Seeing Meaning in Mess

Kelly Wood - Modern Decor for the Poor

At the Western Front until July 3

Photographer and critic Kelly Wood's new installation at the Western Front is easy enough to describe. Wood has plastered the gallery's walls with shopping fliers, transforming colourful come-ons for safety razors, antiperspirant, and mixed nuts into wallpaper. She's also suspended from the ceiling black plastic garbage bags stuffed with paper. Whether either intervention constitutes successful art depends on two things: how knowledgeable you are about art history and Wood's place in it, and how much intellectual leeway you're prepared to grant her thinking.

For viewers with little or no familiarity with art history, Wood's exhibition will be a slap in the face. Its gestural poverty and total lack of anything resembling traditional artistic technique seem like cold, sneering provocation, a refusal to make unique or beautiful things. "This is all you're getting," Wood seems to say, "take it or leave it."

Other, more historically savvy viewers will recognize a variety of sources. The black garbage bags reference the silver, helium-filled Mylar clouds Andy Warhol created for a Leo Castelli Gallery exhibition in 1966, and Wood's own photographs of garbage. The flier wallpaper refers to Warhol's wallpaper-patterned pictures of flowers, Coke bottles, cows, and Chairman Mao, and, perhaps, Vancouver photoconceptualist Ian Wallace's late-'60s Magazine Piece, which simply consisted of an issue of Seventeen magazine torn up and taped to the gallery wall.

Some might suggest Wood's Modern Decor for the Poor is a tongue-in-cheek or feminist subversion of conceptual and Pop strategies. I disagree, precisely because these subversions are now so easy to accomplish that they are almost beneath Wood's ambition. Fans of contemporary art register art-historical citations with the same sensitivity that other, better-adjusted people recall sports stats. Local artists like Ron Terada or, internationally, Martin Creed and Michael Asher seem to be in competition to create an almost invisible art, an art of ideas, not things. This gamesmanship is by now an established genre, a history of artistic gestures demonstrating that the apparently empty gallery is not really empty, even if all your senses suggest it is.

Wood doesn't play this game. Against neoconceptualism's dematerialization of art into thinking or writing about absent things, she asserts the messy primacy of objects: trash bags, colour photographs, and biographical details, hidden in the things she throws away.

Wood's thinking is, in this respect, conservative, but historically defensible and grounded. This conservatism also makes her a strong critic. Her recent writings on artists like Terada, Jeff Wall, and Mike Kelley are strikingly original. Her own work, astringent and off-putting as it often seems to me, emphasizes the amount of intellectual work that she employs to create her art. This is not a popular stance these days (it's far easier to manipulate codes, to sample from art history as if from a buffet) but it is a necessary one, and Wood, of all her local contemporaries, seems most willing to shoulder this burden.