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Tammer El-Sheikh
Anjuli Rathod & Vanessa Brown at Projet Pangee
October 25, 2017

Anjuli Rathod and Vanessa Brown’s work, currently on display at Projet Pangée, is whimsical and inviting. Reoccurring icons in the former’s canvases (footsteps, creeping paws, serpents, spiders) and leading gestures in the latter’s sculptures (outstretched hands, sealed lips) are all cryptic promises. As with surrealism, they call up the viewer’s associative thinking powers on the spot, but they also connect critically with the past and productively contaminate the conservative, gendered, and exclusive spaces of abstract art’s vaunted history.

Vanessa Brown, Cosmic Screen, 2017, oil on steel

In the 1950s and 1960s, on the cusp of an explosion of practices that make up the present contemporary art scene, critics like Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried (if not the artists they championed) launched a heavy-handed appeal to “save art” from losing itself in the everyday world of mere objects and entertainments. This was to be done by policing the boundaries between traditional disciplines (like painting versus sculpture), “entrenching them firmly in their areas of competence,” and riding them of any literary, theatrical, or illusionistic values.

Rathod and Brown make putty of these outmoded distinctions between mediums. The curators’ decision to pair their work in fact reverses it: the canvasses conjure deep spaces from flat, mutely coloured expanses, while the sculptures shrink back from three-dimensions into flat, silhouetted images. Both artists are also tuned to the enchantments of the everyday. They blast through Greenberg and Fried’s rigidly sense-based division of the arts to call forth a full range of sensual experiences from the tactile and visual to the olfactory and the auditory.

Anjuli Rathod, Better Now, 2017, acrylic and flashe on canvas

The sense of touch is evoked most often and most eerily. In Rathod’s Dissolution two arthritic hands encroach over blue folds on the edge of the canvas to a hot orange center. In her Night Scene, the same hands find their visual echo in spiders and a floating knife obscured by translucent curtains. In Brown’s wiry, totemic sculpture Attic Light, an outstretched hand sets up to catch a falling orange. In Cosmic Screen the same elongated hand sprays a vintage perfume atomizer through a starry partition. Senses shade here from touch to smell, elsewhere from sound to taste, or from taste to sight.

The works are crowded with sensual lures that, every now and again, turn to threats. Many of Rathod’s canvases are haunted by evocations of footsteps in the night, and Brown’s mostly playful sculptures harbour jagged hooks and prickly flowers. In Rathod’s Better Now the show’s invitation to a cheery world of multi-sensory experience takes on a cautionary tone. Bent and oversized American pennies are hoisted up on golden thread past a sign that reads “better now”, and then lowered down through a black hole in a padlock past one that reads “so long.” Her painting Waiting trades lures for threats as a sickly green dreamer drops carrots printed on a cozy blanket onto a night table beside a lurking spider.

Referring to the Cubists’ paintings and the death-blow they dealt to illusionism in Western art, Greenberg wrote: “A vibrating tension is set up as objects struggle to maintain their volume against the tendency of the real picture plane to reassert its material flatness and crush them to silhouettes.” For Fried, sculptors like Anthony Caro and David Smith would later take up their I-beams and spot-welders in this ongoing modernist fight for purity in what he called “a war against theatricality.” Rathod and Brown seem well past this now comically gendered-male drama. Their works reanimate the silhouettes that Greenberg was so intent on seeing as a last gasp of illusionism. And they find theatre everywhere – in the life of the senses, on sleepwalking adventures, and in dreams of everything from falling carrots to pennies from heaven or hell.

Anjuli Rathod & Vanessa Brown: The Far Off Blue Places continues until November 11.
Projet Pangée:
The gallery is accessible.

Tammer El-Sheikh is a writer and teacher based in Montreal. His art criticism has appeared in Parachute, Canadian Art, ETC and C Magazine.



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