A Ghostly Form: Scrap Metal Embraces Presence, Absence, and the Space Between

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Emerging curator Rui Amaral is troubling the third rail of contemporary art. He’s been fingering the margins of what’s visible, the all-important link to a bigger system – something like a shock, a life-giver, a potential killer. His shows provide a deeper meaning that goes boldly signaled. But he’s never been so effective in this effort than with his most recent exhibition, Somebody Everybody Nobody. Hosted by a unique collector-driven duo that backs Scrap Metal, he presents its wares in conversation with borrowed work, utilizing a space open to project-based and idea-driven exhibitions that feels unfettered by commercial incentives and granting-body appeasement. Indeed, following the 2012 closure of Ydessa Hendeles’s exhibition space – which set the international standard for a collector’s gallery bearing-out groundbreaking curating – Scrap Metal has assumed the mantel of Toronto’s only “third-rail” gallery: one free to claim a stake in contemporary art, and offer a position onto its unresolved subjects. And as its programming director, Amaral has been taking full advantage.

His exhibition Somebody Everybody Nobody achieves an expansive attitude, but without flaunting its source and  advantage. Poetry is embraced, the ineffable is sought, and history rushes up to meet the present. This exhibition does what good curating can: it claims the third rail, charging its works with an unseen presence.

Lois Andison holds the center with an introductory kinetic sculpture that flips the memento mori into something regenerative. Need (2012), composed of granite and sandblasted text, rotates its text (“feed me,” “seed me,” “need me,” “weed me”) so that movement is the only constant, and metamorphosis, a kind of entrapment. A few steps later, this same artist gives us Timeline (2012), compressing a decade’s archive of personal papers (health records, financial statements, personal correspondences) into a sculptural body. She reminds us that our existence is only documented by so many wafer-thin sheets. Collected, however, these papers produce a razor-edged form that achieves an independent body. Andison’s archive is importantly mirrored by a spatial absence, a profile of so many ‘somethings’ that go unaccounted for, in all our living, the things we do that are undocumented, and, gratefully, uncharted.

A few steps later, Kris Martin’s Somebody (2013) presents a broad drawing made from dead people’s ashes that spells-out its title (“SOMEBODY”), while remarking upon its futility. Like Spring Hurlbut’s cremation photographs, this author demarcates a presence from an extinguished existence, re-asserting its value in ash. It verges on gimmick, but in this context, attains something better.

One of Jason de Haan’s salt-bearded heroes is fallen and protruding from the floor, nearby. The story behind this individual piece makes De Haan’s name-making work newly meaningful: from his series Salt Beards (2009-2014) – where the artist found plaster busts and then altered their visage by producing mineral deposits (like those found in caves) on their faces, effecting, drip by drip, over the course of hundreds of hours, extreme protrusions that form something like beards – this particular sculpture suffered a recent break that separates it from the assembly. The salt-water accrual on the lower half of this particular bust’s face became so heavy that it knocked the sculpture off its plinth, amazingly not breaking the “beard,” but severing its head from its neck. Since the bust in question is that of Isaac Newton, found in the same area that the Rip Van Winkle story is set (a man who fell asleep under a tree for decades, eventually awakening to a white beard and a new, unfamiliar world), the sculpture’s fracture signals a kind of metaphor for a reality that’s at once age-old and new, and enduringly unbearable. De Haan, for all his recent showings, has never felt so sage, and occult.

The exhibition’s centerpiece, however, is achieved in a marble bench that affects an important selvage within the gallery’s curatorial layout. Democratically presenting history’s banalities, persistence, and unremarked romances, Shannon Bool has made a marble bench marked by the re-created inscriptions of a half-century’s casual graffiti artists. Referencing the scale of the original fifteen benches that surround Florence’s Piazzale Michelangelo (whose piazza, built in 1869, is legacy to an urban renewal plan, initiated by the emergence of the middle class), she reproduces a single bench and subverts the original directive to Michelangelo’s work by focusing our attention on the piazza and its people. The marble bears the markings of over fifty years of graffiti, featuring now-outdated Italian slang, tourist inscriptions, and lovers’ signatures. As the curatorial text aptly remarks, the bench “simultaneously bears and collapses multiple histories.” It’s a testament to a public’s palimpsest. The refrain “I was here” echoes its pithy assertion through stone, making it grand; making, as so many nothings do, history.

An easily-missed, but all-important presence arrives with Iris Häussler’s interventions, which mark the gallery walls with abstracted jetties and angled forms (casts of body parts including the back, calf, and knee). These plaster-cast limbs are only discernable by shadow, subtly jutting from the walls. For all the exhibition’s absences, it’s a very real corporeality that bears them out. And in an exhibition whose title reflects its layout (somebody goes followed by everybody, then nobody) these cryptic forms fall somewhere between the three, demarcating Amaral’s “somebody” and “everybody” and “nobody,” all at once.

As I walk through this spacious account of ghostly presences and absent forms, I think of something distant. Following his mother’s death, Roland Barthes sought to locate his mother’s “essence” in photographs. He pored over her images and nearly came up empty-handed (writing, dejectedly, “the Photograph always leads the corpus I need back to the body I see”). Then he found one that pictured her as a girl, and thought he saw her truly. The seeker was released: he found his subject, communicating herself absolutely. It was, ironically, a version of his mother he’d never known.

I think of this as I move through the exhibition, and feel the gestured-at presences of each work, their alluded subjects shadowing my every step. The third rail of good art is charged, its power to connect the surface with the deep, and the corpus we don’t see, to the body we do.

There are brilliant inclusions here that reify the exhibition’s inherently poetic – and as such, nearly ineffable – subject. Hadley + Maxwell, for instance, showcase a piece from their sculptural-assemblage series of imprinted limbs, torsos, and visages, pulled from historic monuments and portrayed in black Cinefoil casts. The seemingly insubstantial product – crispy portraits whose creases and crumples reflect their subjects’ profile, but barely – achieves a ready resonance with De Haan’s salted bust. Both underscore their subjects’ vulnerability, helped by an attention to materiality and its intrinsic fragility. But whether formed in salt or by a tarry maquillage, the depictions betray a material foil for a captive subject. It reminds me of the first instance of portraiture in politics, where the imperfect reality of a Roman leader’s face was used to promote his humanity. Here we have a series of portraits seemingly abstracted from, yet made closer to, their source’s infirmity: we see a mask, but also a reveal.

The exhibition continues past a rusted husk modeling part of the Statue of Liberty (Danh Võ) to a vitrine figuring documentation from a lost effort by Häussler, wherein she made sugar portraits of German students that were later destroyed, by ants. There is, in the final gallery, a string of lights (Felix Gonzales-Torres) and a wire of soap-bars by Miroslaw Balka, whose origins date back to the Holocaust and bear the hairs and dirt of a time that endured so much cleansing. This series of work, collected as they are, provides a final blow, reminding us that a perceived “nobody” comes from somewhere, and potentially, at the cost of so many somebodies.

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