Messagers’ Forum: Patrick Mahon
Thames Art Gallery
September 16, 2020 – January 10, 2021
Messagers’ Forum is in turns surprising, enchanting, puzzling and challenging. Although the artist has been working on this exhibition for several years, it certainly feels like art for this moment. Perhaps this is because Patrick Mahon takes nothing for granted. His focus is on the need to “reach across”, to understand how things like ideas or objects can relate to one another, even as they seem to exist separately in our world. He finds ways to explore these relationships through creative examinations and constructions, inviting us to go there with him. Looking carefully, and then thinking through what he communicates, is part of the enticing challenge of this exhibition.
Entering the large main space at the Thames Art Gallery, we have a panoramic view of groups of works that are visual contrasts. A series of openwork constructions seem to float on one wall. Facing these is a group of large, darker, framed collaged prints. Taking up part of the floor space is an open area delineated by metal pipes that visually enclose a sound piece. There are several helpful information panels on the walls, identifying the works and providing background on the artist.
I was drawn to the collaged prints that were inspired by a 19th century publication given to Mahon, titled “The Aldine”. A small book, it was filled with prints representing ideal landscapes – forest and mountain areas, rivers and waterfalls, depicted in black and white that had turned sepia with age. The artist noted the absence of humans and considered the significance of this kind of representation. How are we meant to interpret such scenes? He recognized a set-up of ideal beauty, alongside the erasure of those people who actually inhabited this land. It could be read as an invitation to colonize an ‘empty’ fertile land.
His response was to produce large-scale digital images of the originals, printed on rice paper, mounted on coloured paper, that he manipulated in different ways. In some cases he punched holes through the prints in a variety of shapes, revealing the colourful background. We still recognize elements of waterfalls and mountains, but now they shift with a contemporary vision. Others he cut up and used elements to create completely new images. Mahon’s taking over the landscapes, redoing them and therefore complicating them, refuses the whole notion of an ‘ideal’ that is untouched by humans. We might read this as his statement about colonization and its exclusions.
Near the collages and on the facing wall are very different constructions. These are “Messagers”, and “Messagers’ Forum Cutouts” made of strips of wood veneer painted silver, grey and fluorescent colours. They made me think of symbols that suggest a word, an idea, or a state of being. But then I thought of the Dreamcatcher and its meaning for Native Americans. “Sandy” is one of these constructions, referring to a close friend of the artist whose death he has mourned.
Mahon has talked about the idea of ‘absence’ – the absence of Indigenous people in the ideal landscape representations, the absence of his friend and all the conversations that can no longer happen. He had originally painted words on the strips, but ended up removing most of them and instead used the phrases in a sound collage that is located in the middle of the gallery, which is a collaboration with the artist Wyn Geleynse. Individual visitors are invited to sit and listen to voices repeating specific phrases, including the title of the piece: “Turn around, Turner”. (Other phrases are “This is Changing” and “My Thought/Your Thought”.)
The readers were asked to repeat the phrases in different ways, leading to quite an interesting variety of emphases. In fact, I found myself listening as though to a story that had a shape, rather then simply repeated phrases. Waiting and listening, I started to see a relationship between the phrases and the cutout shapes on the walls. In a kind of parallel to the sound work, the wall pieces repeat and reverberate, casting fine shadows on the wall and suggesting that there is always more to the story.
An interesting facet of Patrick Mahon’s work is his desire to involve the community in thoughtful consideration of current issues of concern (see for example “Drawing Water”, Kamloops Art Gallery, 2008). In this case, he approached a local Chatham high school (Ursuline College Chatham), proposing ‘The Questions Project”. A group of students were to come up with questions for our times: “questions to bring people together in healthy ways”; “questions posed by others in our community or circle.” The goal was to create posters focused on these questions. The results, exhibited on the Mezzanine level of the gallery, are impressive. “How do people become so afraid that they resort to the danger of assumption?” is one example. The materials exhibited clearly reflect a group of students, guided by their teacher, conducting a different type of research, considering the wide-ranging effects of some very challenging contemporary events. As part of the process they were introduced to works of contemporary artists such as Gu Xiong, developed their own drawings, and finally the posters, using a variety of media. Given the questions they developed, one can imagine the intensity of the discussions they had.
The Questions Project is a concrete expression of Patrick Mahon’s desire to bring people together to exchange ideas, with the hope of encouraging generous conversations. Just opening a place for discussion could lead to developing new ways of considering, and coping with, the pressing issues of our times. Or at least begin the conversation by creating a community. This desire flows through “Messagers’ Forum”, as I believe it does much of this artist’s work.
Thinking about this approach to art making, reminded me of the role art has played in history, when most artists were more directly engaged in the culture of their time and place. Art could be a teaching tool, could convey ideas about evil and goodness, represent good and bad governance, and also be entertaining, beautiful painting. Looking again at Mahon’s works gathered in the main gallery, and in a small side gallery, I was struck by the continuity of ideas and how the variety of forms caused me to stop and take notice.
“Massagers’ Forum” is replete with art that attracts, delights, and asks us to think about what we see and hear. It is a very full experience of the power and potential of art.
Madeline Lennon, Professor Emeritus, Department of Visual Arts, Western University