“Kline & Kolakis”

The McBride Contemporary Gallery in Montreal recently presented a collaborative exhibition of two Montreal artists, Valérie Kolakis and Chris Kline. The installation of the exhibition presented two large paintings by Kline side by side on one wall while the sculptures of Kolakis inhabited the space as would domestic furnishings. The two artists intersect at the junction of architecture and painting, a connection that occurs around the theme of various familiar thresholds such as the window, and also around the question as to transparency. Is the world we view already there, complete for us to gaze on, or is there a provisional appearing that takes place in time? The works of these two artists constitute a kind of dialogue around this question. Kline’s two paintings contribute a haptic awareness and interact with the more narrative sculptural constructions of Kolakis. This issue of transparency has been a principal question for art since Alberti wrote his treatise On Painting in the mid-14th century.

Both artists conduct dedicated explorations of emptiness and its meanings, Kline’s through the paradox of an empty/full, with Kolakis’s process being more one of subtraction that elides any concrete identity in favour of fragmentation and abstraction.

Valérie Kolakis, _A horizontal rectangle and others approximately square, 2021, .5-inchsquare painted steel bar, press board, 23 x 48 inches. Photo: Guy L’Heureux. McBride Contemporary, Montreal.

What we can make out in Kline’s two very similar paintings is a felt sense that the forms on these canvases are the residue of a process, like a monotype, rather than being entirely works of the hand and brush, “printed” using a large sheet of architectural glass as a press and a rectangle of canvas cut from a previous painting as a plate. These two paintings, each about seven by eight feet, vertical rectangles, bear the same composition and colour, although one is darker than the other. As for colour, these two paintings obfuscate the question with their blurring of transparency, translucence and opacity, but let’s say “pale cerulean.”

The absented sheet of glass hints at a connection to photography, the glass plate negatives used in the medium’s early days. But further, there is the sense that the imprint is a mark of something that has happened, like a footprint in the sand. Called an “index” in photography, it was considered to be evidence that would validate any claim of truthfulness by demonstrating “this really happened here.” Kline’s paintings may well be considered “reductive”; that is to say, finally their presence is a matter of physicality or “materiality.” He is demonstrating painting as a material process with light, colour and surface being primary materials. While this places his work in the ambit of artists like Robert Ryman or Robert Morris, in the Montreal context I think of Betty Goodwin’s “Tarpaulins” and lithographic printed pieces of clothing. Kline’s painterly treatment of surface has rendered it hazy, and it might read as a cloudy sky or water seen through ice. Such suggestions of landscape over water and fog bring to mind the late 19th-century impressionist paintings of James Whistler and, more currently, the Icelandic paintings of John Zurier.

Chris Kline, Rang (1) and Rang (2), 2021, acrylic on canvas, each 84 x 63 inches. Photo: Guy L’Heureux. McBride Contemporary, Montreal.

In a sense the ghostly rectangle traced by monoprinting onto the larger canvas is a “found” or “readymade” that functions to veil a large area of the underlying stretched canvas. It is also clear that the large rectangle veiling the surface withholds our knowing what is behind or underneath—a present “absence” that speaks of memory, one painting bearing the “memory” of a previous one now imprinted onto the current surface. This is the full/empty that is our looking through a window.

Valérie Kolakis gives us the tools and materials to build a dwelling, the elements of building: roof, floor, walls. There are chipboard (OSB), concrete roof tiles, windows, steel frames, two plants (artificial) and one photograph. Aside from the photograph most of the elements bear a relationship to the floor as support, in the manner of furniture, although in these sculptures this is made more explicit with some pieces drawn in steel along the floor, partially outlining what may have been an actual object such as a chair.

Valérie Kolakis and Chris Kline, installation view, “Kline & Kolakis,” 2021, McBride Contemporary, Montreal. Photo: Guy L’Heureux.

Her pieces work as references to the spatiality of the gallery as a built place, with its various daily relationships and structural resonances that are here held fragmented and suspended in abstraction. Kolakis imagines what would remain if we subtracted the daily relational existence of this place as such. What complicates her work here is the presence of the single photograph, a photograph whose reference is also spatially uncertain, leaving us to work out what we are seeing. What we do see clearly is a city street scene with its buildings, but all is obscured by what I take to be an overexposure of the photograph, suggesting that this is a found or recuperated photograph, a photograph whose documentary objective has been partially eroded, lost in a ruined transparency.

There is, however, a distinct collaboration between her presence here and Kline’s, this being the shared interest in art and architecture’s framing or organizing emptiness. If it is architecture that creates the void, painting does something more obscure in this partnering; it comes to the void, bringing to it a suspension of immediacy by way of emptiness that allows inhabitation. Architecture makes the space; painting allows it to show itself in a process of mirroring, or like an echo. Each of Kolakis’s sculptures is installed in the gallery as a dialogue among the various thresholds: windows, doors, photography, painting. We look at the gallery through her framings, which differ as we move through the space, giving us diverse “edits” or fragments and an experience that is missing, like what we see demonstrated in the single photograph. Something, perhaps what we call a “content,” with specificity has been subtracted, leaving only outlines where before there were utilitarian things and materials, mostly those pertaining to ordinary domestic environments, their building and their inhabitation.

If there is a theme to this exhibition, it is that of an emptiness where memory and its play within perception allow for a subtly nuanced intimacy, usually referred to as “aesthetic” experience. Diving into the pleasures of enigma, memory and material intimacy, the Kline and Kolakis exhibition leaves us with a much-needed sense of event. ❚

“Kline & Kolakis” was exhibited at the McBride Contemporary Gallery, Montreal, from September 9, 2021, to October 9, 2021.

Stephen Horne is an art writer from Canada who lives in France.