing weight and density incarnated in each of the world’s great, emblematic, modernist buildings. But she is careful to offer and honour the aesthetically fundamental distinction between a great building’s iconic meaning and the meaning that turns a building into a souvenir as it is entombed in quidebooks and reproduced and diluted on postcards.
And Van Halm plays constantly with the weighing of the part the whole. The Venice shows us an apparently peripheral grouping of chairs and a table nestling below a room’s “modernist” riveted-steel-corner treatment. Her Madrid is an orange vertical reflected on a window. Her masterful painting of part of a polychromed façade of Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation in Berlin, 1959, for example is a study of architectural rhythm rather than a worshipful embodiment of Corb’s pioneering high-rise apartment style. It is worth noting, by the way, that while Van Halm’s painting is called Berlin (After Peter Doig), it is considerably finer that the more celebrated picture by the much ballyhooed Doig.
The exhibition proceeds from strength to strength, and in so doing, provides vivid commentary of such matter as modernist distinction versus modernist anonymity, the subverting, by means of focus and concentration, of the touristing of architectural meaning and the rising tide of generic design.