Koh's Work Focuses on Meaningful Details

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      Germaine Koh


      At the Catriona Jeffries Gallery until February 19

      Toronto-based artist Germaine Koh works with so many different objects, in so many different combinations, that the only proper way to refer to her is as a neoconceptualist. Her practice takes its cue from the 1960s movements that sought to integrate art and life, producing works that consisted first of the thought that went into them and, second, of the fragile and often ephemeral materials--Xeroxes, soap bubbles, ice, sunlight, et cetera--they were made from.

      Neoconceptualism today is a booming field. Thick retrospective catalogues by the conceptual movement's leading lights--On Kawara, Bruce Nauman, Douglas Huebler, Ed Ruscha, Lawrence Weiner, Joseph Kosuth--mean that 40-year-old projects are suddenly available to younger artists, like the recipes on the side of a box of Bisquick. An air of cynicism and calculation hangs over many neoconceptualist productions, based on the artists' assumption that formal originality is overrated, and the similarly faux-naíƒ ¯f hope that if an idea worked once, for an artist who is now famous, why shouldn't lightning strike twice?

      By and large, Koh's works escape this endgame paradigm because they pay attention to the formal qualities of the things they are made from, an issue that interested many of the original conceptualists little or not at all. Although Koh's exhibition at Catriona Jeffries contains a number of different works--photo collages, a videotape, a dust ball, an architectural installation--I will only focus on one, the installation Shell, which is emblematic of her practice as a whole.

      The Catriona Jeffries Gallery has two windows that project out from the front of the building. Koh has removed a pane from one of these, so that you can step over the windowsill and inside, entering a kind of in-between space that usually belongs to the gallery but has been turned over to the public for the exhibition's duration. Around the hole, Koh has built an armature out of aluminum and painted wood, creating an enclosed version of a Toronto bus stop that appears to be bolted to the front of the gallery. The missing windowpane is installed inside the gallery, leaning against the wall, like a found sculpture. A thematically related work, Wave, which consists of a line of broken auto safety glass, is scattered across the gallery's back wall, nearly invisible from the street.

      Shell and Wave address the way in which galleries imbue artworks with aesthetic presence by rigorously excluding everything around them. In a gallery, the world's worst painting looks much better than the same painting at a yard sale, because the gallery's white walls and neutral lighting are designed to focus all of your attention on the thing on the wall. Yet this paint-by-numbers interpretation doesn't even begin to exhaust Koh's works, which provide a steady accretion of subliminal details. The sounds of Granville Street traffic, and raindrops, and bird song, as you stand on the "public" gallery floor. The putty on the edges of the leaning windowpane, like a frame for a transparent painting. Auto glass shining on the floor like tiny stars. Koh's work is full of these modest details, which constitute its "meaning". If you really need a more complicated name or label, you could call it the endless revelation of the commonplace.