Brent Wadden: Two Scores
At the Contemporary Art Gallery until March 25
You don’t expect to find a big, colourful, handwoven rug displayed on the polished concrete floor of the Contemporary Art Gallery. Distinguished by its rigorously curated exhibition program, the CAG seems an unusual venue for something so seemingly homey and craftish. Still, as you navigate around Brent Wadden’s Score 2 (16 Afghans), with its long, multicoloured horizontal stripes—with its accompanying photographic prints, too—you begin to understand the conceptual provocations and strategies behind it. Wadden insists that the large abstract works he weaves on his floor loom are “paintings”. Through this insistence, he participates in the dialogue around painting’s place in postmodern art, disrupts hierarchical distinctions between high art and craft, and troubles our understanding of masculine and feminine histories and practices. Phew.
Wadden was born in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, studied painting at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and then spent formative years in Berlin before returning to Canada and more or less settling in Vancouver. (He maintains a studio in Berlin.) Mostly self-taught, he began to weave in 2012, creating works that, while referencing hard-edge and systemic abstraction and figure-ground relationships, were purposefully naive and laborious in their execution. He has already achieved an enviable degree of critical acclaim and has shown his woven paintings in leading commercial galleries in London, Paris, and New York. Two Scores, however, is his first solo show in a public gallery.
As curator Kimberly Phillips explained while leading a recent tour of the exhibition, Wadden responded to the scale and architecture of the CAG’s exhibition spaces while also working within other parameters that contribute to the process-based nature of his practice. He typically weaves with “pre-used” fibres, often unravelling knit and crocheted blankets and garments acquired online or in thrift shops and then incorporating the yarn into his weavings. The amount of yarn he possesses in any one colour may determine the design.
For the CAG’s B.C. Binning Gallery, Wadden created Score 1 (Salt Spring), an immense weaving cued to the big north wall on which it is mounted, and five tall, narrow works, whose dimensions were determined by the spaces between the gallery’s high windows on the south wall. The wide horizontal bands of colour in the large work range from sombre greens, greys, and black to cadmium red and acid yellow, and were dictated by the yarns Wadden sourced, secondhand, from a weaver on Salt Spring Island. Ditto the vertical bands of colour in the smaller works on the opposite wall. The formal qualities here raise the ghosts of a number of high modernists, from Barnett Newman to Agnes Martin. They also call up decades of women artists who have smudged the line between textiles and abstract painting, from Sonia Delaunay to our own Colleen Heslin.
Score 2 (16 Afghans), the carpetlike weaving and accompanying photos in the smaller Alvin Balkind Gallery, documents its own process. The coloured yarns Wadden has woven with here were taken from, yes, 16 secondhand knit and crocheted afghans. Wadden took a colour photograph of each afghan before unravelling it and has mounted the prints on the walls of the gallery. The photos are so detailed and illusionistic that they possess an almost trompe l’oeil effect, as if you are looking at actual miniature textiles pressed under glass. With their inven-tive colours and patterns, these miniatures are far more visually beguiling than the big flat rug at centre stage. The power dynamic here, as Phillips pointed out, could be seen as problematic: a male artist appropriating domestic objects made by women—anonymous women, voiceless women—and presenting his monumental work to considerable acclaim in a high-art gallery. It’s a bit like middle-class marriage in the postwar era. It’s a lot like the art world right now.