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Cynthia Greig: Pictures at/of an Exhibition

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 by Tatum Dooley

Nigel Cooke/New York, 2015, by Cynthia Greig

"Nigel Cooke/New York", 2015, from the series Threshold | © Cynthia Greig

I often return to a short story by Don Delillo titled Baader-Meinhof. In the story, a woman is picked up by a rather gruff man in an art gallery (it’s heavily alluded to that the exhibition comprises works by the German painter Gerhard Richter). The story starts: 

She knew there was someone else in the room. There was no outright noise, just an intimation behind her, a faint displacement of air. She’d been alone for a time, seated on a bench in the middle of the gallery with the paintings set around her, a cycle of fifteen canvases, and this is how it felt to her, that she was sitting as a person does in a mortuary chapel, keeping watch over the body of a relative or a friend.

Delillo captures the essence of the role the gallery plays in viewing art. Before the layer of art is added to the equation, the gallery already begins to contextualize the work as worthy with its white walls, cathedral ceilings, wall text, and aura of a sanctuary. Part of what makes the story so unsettling is the abrupt pick-up in the midst of a place that is imbued with sanctum and seriousness—it counters what we believe about acceptable art-viewing behaviour. 

Throughout the story, images of Richter’s canvasses are invoked. But the subtext of Baader-Meinhof, the story unfolding in the loaded semiotics of an art gallery, reminds me of Cynthia Greig’s photography. 

"Angles (Joseph Kohnke: Displacements)", 2013, from the series Gallery Horizons | © Cynthia Greig

Greig’s photographs bring the gallery’s role as a centre of commerce, cultural clout, and geographic location with repeated tropes, into focus while considering abstract possibilities of what a gallery can be. The line where the floor meets the wall becomes a horizon line, the interior of a gallery shifts to an exterior landscape. As Greig notes, “Cameras document, but also transform.” Seen through Greig’s unflinching lens, the white walls don’t look so clean. Greig captures walls pockmarked with putty and blotted with red dots that look like specimens under a microscope—the gallery itself becomes a specimen under Greig’s microscope. Greig captures a distilled image, unavoidably meta, that articulates the structure of the gallery, and in turn, how we experience art. 

In Greig’s series titled Threshold, the gallery is sanitized even of the art—the work is photoshopped off the walls. The effect is uncanny: people contemplating empty walls. Yet, even with the art removed, the mind fills in the gap and immediately understands the scene we’re looking at. The focus shifts away from the domineering presence of art and onto the spectators, not unlike Delillo’s story. The viewer’s pensive body language becomes the focus, and then, because we are also a viewer looking at a photograph, we turn into ourselves: what am I thinking? What am I looking at? The photograph becomes a mirror.  From: Baader-Meinhof:

I realize now that the first day I was only barely looking. I thought I was looking, but I was only getting a bare inkling of what’s in these paintings. I’m only just starting to look.

Greig’s photographs come to the same conclusion: we’re only starting to look, not only at the art, but at the system that encompasses it. 

"Robert Mapplethorpe/Toronto", 2013, from the series Threshold | © Cynthia Greig

Often unnoticed, the way we view art is modified, influenced and shaped by the gallery’s architecture and infrastructure. The white walls, the polished floor, the office, politely situated slightly out of the line of vision of the art (one must not immediately be reminded of the transactional nature of art, a premise Greig dismisses).  Since Brian O’Doherty’s canonical 1976 text, Inside the White Cube, The Ideology of the Gallery Space, trends in galleries have shifted (for example, renovated warehouses are now en vogue locations for galleries, with intentional grittiness left intact), but the main premise remains. O'Doherty writes:

If the white wall cannot be summarily dismissed, it can be understood. This knowledge changes the white wall, since its content is composed of mental projections based on unexposed assumptions. The wall is our assumptions.

Greig is breaking down the psychological effects of the white cube model while within the gallery model herself, hinting at the values of institutional critique. 

"Casey Kaplan", 2012, from the series Gallery Interventions | © Cynthia Greig

Greig’s series titled Gallery Interventions perhaps most acutely encompasses the ethos of institutional critique—highlighting and unpacking the models of the gallery system from within. Photographs zoomed in on red dots, a sculpture of red dots precariously stacked, and a video of a woman stacking dots on top of each other on a (white) wall pulls attention to the loaded significance of the simple shape and colour within the gallery. The sticker tells the viewer: this work is good, important, expensive, and spoken for.  In Greig’s hands, the sticker becomes deconstructed. Similar to how repeating a word over and over again makes it meaningless, the repeated trope of the red dot becomes playful and the viewer starts to become acutely aware of the absurdity of the entire system. 

I imagine Greig’s work zoomed out an extra layer: next to a photograph of a red dot, a red dot on the wall. The work becomes a Matryoshka doll: a white cube within a white cube. The photographs come dangerously close to a kitsch mise en abyme—an image of an image of an image. It’s the restraint in Greig’s photographs, how they err too close to the sun between critique and jest, that adds an electric quality to the work that makes the viewer ask: what am I really looking at?

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Tatum Dooley is a freelance writer and curator living in Toronto. Her writing has appeared in Artforum, Bordercrossings, Canadian Art, Garage, the Globe and Mail, Lapham's Quarterly, and The Walrus. She is the creator of @cdnartforecast, a popular Instagram account dedicated to championing Canadian Art.