SFU Gallery, Burnaby
May 10 – August 1, 2014
Curated by Melanie O’Brian
Review by Randy Lee Cutler
Kelly Lycan’s Autobiography for No One at SFU Gallery, Burnaby, a monochrome installation of white materials is presented as a combined still life, critique of consumer culture and a quasi studio space all within the platform of the gallery. The first room acts as an antechamber. Within its spaciousness we encounter a whitewashed hearth in the form of a makeshift stove made out of what appears to be styrofoam bricks, a drawer and a series of perhaps hatboxes topped with an industrial cooking pot. A flue extends from the stove upward and then into the upper part of the wall behind it. The effect is one of warmth, welcoming the viewer into the space while offering a staged pastoral encounter with what could be read as the psychic interior of this autobiography. The gallery press release offers a list of materials employed within the inner rooms of the work. “Found furniture, clay forms, plaster casts of mass produced vases, stacked multiples, piles of discarded drywall, hanging transparent sheets, fitness equipment, inverted wastebaskets and pooled paint create an unfolding – and potentially boundary-less – space for the viewer.”(1) The whiteness of the work rather than suggesting homogeneity allows for multiple readings that speak to materiality and the circulation of goods, the white cube of the gallery and conceptual art strategies and perhaps even a utopic vision teetering on a sublime precipice. And there is even more here than meets the eye.
Marina Roy’s 2009 exhibition essay for Lycan’s White Hot at TPW in Toronto maps out many of the rhetorical and allegorical features in the artist’s use of white to achieve an all-consuming aesthetic of invisibility and even neutrality. Here the historical significance of white vis à vis art is explored as an ironic gesture challenging conventional signifiers which often impart “an aura of purity, cleanliness and order almost exclusive to the wealthy who can afford the maintenance of such a look within their carefully designed interiors. It evokes class, but also alienating conformity.”(2) Lycan’s fastidious use of the colour rather than a cold, objective aesthetic opens up our experience of whiteness and the monochrome where more playful and potentially critical experiences emerge.
In this iteration of Lycan’s white project I was intrigued with how the investigation of mass-produced commodity fetish was at times refigured into phallic shapes produced through the accumulation and piling of whitewashed recycled materials. The potential for irony swelled(3) in the sheer fecundity of drooping forms, dripping towers and erect wooden objects. The generative potential of the symbol of the male sex organ is exploited in the fertile suggestiveness and potential boundary-less-ness of Lycan’s aesthetic. The tacit whiteness of patriarchy is somehow made explicit in the priapic figurines that populate Autobiography for No One. Is this “no one” an antidote for the one, as in the privileged signifier? Phallogocentrism characterizes those systems of thought that assume the existence of a single organizing principle or underlying cause informing reality. Lycan’s monochrome whiteness represents a seeming unity that acknowledges difference. If the phallus, by formally representing a singularity symbolically, enacts fixed classifications, static meanings and objectivity then how do its multiple and diverse forms offer more fluid possibilities for subjectivity. If this autobiography is for no one then can it also simultaneously be for everyone?
In contemporary art, whiteness as a colour conventionally points to an aesthetic of neutrality, purity and order. Often overlooked it can also signify white patriarchy where all other racial and gender identities are present if only in their absence. This relation in absence becomes an invitation for an imaginative discussion of the potential allegories and allusions in these omissions. Seeing Lycan’s show I am reminded of Kara Walker’s current exhibition A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby…at the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn curated by Creative Time. “Measuring approximately seventy-five and a half feet long and thirty-five and a half feet high, the sculpture is white—a mammy-as-sphinx made out of bleached sugar, which is a metaphor and reality. Remember, sugar is brown in its “raw” state.”(4) The underlying material realities present in the figuration of whiteness are significant.
Though operating through very different registers I am compelled to bring these two works together to better appreciate the political and the overlooked, some of the qualities celebrated in the editorial interests of LeftCoastArt. The too real body does come into the frame in Lycan’s installation not only through its phallic allusions but also in the artist’s limited spectrum. Although reduced in its palette, Autobiography for No One resonates a kind of corporeality. In addition to its pasty hues there are fleshy pinks in the plastic crates, dull beiges in the burlap wall coverings and muted tans in the recycled carpet turned into erect Tatlinesque pillars. In this way, the whiteness of the work rather than suggesting homogeneity opens up multiple, embodied and subjective readings that speak to materiality, corporeality and even a penetrating gaze toward what is, ostensibly, not there.