Code Work

by Robin Laurence

For visual artists, the journey from one Canadian coast to the other is more than geographic. It involves a re-arrangement of cultural agendas, a displacement of local motives and meanings and an equally regionalist projection, not onto the local scene but by it. Artwork reads differently on the opposite edges of the continent, and something of this phenomenon occurred when NSCAD-trained, Halifax-based artist Monica Tap showed her new process paintings at the Douglas Udell Gallery in Vancouver. Although Tap engages seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish landscape drawings in a conceptual dialogue with twentieth-century gestural abstraction, in this Pacific Rim city her canvases seemed to call up classical Chinese landscape painting and the drawings of Ann Kipling—neither of them actual influences on Tap’s practice. Such regional and cultural invocations, however, did not detract from Tap’s project; instead, they seemed to enlarge the scope of her art-historical and spatial deconstructions.

Tap established her reputation as a concept-based artist with her 1996 thesis show of intricately composed floral-pattern paintings, referenced to the work of Rachel Ruysch, a then-successful but now-obscure, seventeenth-century Dutch painter of floral still lifes. These works alluded to and deconstructed a number of pictorial conventions, including abstractionism, illusionism, allegory and the cultural construction of nature. They also, by their source, addressed the condition of gender within the art-historical canon. (Tap, whose family background is Dutch, identified herself with Ruysch.) Tap’s most recent works address similar issues within the context of Western landscape tradition, although gendered space is somewhat of a subtext here, since none of the artists Tap now appropriates is female.

Tap’s process includes referencing historical landscape drawings by such artists as Jan Bruegel, Adam Pynacker and Gaspar van Wittel. She then projects slides of these works, in a pre-determined order, onto her canvases, the coded colours are interchanged, and although Tap works initially within her conceptual parameters, she may make adjustments after her instructions to herself have been met. Her adjustments seem to be purely aesthetic, and the aesthetic pleasure of looking at these works poses an intentional contradiction to their conceptual premise. Tap’s programmatic paintings are covered with apparently expressive marks, “calligraphic” lines, jots, dashes, flecks and squiggles, executed in delicate and evocative monochromes- sage green, yellow ochre, raw umber, burnt sienna, taupe, charcoal grey.

Tap has written that she wants to “erase legibility and replace it with pleasure.” Yet the challenging references remain: to mark-making and the confusion of pictorial codes, to the illusion of space on the picture plane, to the role artists have played in shaping the way we see the natural world, and to the perceptual “threshold” where abstraction coalesces into representation. Still, West Coast modernist and historic Chinese analogies are not incidental: gestural abstraction and historical deconstruction may take different roads, but in Tap’s work, they arrive at the same charmed place.

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