“Artists don’t own the meaning of their work.” New York Times critic Roberta Smith issued this controversial and affecting line to a full auditorium in Guelph, two years ago. It was, to my mind, her only assertion of value before she planted her elbows on the podium and submitted to questions like a student before a school nurse, seeking a probing that would confirm her sound body. This was the second Shenkman lecture in as many years to be delivered by a critic, and the second to fail its audience. (Dave Hickey delivered a round offense to the academe the year before). So Smith’s claim gave me a private thrill, one that, as a critic, I kept quiet and prized.
Sky Glabush’s pursuit of mastery comes second to his pursuit of meaning, as he recurringly upends his practice to strike at essentializing questions anew. He’s good at modeling himself after established forms (landscape painting, Fauvist self-portraiture, Modernist sculpture, naïve pottery and weavings) such that his success can be read as revolving mimicries within a conceptual constancy.
A recent exhibition at Oakville Galleries perpetuates this pattern. Showily departing from the medium and genre he’d previously landed (large-scale realist painting in the style and tone of London, Ontario Regionalism, specifically that of Jack Chambers), Glabush grasps at neo-Modernist sculpture and self-taught tapestry weaving to ask a cardinal existentialism, “what is a self?” But the exhibition proves the potential fallibility of constant revolution.
Matthew Hyland, director of Oakville Galleries, walks me through the show’s sun-streaked rooms and explains – with discernable hesitation – Glabush’s spiritual motivations for the show, his Bahá’í Faith, perhaps his quest for selfhood within a religious community. (This aspect of the exhibition is notably missing from curator Jon Davies’s catalogue essay. It’s touched on like a glancing). We circle modular sculptures cast beneath the warm natural light of Oakville’s Gairloch Gallery (a romantic lakeshore landscape stretches out beyond the historic building’s many windows. Artists push against these views or block them out, but Glabush has gamely embraced his environment). The artist’s rough-hewn forms made of concrete, foam, wood, and tile, and his crude weavings with bleeding dyes, ground the galleries’ domestic architecture.
Glabush doesn’t own the meaning of his work, I remind myself. Whatever he laid down I am picking up strangely. What Is a Self? feels too distant in its earnest appeal, and, in its form, distractingly familiar. It’s work that looks like work I’ve seen before, and its desire – his intent – to dive into Modernist forms in search of selfhood as opposed to objecthood, strikes me as a misguided errand.
What do we do with Glabush’s ability and will to change shape, to adopt with almost boastful ease yet another voice and another medium, when his latest mantle has him arriving late to a tired zeitgeist? How do we regard the mimicry of mimeses here, especially as we’re directed to seek in this work essentializing truths? Is it possible to see selfhood, identity, even “purity” in echoing forms?
Part of Glabush’s success, to date, has been sewn up in his biography. His tale risks becoming a brand, at this point, a compelling itinerancy, a narrative of self-evolution and reinvention, drifting and catching. David Balzer profiled him in a 2013 Canadian Art feature as “a man with an unruly and unorthodox childhood to match anything in Burroughs’s memoir Running With Scissors.” His story gets played out in a mosaic of exotic, unlikely sites, a maverick tale positioned in concert with an ever-changing practice. “Such stories may explain the itinerancy of Glabush’s own career – jumping fearlessly and perhaps recklessly from one approach to another,” Balzer writes. However, biography can be distracting.
And intention can be misleading. “As with many of his contemporaries, Glabush is engaged with the history of Modernism in art,” writes Davies in his essay. A few problems obscure or pervert this Modernist citation, however, and the first of these is the volume and clamoring of Glabush’s peers after this same referent. Too many artists are recently moving through the visual language of neo-Modernism (or its paler cousin, “zombie formalism”) for this engagement to feel capable of “the push towards innovation” with which Davies characterizes its originating movement. There are others, too. Rachel Whiteread, Louise Bourgeois, Doris Salcedo, Wade Guyton, Rachel Harrison, Alighiero Boetti: these names float through the rooms Glabush occupies. Concrete fills the negative spaces of chairs and tables (Whiteread); domestic furniture is buried in same, its ribcage peeking out (Salcedo); modular and iterative sculptures assume anthropomorphized postures, and suggest a ludic, haptic logic in their arrangement (Harrison). Slightly faded and wavy-patterned weavings hang near windows in a gesture to domesticity and process (a softening and personalizing of the Modernist grid and a blurring of boundary between art and craft). The list of associations to the contemporary and the historical risks crowding out Glabush’s search for the self.
