Two veteran mavericks whose wide-ranging practices gradually came to concentrate around photography are enjoying late-career exhibitions in Toronto. Max Dean has received recent accolades, most notably a 2014 Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts that cited his playful investigation of “the nuances surrounding relationships between body, mind, and matter.” Eldon Garnet remains on the periphery, a subversive shadow. He follows a witty and ambitious artistic course, known for its uncompromising production values and taut, if ambiguous, symbolism. Garnet’s last major honor came over ten years ago, the excellent self-curated 2005 exhibition Impulse Archeology, at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, Toronto, in recognition of his editorial vision in founding and directing Impulse magazine, a clarion of arch postmodernism from 1978 to 1992.
A nimble art director’s sensibility pervades Garnet’s latest series of thirteen large-scale C-prints, Garden of Hell on Earth. These are vignettes of an undisclosed story. The title suggests a new permutation of an archetypal scenario: post-Armageddon, the human race reduced to an isolated pair of inhabitants (an old man, a young woman) who forage a new Eden from scorched Earth, perhaps forsaken by God. The images are very dark. Fugitive patches of illumination sometimes fall upon a figure or object. As photographs, they purport a basic indexicality. The pictures have some basis in reality, yet the look is artificial, a reification of the artist’s imagination, counting on a viewer’s intersecting imagination to fill in narrative details. The look is also very nearly seamless, trappings of the stage purposely banished from the picture. It could be a fashion shoot, except that the figures are naked, which connotes an innocence regained under total devastation. (This innocence decidedly does not extend to the artist or viewer.) Perhaps the flecks of ash or smears of soot on skin appear a little too applied by an off-stage stylist, the flesh of a model a little too healthy in the implied circumstances, but such quibbles engender questions that one does not really want to know the real answers to, such as: What does apocalypse actually look and feel like?
Tiny bits of non-human survival reinforce the ouroboros of end times into regeneration: clumps of sphagnum seen between stones, honey squeezed from a comb, spring water to slake thirst, a green plant that looks salvaged from a commercial nursery. The scavenged artifacts appear far less promising. Steel hammerheads lie uselessly by charred wooden handles. A shoe crushed into the rubble only hosts a little more moss. A travois of books may be recovery of knowledge or just fuel. Ominously, fire (which evidently wasted the land) is one technology that these people retain. The people themselves are as if plucked from the tumult of Rodin’s Gates of Hell – battered, writhing, still numb. The challenge of propagation has yet to occur to this couple, although it has to concupiscent eye of Garnet, in his choice of young, fertile female models. Garnet, who turns 70 this year, assumes a customary and genuinely ageless scope. The vivid wasteland he conjures addresses the world’s current situation at the likely brink of cascading calamities. A continuing direction of his project is hinted not so much in the exhibition but rather its accompanying book, which gathers these same pictures together as “Chapter One: Recovery.”
By contrast, Max Dean appears rather accepting and engaged with the current state of things. The main component of I’m Late, I’m Late is a series of five photographs shot in the artist’s studio in 2014. (Garnet’s photos withhold cues as to location.) Dean, who was born in 1949, fulfills what might be boyhood fantasies in his pensioner years, hence the exhibition title. He grandly stages a parachute landing in Dropping In, the discovery of a magnificent water lily in Swamp, an exotic butterfly safari in Studio Jungle, godlike terrestrial formation in Mountain, and a dreamlike trip to Cloud Nine in Perplexed. Each image has three elements in common: (i) self portrayal, (ii) the undisguised backdrop of studio walls (and usually other architectural features), and (iii) a single artificial stone that migrates from one scene to another. The revelation of supposedly quotidian (for the artist) surroundings only heightens the exuberance of the artifice. Dean claims to have acquired any props that needed to be purchased from the Dollar Store. Hence the jungle foliage has been assembled from a limited array of plastic fronds that he has gathered in bunches and attached to scavenged boughs. (Zip ties, other apparatus, and armatures are visible if you look closely.)
Dean adroitly characterizes each situation by his pose and expression. These are his fantasies, after all; he owns them. Given the effort and ingenuity that are required to recreate a long-held, pining wish, they are not to be wasted on inappropriate feeling. These images are the very vessels of exaltation, combining constituent ingredients of awareness, concentration, belief, and celebration. Only Perplexed slightly dispels the unlimited capacity of imagination. The picture fuses two shots. One was taken from the floor, below the cloud (crumpled paper in a loose wire net) into which we see only Dean’s legs as he climbs the steps of a ladder. In the second, shot from above, he has burst through the cloud into clear “sky,” only to see more of the same place, the familiar appurtenances of his studio, and a crowd of ladders, as if others have (or perhaps he has) been here before. Dean wryly punctures the attitude of the daydreamer.
The exhibition also includes two related series of smaller, somewhat less elaborate photos. One is tour of the spaces of his studio (bedroom, kitchen, office, etc.), each space crowded with a variety of stepladders, as seen in Perplexed. The effect is like a perverse virtual tour on www.realtor.com, views offered by a seller who obviously does not want to relinquish his home. The second are shots of the artist’s disorganized (or differently organized) desktop, upon which he has placed a customized Dinky toy (an early model of what eventually became his working Foto Bug) amid assorted and sundry Max stuff. This becomes a game, like what Dean did with his aforementioned studio project. We first encounter the toy car on a bridge (a metal ruler), which next becomes a gangplank extending from a palisade of books. Instead of the real water that Dean filled his floor with for Swamp, this sea appears to consist of blue plastic bags. Then the car is stuck in a dune, loomed over by a giant alligator and gigantic water lilies, making references to Swamp (again) and Studio Jungle. We next find it stranded in a forest of hammers (not, obviously, a reference to Eldon Garnet). Finally, Dean pulls the camera back. The car is still surrounded by hammers, on what is now clearly seen to be a table, below which floats the open canopy of a paper parachute. (In Dropping In, all that is shown is Dean harnessed and linked to the suspension lines of the parachute.) It seems to be a glorious day in the sandbox.
It’s inspiring to find both Dean and Garnet working vigorously and freshly at this stage of their careers. Each looks back with mixed emotions at the parameters of their artistic formation, considering the opportunities gained and the limits imposed by their chosen expressive tools and language. Yet neither finds himself at any loss of purpose although recognition of the distances, perhaps forever unattainable, of their pursuits creeps in.