When I was writing my PhD dissertation, I was discouraged from using the pronoun “we.” The reformulation required effort, as “we” was an easy and accepted convention. The exercise of the “un-we,” which was solved by rephrasings that excluded pronouns or did not hinge the work of the statement to them, caused me to consider who “we” as the “collective” included and who, by exclusion, were defaulted to “they.” Resisting the urge of ingrained practices brings about inverse results similar to those produced by acts of forced forgetting— the harder you try to erase, the more salient the elements become. Following this, I was quick to notice and excited to find on the wall text at the entrance of Adam Pendleton’s “These Things We’ve Done Together” at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts an instance of an italicized “we” as the intent of the show is expressed via a series of questions: “Who are we? What are we, and what are we not? Who is, and who is not? And, finally, what are these things we’ve done together?”
It might seem decadent to dedicate the introduction of an art review to a parsing of its wall text, as the art object is the featured attraction, while its accompanying literature is often excused to operate according to its own terms. And, it must be made clear, these words do perform important functions. Not enough is said about this. I think that Adam Pendleton would agree, as an artist attentive to language(s) and its rules if only to know at which angle those rules could be bent or broken to produce the most interesting texture at the fracture lines— this is intrinsic to Dada and Black Dada. In his seminal Black Dada Manifesto, 2008, Pendleton writes, Black Dada “is pieced together like a tapestry stitched in the margins of expressed language and compiled through lived relations. It possesses, as does all great writing, the uneven consistency of language on the run.” In this exhibition, as across his greater oeuvre, Pendleton hastens or stalls the pacing of language by drawing attention to who is allowed to do what with words. He is challenging language and meaning by asking “us” to ask ourselves who makes meaning, who defines the rules, who asks the questions and who is made to answer them, who writes the clauses that constitute the contract and who designs the words that form its framework. Words such as justice, freedom, equality are defined by whom, applied/denied to whom, reserved for whom? (Again: Who are we? Who is, and who is not?)
As I enter the first gallery, displaying four large-scale silkscreened pieces Untitled (WE ARE NOT), 2021, as part of Pendleton’s enduring Black Dada series, which he began making in 2008, I am cradling the italicized we. The room is immense—each wall occupied by a singular canvas; at the floor’s centre is a wooden bench, which can be used like the base of a compass so that seated upon it, your body becomes a directional pointer to appreciate the degrees of similarity and difference among the pieces. Mimicking stencilled graffiti on walls, with the words “WE ARE NOT” repeating in exchanges of black, white, some grey, Pendleton references Malcolm X, while interacting with Dada, abstraction and minimalism, along with the legacy of socio-political activism associated with these movements.
Among these lettered forms, there are splatterings, drips and irregularly shaped blocks that might be deemed either negative or positive space, but somehow, I don’t get that Pendleton feels an inclination to have his compositions dictated by such categorical conventions, since they seem a potential shorthand for bias contributing to the “meaning” problem (i.e., What are we, and what are we not?). The colours—and this applies to the entirety of the show—remain within the greyscale of black and white, either in distinction or combination. Although like graffiti on walls, this is not spray paint on cement but silkscreen ink on canvas, and an example of Pendleton’s challenging surfaces and provoking tenets of communion between media (as in, what medium goes on what material, applied in what manner, by whom), while troubling the status system of art (street being ostensibly “low” art, with canvas denoting “high” art).
In a corridor off the main gallery is a series of smaller, untitled framed works, 2021–2022, of silkscreen on Mylar. The prints are patterned with geometric shapes that can’t seem to keep a hard edge; they are almost-circles, and once-were squares, bleeding out, fading and then reasserting their form, resisting the dissipation only to concede in the final frame to resemble spillage. One of these pieces is reminiscent of Paul-Émile Borduas’s iconic black and white composition Mouette de Mer, 1956, but lacks the aggressive coarse texturing of the Borduas painting. It is an association that likely receives more recognition in Montreal than elsewhere and is an example of how the local and the geopolitical can contribute to an index of association, which also influences meaning.
The unassuming gem of the show is the short, single-channel, black and white video Just Back from Los Angeles: A Portrait of Yvonne Rainer, 2016–2017, featuring a conversation in a New York City diner between Pendleton and the dancer, choreographer and filmmaker Yvonne Rainer. The final of three video portraits the artist has done to date, it is a rare instance of his embodied presence in the picture, having overcome his characteristic desire “to disappear,” and of Rainer’s good-natured request to make the enterprise more “sustainable” for her. The film begins with the two ordering lunch, after which he gently announces: “So, we’re rolling. We’re going,” and Rainer responds in kind: “Where?” Their quiet chemistry and the convivial discomfort, which each will help the other endure, establish the intimate tenor that is maintained throughout a meeting that in filming lasted several hours and Pendleton edited to 15 (perfect) minutes.
As they discuss Rainer’s iconic solo dance Trio A, which she originally performed in 1966 and which has since been variously adapted for and widely performed by duos and large groups, the street traffic moves in the window behind her. Occasionally the glass catches a reflection of the diner’s interior as the camera closes in on Rainer, and the frequency of this activity that is absorbed by passers-by on the street forms a palatable blur not unlike the register held within the prints that make up the exhibition. This is the background against which she describes the minutiae of the Trio A: “where the weight is, where the gaze is, everything is controlled and prescribed.” She demonstrates a sampling of the routine’s hand gestures: her fingers interlock and one elbow at a time bends at a 90-degree angle as she traces a square halo above her head, recalling those almost-shapes repeating in the Untitled works on the other side of the wall of this wonderfully tiny cinema space. Following their meal, Rainer is asked to recite a text collaged together by Pendleton, which includes excerpts of Rainer’s own memoir, Feelings Are Facts (a phenomenal section of which is overplayed in Rainer’s voice as the two eat lunch); the essay “Pitfalls of Liberalism” by Stokely Carmichael; “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech by Malcolm X; Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s book From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation; and Ron Silliman’s poem “Albany.” The script and Rainer’s reading devoid of oratorial flair cause a flutter in my chest in their heart-breaking sincerity and bare observation of evidence regarding “the illusion of democracy and equality.”
As the film progresses, the diner itself blooms into a romantic character befitting a New York story, yet holds none of the sentimental trappings of the art historical Romantic tradition (save for the landscape painting hanging on the wall, which provides a compositional division between the companions). It is a kind of stainless steel and ceramic romanticism; a pass-theketchup kind of romanticism, and another instance of Pendleton’s challenging the communion of media and the vertical register distinguishing low and high art. This is followed by another as Rainer shows Pendleton movements from Trio A, and they each take turns cradling the other’s forearms in their own, in-between diner booths and the din of short-order chaos. The film, as the entire exhibition, was so satiating that I wanted to close my eyes to exit the museum and feel my way out until my hands recognized the cool metal and glass of door. I wanted to rehearse the close-up of Rainer’s hands on the table, the clock on the wall, the espresso machine in waiting, the landscape painting—to play all of it together in a symphony of shadows in my mind’s eye.
The intent of the show was accomplished, as the italicized we in the wall text had promised: “Who are we?” was asked, and the answer left open. ❚
“These Things We’ve Done Together” was exhibited at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal, from March 17, 2022, to July 10, 2022.
Tracy Valcourt lives and writes in Montreal. Having recently completed her PhD in humanities at Concordia, she is now the resident art historian at Antimodular Research.