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 the list.

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 canvas.

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 permit.

Concordia Gallery, 171 White Plains Road, Bronxville NY Tel. 914.337.9300

� Maureen Mullarkey
© December, 2003

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