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SARAH ANNE JOHNSON AND SHAAN SYED

[First published as "Sarah Anne Johnson and Shaan Syed" in Winnipeg's Border Crossings magazine, August 2006, 117/118]

Steve Matijcio's debut as Plug In I.C.A.'s curator consisted of two simultaneous exhibitions in linked spaces: Sarah Anne Johnson's The Other Side of Eden and Shaan Syed's Crowds and Constellations.

Syed makes paintings on canvas and board that, in the tradition of Manet, combine social commentary and painterly practice. He makes no attempt to replicate Manet's in-your-face dandyism - there are no Olympias here. In fact, the commentary is sometimes quiet enough to miss, which I read as a sophisticated strategy within an international scene that at present has too much art that screams.

Sarah Anne Johnson uses many media connected - at least technically -- to vernacular and folk art traditions, especially to the now decade-long tradition of young Winnipeg artists who make narrative works with representational ruptures and lots of handwork.

Syed's subject is the crowd, even when there are no figures in a picture. Tennis Court, one of his recent night pictures, is a wet, painterly atmospheric confection with no figures. The Forestsports a few small souls about to disappear into the woods - what I took to be eighteenth-century British soldiers instead of what the gallery's didactic material refers to as contemporary people clad in safety vests. Other paintings, for example The Descent, are jam-packed with figures who look crushed and terrified as they clutch onto their little patch of stair. (I'll bet this work was inspired by Syed's sojourns down the endless escalators of London's Tube when he lived in the UK.) Syed's figures are rendered with intentional painterly crudeness, reminding one of the Uruguayan artist Ignacio Iturria, all googly eyes and slathering grimaces. I'm sure that Syed can paint flesh with the conviction he brings to the forest, but perhaps he is afraid of appearing too old-masterish.

His large painting The Cool Kids is a topographical birds-eye-view depiction of hipness in which figures stride across a large highway. (Will they notice oncoming vehicles?) As the cool kids gesticulate and pose in the middle of the picture, uncool kids wander around trying to ignore them. The Boxing Ring (second coming) is a melee of fighting stick people, an out-of-control crowd. Disaster (painted in that disaster year 2001) depicts fire fighters collecting yet another sad cargo of human victims. Syed's humans seem to be helpless, tossed to fate, the playthings of forces much bigger than themselves. Like Goya's Third of May, Syed's skies are black and Godless, and like Manet, Syed's analysis offers beauty, but no hope.

Johnson's multimedia production is likely itself the "other side of Eden." After all, is not Johnson the God of her little world, and are not the Sculpey models of figures that she makes a kind of mimicry of Biblical Creation -- little people sculpted from mud by big hands? Like the Bible, Johnson mixes up fact and fiction. Her magical, low-tech photographs, drawings, paintings and sculptures describe how joy can inhabit remote, abject places (like her hometown Winnipeg?).

The subject of Johnson's new work is the Galapagos Islands, a protectorate guarded by the forces of international tourism as a tribute to its unique history. It was, as everyone knows, the site of Darwin's research for his and Alfred Russel Wallace's theory of evolution. In Wallace's coinage, this theory entailed the idea of "the survival of the fittest," Does the Galapagos represent for Johnson the nasty, knowledge-laden side of Eden after the Fall? It seems so. Ironically, the theory of evolution denies Eden more powerfully than anything since Biblical times, and at least since Darwin nobody can take for granted the daily operations of the hand of God.

Johnson's new work offers an enticement to apply evolutionary theories to art. The word "Galapogas" is a charged one in science/religion debates, a rallying cry for scientists and a slap in the face to religious fundamentalists. The low point of evolutionary theories in art, as if one needs a reminder, was the Fascist era when "degeneracy" was associated with "lower" and classical ideals were aligned with "higher" forms of art. The Nazis were mistaken - as are many people -- in believing that evolution has a trajectory and a hierarchy, which it does not. Because of the Nazis, art theorists still shy away from the application to culture of what is arguably the most important idea in science, an idea that has lately been applied even in contemporary cosmology (in the form of the "weak anthropic principle"). Biologist Richard Dawkins' evolution-related idea of a "meme," the cultural counterpart of the gene, may be the most recent serious attempt to account for the vast variations in cultural products like contemporary art, but it is an unsatisfying notion because Dawkins sees a "meme" as a kind of evolutionary cultural bit. It is clear - at least to me - that culture can't be analysed atomistically because it is always and from its very start too complex.

Looked at the right way, as theme and variation play that assumes a human perspective, Johnson's show can be seen to encapsulate a cultural debate about evolution that can take us somewhere. (If the artist herself has no such ambition, so much the better!) In reference to Syed's work, for example, we might talk about the principle in evolutionary theory that puts the individual member of a species at the centre of the evolutionary process - a perspective that gives one a little comfort in a big crowd. Or, darkly, we can assume that one of his forest people is the kind of bear bait that would obviously feel more comfortable in, say, a city.


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