Borders, Surround, Verge, Outlines, Around, Brim, Margins. These are the titles of the seven paintings in Larissa Tiggelers’s most recent show at Christie Contemporary. The titles are synonyms for each other, and consulting the definition of “synonym” is helpful: “one of two or more words or expressions of the same language that have the same or nearly the same meaning in some or all senses.” The subtle ambiguity of “the same or nearly the same … in some or all senses” perfectly captures the unnerving quality of this body of work. The paintings have identical dimensions and are hung slightly low on the wall. We could register their similarity by stating that flat regions of carefully attenuated colour float in a framing field of black paint. These fields of colour and the black “frame” meet at crisply defined hard edges, and the opaque fields themselves are utterly free of brush strokes. And yet to say that this denotes similarity is to suggest that “border” and “surround” mean the same thing, that outlines and margins don’t have different inflections, that brim and verge are somehow identical. We don’t live in such a flattened world and anyway, these paintings are only feigning flatness. Difference inheres and gives these paintings a richness that is comparable with the subtle play of connotation and denotation in the titles themselves. All the titles but one register as both nouns and verbs, and all of them pertain to the edges that not only activate these paintings from within but also operate as the predicate in the exhibition’s title. Edges are both within and without, and it is hard not to feel that this is a practice on edge. Defining “edge” clarifies matters: “noun, the outside limit of an object, area, or surface; verb, 1. provide with a border or edge, 2. move gradually, carefully, furtively, 3. give an intense or sharp quality to.” It’s possible to spend a lot of time here contemplating limits and how they are so decisively demarcated. Ruminating on the object inevitably leads to imagining the action of carefully providing an edge both in the material execution of the painting and in the intense feeling of emotional precarity they elicit. The exacting elision of painterly authorship has the dizzying effect of making the viewer imagine both how such a painting is possible and how the possibility of painting remains an open question.
I find myself clumsily mimicking Tiggelers’s primary strategies. Her deep attention to the fundamentals of painting—line, surface, colour— makes me unusually attentive to the fundamentals of writing—words, punctuation, grammar. The attentiveness to words exhibited in my opening paragraph, to the endless play of signification, of the decisive effect of even the most subtle differences in tone, inflection, context and usage, to the very richness of our life in language, I hope approximates what I believe is the plenitude of these paintings. Zeroing in on one of them might make this more palpable. Around may be the furtive outlier in the show, the constitutive outside that gradually sneaks up on you and discloses how the careful play of difference unifies the entire exhibition. Unlike the other paintings, the title of Around isn’t a noun/verb dyad. Acting as an adverb, “around” means “located on every side”; acting as a preposition, it signifies “on every side of.” Adverbs modify verbs and prepositions show the relationships among nouns and pronouns. Thus the title of Around refines or specifies the object/action binary that inflects all the other titles. When viewing the other paintings in the show, I constantly vacillate from observing the object to contemplating how it was made. This is most obviously the case with regard to the edge effects, some of which are masked and some of which may well be freehand, but it is no less at stake in the virtuoso application of colour. None of the coloured zones are the same, and the precise management of warmth, hue and tone indicates that they can’t be anything other than what they are: they declare a confident objecthood. Still, you spiral off into thoughts about their opacity, their sour strangeness, to the point where even the black edges begin to look different from one another. I’m almost convinced that none of the blacks are the same and that some of them are not fully opaque; but what is so weird is that I’m thinking about this at all and that I’m inevitably thinking about how it all happened. Around offers a meta-commentary on this whole experience because, as its title suggests, it is perhaps the work where the edge effects and the palette are so refined that you come to recognize that all of this pleasureful contemplation is the result of carefully orchestrated relationships that constantly modify our visual experiences. It is the painterly correlative of an adverb/preposition dyad. And in that sense, it embraces all of the possibilities set in play when a person walks into the gallery space.
There are very few paintings that work this way. The closest comparators that I can think of were made by a fellow denizen of the prairies. Like Tiggelers, Agnes Martin grew up on the great plains. Nic Wilson’s luminous text “Instruments For Seeing” that accompanied “These Are The Edges” persuasively argues for the paintings as displaced acts of prairie world-making. Certainly, their palette and their flatness are convergent strategies. But my connection to Agnes Martin has less to do with the evocation of place than with the performance of a certain kind of restraint in her later work that triggers sustained surges of emotion. Achieving this kind of effect where nouns verb and verbs noun not only discloses the profound joy of looking but also makes me deeply aware of joy’s precarity. We know that Martin was a fierce editor and destroyed paintings that didn’t meet this demand. I suspect that Tiggelers is no less fierce for all the pleasures afforded at the edges of painting. ❚
“These Are The Edges” was exhibited at Christie Contemporary, Toronto, from March 5, 2022, to April 9, 2022.
Daniel O’Quinn is a professor in the School of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph.