McGill students window-shopping west of campus may encounter a different display on the exterior of Concordia’s Faculty of Fine Arts (FOFA) Gallery. Just east of the windows showcasing North Face jackets, something else is being sold: conceptual art.
A large print of Sol Lewitt’s Sentences on Conceptual Art is roughly circled in various places, as if the important bits have to be highlighted. Thirty-five axioms, like “perception is subjective,” and “formal art is essentially rational” attempt to propose a structure for a structureless art form. When Sentences is already justifying conceptual art, the mark-ups take on a sort of absurd meta-explanation of what conceptual art is, or what it can be. This theme, unfortunately, extends to the art itself, which is hit or miss mostly due to its sincerity in stretching simple ideas to their conceptual limit.
Explaining “concepts” was a task assigned to art history students at Concordia, and their efforts are on display at FOFA’s COMBINE 2013, an exhibition of artwork by those undergraduate students. Most students seem to have had an easy time with their assignment; they earnestly provide the intimate details of their peers’ work. The statement on Michelle Lundqvist’s line paintings explains her art “gives the viewer a sense of who the artist is personally,” but in the same breath states “there is no specific message Lundqvist wishes to convey to the viewer through this series.” Lundqvist’s ambiguity in this exhibition actually benefits her work—the paintings’ static greys and precise lines are aesthetically alluring without trying to be something more.
Other concepts in COMBINE 2013 are executed dully, or, in some cases, even obnoxiously. Eli Kerr’s Four Frames With Their Sandpaper displays pieces of sandpaper that were used to create the frames that hold them, but the lack of wear on the sandpaper (each called a “footprint of labour”) appears to reflect the rather unpolished concept that they represent. Megan Moore’s Home 1963-2013 is a projected video series of photographs of the artists’ grandmothers’ home, apparently “necessary interventions in order for marginalized groups to reclaim normative spaces” which “challenges normative dichotomy between private and public spaces.” In execution, however, the photos appear as a last-minute photo-montage created during a weekend at Grandma’s.
J’VLYN’s Holy Trannity is a triptych film of the artist sarcastically repeating homophobic comments they have encountered on Grindr, while staring at the viewer over a background of psychedelic pixellated images, but the only thing memorable about the brief film is his obnoxious mantras that echo throughout the entire gallery.
The best art in COMBINE 2013 is made by students who don’t take themselves so seriously. Steffie Bélager’s Diane’s Garden is a wooden sculpture of a loudspeaker supported on ridiculously fragile metal rods, directed at an audience of faceless wooden planks, and its satirical message is well-executed and funny. April Martin’s Pink Clouds, the poster work of the exhibition, is similarly lighthearted: giant pink balloons and a column of bright plasticine compliment a large print photograph of “polar night,” or Kaamos, an optical phenomenon in Rovaniemi, Finland.
Lewitt’s thirty-third statement on conceptual art states: “It is difficult to bungle a good idea,” but the thirty-second one admits “Banal ideas cannot be rescued by beautiful execution.” If I learned anything from COMBINE 2013, it’s that a concept needs both in order to transcend mediocrity.