Blue Republic Finds its Center

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Since its inception, Blue Republic (comprised of the married collaborator-duo Anna Passakas and Radoslaw Kudlinski) has been working somewhat site-unseen. It has presented solo exhibitions at Georgia Scherman Projects and the Doris McCarthy Gallery, and enjoyed some international attention (most notably winning a highly-competitive public-art installation in Oslo, 2010), but the collective had yet to fully “land,” at least in the eyes of the reticent-to-embrace-its-own Canadian artworld. I think this might have had less to do with us, though, than the work, which has tended towards overly-determined and didactic conceptualism in rough-hewn hues.

In its most recent outing, however, Blue Republic has transcended its citations and finally issued something like a protagonist to play its games. Further, it’s embraced a bigger lens, and the poetry it was always straining towards. Indeed, its solo installation at Georgia Scherman Projects (regrettably titled Lick, But Don’t Swallow, until November 22), sees the collective continue certain leitmotifs – economics, mapping, abstraction, and impermanence – but the work advances and forms an important resolution. This achievement seems to have required the artists loosen their focus, relax their fixation on the rooted reference, and embrace the ineffable. In more ways than one, now, Blue Republic has finally arrived.

I want to begin by focusing on the back gallery. Because while the opening installation – a large-scale wall-work that signals the collective’s greatest achievement to date, and, one hopes, the future of their practice – does merit the most attention, the back gallery beautifully grounds this newest endeavor, and describes its inception.

In a minimal and clear depiction of photographic and video work, Georgia Scherman (a gallerist who truly curates) pulls our focus to the strength of Blue Republic’s past.

Through a series of new video-works, insight and narrative are leant to the duo’s representative achievement, Water Drawings, a collection of photographs from 2012 that pictures their invention of “water graffiti.” In these, Blue Republic paints impressions with water on Georgian-Bay rock formations, their images disappearing with the day’s heat, and time. Where the photographs merely framed the effort and distilled the action into hieroglyphs, the videos give us something more fulsome: the activity of mark-making, the trajectory that produces impermanence. In this temporal capture, too, are the distinct(ly Canadian) pleasures of hearing the Bay’s lapping water, the paintbrush stroking dry rock, the padding of Kudlinski’s bare feet as he moves around his brief object. We witness the artist’s effort as we feel the scene’s tranquility, and something emerges in between – a poetry born of futility.

Following several years of constructing tattered cityscapes and games made from found materials articulating confounding logic-boards (Styrofoam, paint rollers, cardboard, and simple blocks feature strongly in its installation practice), Blue Republic has achieved something evergreen and ruminative in Water Drawings. The series’ recent videos (made in 2014) complete what feels, now, like previously-unfinished gestures. They’ve removed a static frame so that we can witness the performance, but more, the temporal object. It’s one of those things where you wonder why they didn’t do it from the beginning, and instead.

Further into the gallery – in Scherman’s unique and sky-lit raised alcove – a selection of two-dimensional works frame serene (if banal) lake scenes whose photographic skin goes pocked by Canadian stamps, or paper tabs bearing hand-drawn boats. These tend to be placed in alignment with the lakes’ horizon lines, so that the photographs and stamps fuse along the sightlines. It’s a winking formation, in the way that Blue Republic has long effected humor, but it’s something else, too. A comment is made on our application of majesty, monument, and history to landscapes that don’t care, whose formations and legacy is unmoved by our attachment, and will survive us when we’re gone. These works are both aggrandizing and diminishing. They achieve what great art can: a sense of the larger frame.

Now to the front gallery: when I enter, an expansive wall-work both hits and absorbs the eye. In its use of perspective, it feels as though it absorbs the body, too. An electric-tape “mapping” images an elusive picture, where chaotic and converging grids emanate out from a disturbing and muddy central character that perfectly marries figuration and abstraction. The entire front gallery is devoted to similar site-specific, wall-scaling constructions, but it’s this first one that captivates the most, and returns me to it magnetically, like a wringer begging response. Where the other wall-works frame recognizable, if surreal, subjects (also constructed with electric tape, with coins and other currency-like detritus attached, and featuring subjects like large container ships bearing mountains in their trunks), this first mural achieves something the others don’t: a disquieting image that affects more than signification, but feeling.

While the opening gallery is peopled in the corners (and, in the case of a pithy central sculpture, the main footpath) with overly-literal constructions – tongue-and-cheek phallic missiles; tiny, domino-laid tanks; a gun-decorated chair – it’s the wall-works that signal an important achievement for the Polish-Canadian couple, and a way forward. Here, and particularly in the first-seen mural (F Like Love – I would ask for better titling from the collective), an attempt to grasp something elusive goes pictured and, in the effort, complicated. At the heart of its chaos, F Like Love frames a canvas like a frayed nerve-center, its system skewed and set to self-deconstruct. The canvas, in fact, is easy to miss, so effective is Blue Republic’s manipulation of perspectival space. (Even a load-bearing column is marked by tape, such that, at a remove, it falls into step with its background tumult). These are artists who fully grasp the construction of three dimensions from two, and thoughtfully articulate lawnessness through form. They develop upon their past work (city-building, game-board machinations) with their vernacular of networks, but here they finally picture a center in the ferment, despite its implacability. Disturbing in the way that Francis Bacon portraits are all movement and no center, Blue Republic anchors its anarchic mural with a messy figure who agitates in his machine-like context. More, though, this dark character produces a protagonist, and the collective’s first resolution. It’s one we cannot fully place, though. Amid all its abandoned boardgames and past its ghostly gestures, Blue Republic finally presents a player. But we cannot name him, and more disturbing, we can’t predict his first move.

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