Red Indians and Academics
Caren Canier at Concordia Gallery
CAREN CANIER'S CURRENT WORK, viewed
in the light of her exhibition history, leaves the impression
that this gifted woman is held hostage by the prestige of her
own beginnings and the expectations of academia.
Canier is a professor of visual design at Rensselaer Polytechnic
Institute in Troy, NY. In 1977, three years out of Cornell,
she won the coveted Rome Prize Fellowship which granted her
a year of study and work at the American Academy in Rome. She
exhibited several times with Robert Schoelkopf, upstairs in
the Madison Avenue gallery—once an apartment—that
was a mythic place to young representational artists. Schoelkopf,
one of the last of the old-time dealers, had a deep affinity
with the Academy's methods and traditions. His stable was a
painter's communion of saints: Leland Bell, Gabriel Laderman,
William Bailey, Louisa Mathiasdottir, to name only the top of
Such a beginning has an implied trajectory. But it is one that
depends on fidelity usque ad mortem to a particular
aesthetic. One that is essentially classical in temper and minds
its manners in relation to form. Canier's work reveals her to
have become something of a heretic by Academy standards. And
heretics, whether judged by religious or aesthetic canons, make
the faithful uncomfortable.
Structures, Inside and Out: Caren Canier, Langdon Quin
is a joint exhibition of paintings and works on paper by this
artist couple. I reviewed Quin's most
recent solo show at Kraushaar Galleries in New York City
and do not want to repeat my admiration here. My concern, this
time, is solely with Canier
and her work. From the point of view of artists wrestling
with an identity askance of the traditions that nurtured them,
she prompts discussion.
Canier's commencement exacts its price from an intelligent artist whose pictorial
imagination has seceded from the realist endeavor. We tend to
forget that realism is a fiction, an aesthetic construction
no more real than any other artifice. It is a system of conventions
and maneuvers, dodges and deceits. A painter's game with a selected
range of permitted moves. Canier's inclusion of collage, photo-transfer
and other mechanical devices—including whole sequences
from Eadweard Muybridge's time and motion series—conspires
against realism's sense of itself. It is certainly askance of
the High Churchmanship expected of Rome fellows.
Canier has set herself a juggling act, balancing hieratic classical
references against her own more personal themes. An evident
love of pattern and surface design over-rides anything approaching
realist space. Yet she seems constrained by the expected homages
to deep space, tonality, and all the other feints by which realists
signal to and recognize each other.
In themselves, her paintings suggest fiber works, something
liberated from the aesthetic conceits and intrigues that pivot
on the New York/New Haven axis. The axis mundi as we
know it. The pieced aspect of her designs, wedded to a geometric
structure, brings quilts and tapestries straight to mind. It
is no idle association. Her technical interests (e.g. stamped
image repeats) run parallel to those of contemporary fiber artists,
who combine a wealth of new techniques raided from printers
and painting studios. Collage itself is a modern variant of
appliqué, in the arsenals of needlewomen for centuries.
And modern quilters make vibrant use of the much-touted grid,
holding their own against any artist with a brush. Spend a day
at Manhattan's Museum of Contemporary Crafts and see for yourself.
Keep track of what comes out of Cranbrook, RISD and FIT.
This is not to hint that Canier trade in her easel for a loom.
I mean only to comment on the visible tension between her own
instincts—which contradict academic bias against ornament—and
the effort to appease academic preferences at the same time.
E.H. Gombrich is an astute guide to the issue at stake: "What
we call art in our society is presented to us in a particular
context, to be received with a particular kind of attention
or, to use the technical term, with a particular mental set."
Which mental set is that? It is the one that prompted Austrian
architect Adolf Loos to state, in an earlier, less sensitive
age: "To regard decoration as an advantage is tantamount
to remaining on the level of the Red Indian. But the Red Indian
within us must be overcome."
Canier's inner Red Indian refuses to go gently. While her imagery
remains tethered to representation, her working preferences
are more idiosyncratic, ebullient and whimsical than the rhetoric
of representation permits. She seizes classical and Florentine
citations only to reject the restraint of her sources. Her use
of Muybridge is thoroughly static, freeze frames converted to
surface patterns, denying the movement implicit in the originals.
Where Robert Rauschenberg used paraffin transfers dynamically,
Canier seems to use transfers to short-circuit drawing. For
all its sophistication—Canier has looked at a great deal—her
work evokes a folk quality unwelcome on the same dance floor
with court painters. The presumptions of painting can become
a conceptual cage to an artist whose interests lie outside the
Canier invites comparison with the quirkier aspects of Louis
Elshemius, the self-styled "Supreme Parnassan and Grand
Transcendental Eagle of Art". Figures float in space or
form chorus lines up and down the picture plane. (Picture of
the last frame of Stay Hungry, Arnold Schwarzeneggar's
first movie: body-builders, in identical beef-cake pose, are
symmetrically arranged up and down a fire escape.) These are
design decisions that appear eccentric on canvas. Not even a
giant like Antonio Lopez García was successful floating
a realistic couple over a Madrid landscape. In a medium other
than painting, Canier's nonconformity could be an asset. On
canvas—at least, within academic settings—this is
less likely to be so.
The Academy and the impulses of the studio are uneasy with
each other in Canier's work. Among East coast figure painters,
the Cabots speak only to the Lodges and the Lodges prefer to
speak from Yale. Like every comedy of manners, it is a narrow
delivery system. It is also a straitjacket on talent that is
more tactile and original than the bounds of traditional representation
Concordia Gallery, 171 White Plains Road, Bronxville
NY Tel. 914.337.9300
� Maureen Mullarkey
© December, 2003