While Davies (both curator and author) recognizes Glabush’s neo-Modernist cohort, he quickly gives way to the artist’s idealistic motivations, quoting his desire to locate the individual within Modernism’s abstract objecthood. The fact of neo-Modernism’s contemporary currency – and the art public’s growing fatigue with it – is largely unexamined. Instead the artist and his curator have decided to duck the reality of a trend and privilege the root reference, to drill down through the palimpsest to its foundation.
This wishful tactic underestimates our increasing literacy. We are adept at reading the pell of Modernist motifs, the cribbing of Modernism itself. We need an update but the references stay the same. Davies quotes Clement Greenberg (by seeming requisite) as being concerned with what was “essential, inherent, and irreducible to the medium in order to achieve a purity of form.” But Greenberg grew out of his opinions, or contradicted himself, depending on the context. For instance he also wrote, “Art is a matter strictly of experience, not of principles.” Perhaps this would have fit Glabush better?
Greenberg’s relevance feels fairly moot, here. He’s too often swimming around our contemporary moment without the mooring and context of his full argument, too often used to torque or ground, to burn and dodge, the Modernist image of the early aughts, to snare us some gravitas in a nostalgia as much driven by the market as our postmodern exhaustion.
Let’s consider Glabush’s personal seeking through a critic less materially essentializing, less obliquely revered. Remember when Jean Baudrillard issued the first critical upset of the new millennium with “The Conspiracy of Art”? He said something of relevance:
If everything becomes too obvious to be true, maybe there still is a chance for illusion. What lies hidden behind this falsely transparent world? Another kind of intelligence or a terminal lobotomy? (Modern) art managed to be a part of the accursed share, a kind of dramatic alternative to reality, by translating the rush of unreality in reality. But what could art possibly mean in a world that has already become hyperrealist, cool, transparent, marketable?
Baudrillard lays a card over Greenberg in the contemporary moment, reminding us that Glabush’s aesthetic lexicon isn’t capable of “purity,” at this point (and what an embarrassing word that is now, even). Modernism is silted with the oil of our fingers from too much handling, too much modeling after our own image. It strikes me as worrisomely naïve or selfishly insistent to tag Modernism in the pursuit of seeking one’s self, as though the world stopped turning at Gurdjieff.
But even if we burrow into Glabush’s intention and nest ourselves in his project in the Modernist vernacular, I worry that we’re working with the wrong tools for his end. Modernism arose as God was becoming dead. It gave rise as an alienated artist class, an apostasy embracing existentialism, that made objects they could hold onto, that they could measure against the fog of war and the chill of a machine-made century. Glabush’s desire to locate spirituality or selfhood in this tradition renders these tools ineffective and uncharged. It also begs the question, “why?” Why work with these tools, and not make others?
It’s hard to disregard the aspect of spiritualism in Glabush’s intentions for this work, but it’s difficult to root into. I think of Mark Tobey, a “mystic” American Modernist painter who converted to the Bahá’í Faith in 1918, though his images are marked more by his interest in Asian calligraphy than anything discernibly spiritual. Barnett Newman was insistent on his “zip” paintings’ evocation of primal unconsciousness and the sublime – but also the Kabbalah, something that doesn’t get discussed much in his oeuvre. There’s a reason for this. Spirituality is elusive in the Modernist canon, partly because its allusion is almost certainly abstract, and partly because it jars with the aesthetic and ethos of the early Modernists’ resolve.
What I can see in Glabush’s effort is a man seeking home. It’s the discernible rail connecting the strange shapes of his practice: his desire to acclimate to new environments, to communicate in different tongues, to root out the place where he could lay his head. Critics have been linking Glabush’s mimetic practice to his peripatetic history for some years, now – because it lends itself to the easy narrative of a man in search of place. But in Glabush’s most recent exhibition we see this desire not as a performed idea, not as a romantic hook, but as a determination so searing and unsparing it misled the work.
What is a self? I wish more exhibitions kicked a leg out over the cliff: that more shows felt this vulnerable in their intent (and not in that precious, over-long-titled, poetically-tilting way that so many pretend at). I wish we asked ourselves better questions and strained at real answers. But I mind the tired, over-worked channel that Glabush elected for his search. I wish it didn’t read as something calculating, or corrupted, in its aesthetic cues. I wish Glabush wasn’t working against a static canon for purposes so singular and grand; that he’d found a fresher field to set his tent.