[Originally Published in Fault Line, July 2006]
The invitation for Robert Randall’s installation at the MoCL is made up like a realtor’s ad, a dig that wins more mileage in real-estate obsessed Victoria than it might elsewhere, and that is just the point. Randall has been making images culled from real estate photos of houses (mostly blandly ideal 1960’s split-levels) for about twelve years, and to some extent, wondering what to do with them. During that time his interests in the urban landscape, and attendant notions of ‘place’ and personal history have broadened and become richer through exploration and contrast, as indicated at a recent artists’ talk at the Vancouver Island School of Art in which he showed photographs from a recent trip to Europe –notably pastoral, mended battlefields of the First World War- with sites of natural and artificial anomaly within Victoria’s downtown area. Considering the current installation in view of this lecture, as well as Randall’s more recent exhibition history, sheds some light on the possible outcomes of Randall’s subject matter and his treatment of the house pictures in particular. Randall’s houses have tended to occupy a space between romanticism and irony. The presentation is often dark and a little blurred or soupy, vacillating between opacity (as obstinate, fixed, awkward or dingy) and an ephemeral translucence. The outcome of that struggle has often occurred to me as the mingling of two kinds of lapse: the persistence of places we have known and the oddity of architectures that were once forward-looking, when they’ve begun to fall into the past. Split the difference and you might have the suggestion that pasts laid out on ideal terms are harder to digest on a personal level. Even as bright and impersonal modern utopias suffer an inevitable reduction of scale (reducing in space as they recede in time, as Milan Kundera said of old people) so they resist, their materials not having been designed for a gentle, more naturalistic move into the scenery. Scale has been important. Part of the enjoyment of Randall’s original house paintings was the fact that a glossy-yet-murky bit of glazing on panel had originated as a minute clipping in a realtor’s paper. The ‘miniature’ feel of many of the paintings has tended to work nicely with their subtle, unexpected heterogeneity in group presentations, as in his grid of paintings on tiny frosted Mylar rectangles at the AGGV’s Interface some years back. I recall Randall discussing alternate presentations at that time (Mylar, mural-sized presentations, a/v components) and his expressed desire to experiment with installation. Some of the challenge has been to avoid the miniature’s preciousness, and Randall has tended to explore the possibilities in a modest rather than arch manner. At last year’s Deluge Christmas show, his landscapes on found wood (also displayed in grid formation, depicting rather featureless European fields that were in fact the aforementioned battlegrounds) succeeded in playing the soft persistence of a heavily knotted grain under paint that was mostly devoid of affect. At Roy Green’s recent roundup – Domestic Bliss- at Open Space, Randall offered two variations on presentation that I interpreted as largely aesthetic rather than conceptual decisions. On the north wall, the houses were painted on banners of Mylar hung from the ceiling away from a wall with open windows, allowing the pieces to be viewed from a ‘front’ and ‘back’ side of the translucent material, and also resulting in the natural light backlighting the imagery. This latter feature emphasized the ‘existential’ material nature of each brushstroke, underscoring the contradiction of this painterliness as both the tool and enemy of depiction. On the south wall a larger image of a house had been painted directly on the wall in a very physical manner that included drips running down the surface of the wall. The problem seemed to me at the time that the materials had been denied their sense of distance from the viewer…perceptually, there was no point at which it became difficult to ‘read’ the picture, no interference in the flat-footed frontality of ‘narrative’ (as such) to be engendered by the usual dark tones, slipped lineation, or reflecting gloss. As a result, we were left with the straightforward painting index, which went nowhere because Randall is a great success as a painter of conservative means rather than a virtuoso, and because technique is something that in his work comes across as a private issue rather than a social one. It is the contrary combination of self-effacement and public subject matter that has made his irony rich, and without the former the latter looked flat and stagy. The Ministry of Casual Living is primarily a window space, with a shallow back gallery that is usually only available to the public during the night of an exhibition’s opening. Randall’s window display consists of long sheets of Mylar hanging in narrowly spaced vertical rows and curling slightly at their lower edges. The Mylar has been block-printed at regular intervals, creating a grid of houses and apartment buildings, not without repetition. Taken together, the grouping looks careful and vaguely curatorial, but closer in the idiosyncrasies of the prints make the mood more convivial. The drawing in the prints is filled with skewed angles and generalized rendering, suggesting a deadpan set-up for a cartoon strip. The graphics are unevenly produced, and the thinly inked ones look like a flicker of the cleaner prints, suggesting a looped scene in old-style animation. The serial quality brought out by the repetitions is not forced (the repetitions occur in no particular order), but it’s hard to miss…one alpine-style peaked roof keeps cropping up, recalling both the architecture of the ‘60’s and Disney’s Snow White, indicating generally how one kind of confusion (such as nostalgia) breeds another. On the occasion of his opening, Randall had also complimented a window display of house images with a table out front offering the lino and EZ-Cut blocks used to make the prints, still wet with ink. The back gallery featured a computer monitor with a ‘slideshow’ of digital photographs. The images in the slideshow are of apartment building entryways, mostly from the period Randall favours (suppose, the era of his parents’ first family home…), with their host of pretentious names (many of which the artist correctly identifies as ‘Hispanic-kitsch’) and pseudo-heraldic devices. Who hasn’t visited a lapsed parent or ailing family friend in one of these apartments and passed through the doors with their gilt italics (“…Gardens”, “Manor”, “Court” or “Place”), and run the lobby’s gauntlet of false fireplaces and tired furniture? Maybe not so much tired as tiring, since its insistent evocation to a certain notion of hospitality or propriety surely never had any real takers, but wears one out with the sheer possibility. The pictures are unremarkable and direct, rehashing the same spatial scenarios: the doors, the bit of space beyond the doors not quite visually accessible and therefore shallow, and strips of curve-edged sidewalk or overhang above or below that nudge the eye into the big rectangle of the doorway, encouraging the horizontality of the original aesthetic. The pictures are pleasurably mesmerizing. Like Randall’s house paintings, difference is a subtle motif, but an attention develops in catching the variations, and one suspects it has been the artists’ experience as well. Unlike Ed Ruscha’s famous photo-book ‘Every Gas Station On The Sunset Strip’, Randall does not declare an exhaustive catalogue, and it’s the sense of curiosity, as well as a suspension of disbelief that the subject might be bottomless, that tickles the viewer’s staying power. The question I have about the show as a whole is to what degree the rhythm of Randall’s window of lean-looking prints can feel of a piece with his shuffling doorways. There is a question about community and privacy in these presentations, perhaps the way in which models of seclusion (as in the postwar house, all garage and no porch) ultimately become a lived-with encumbrance on both sides of the wall. The more elusive issue is the promise of community as enacted through casual tokens of affection, defined against a ground of uneven familiarity. This brings up certain points that are subtle and open to discussion, and which might become more salient with Randall’s next (or next, next) show: the Ministry’s place as part of a suburban neighbourhood’s storefront strip, it’s odd routine of making work available through the window but only offering occasional access to the space beyond, and Randall’s decision to allow himself for once a glimpse into an opening, if still a façade.