“Open Structure”

When an exhibition is as exquisitely structured as Grace Deveney’s “Open Structure,” it’s critical for reflections on it to follow the curator’s carefully constructed cadence. Circling through the exhibition like a stylus following the spiral groove of a record, you begin with Jennie C Jones’s sound-absorbing duo of upholstered panels, Vertical Shift, Fractured Crescendo.

Thickly padded yet angular, Jones’s paintings’ unplaceable alteration of the gallery’s acoustic environment creates quiet not through damping soundwaves but by stilling the viewer’s noisy progress through the exhibition. Jones has previously created sound works that re-edit recorded performances to reveal evidence of the living human in the recorded track—the performer’s gulping breath or the background chatter of session musicians.

Stilled before Jones’s Vertical Shift, Fractured Crescendo, it is tempting to read the narrow band of fluorescent red pigment diagonally bisecting two stacked textile-wrapped panels as a slash of prohibition: “No noise allowed.” And reading Deveney’s didactic text, which neatly ties Jones’s diptych to her curatorial premise of breath and nothingness, caused me to reconsider the pitch of this sloped line and “empty space between the panels” as a form of musical notation, fractured by the jump from one grey square to the one below, as a decrescendo or a long, broken exhalation.

Installation view, “Open Structure,” 2023, School of Art Gallery, University of Manitoba. Courtesy the School of Art Gallery, University of Manitoba. Photo: Karen Asher. Left to right: Whit Forrester, The Electric Universe Theory, ongoing, gold leaf and electronics; Jared Brown and Janelle Ayana Miller, o composition 00, 2022, collage, experimental composition—field recordings, voice notes, samples, improv performance(s) and synth production—processed and sequenced on Ableton.

The structure of avant-garde music—its emphasis on moments of silence, novelty and refrains that reinterpret a theme—is evident in Deveney’s every curatorial decision. Music is a critical tool for individuals and communities to establish an identity and articulate political aspirations. Recognizing that music animates our bodies, which are both personal and deeply political sites, each artwork in the exhibition stages a subtle interaction with the viewer’s body.

Derrick Woods-Morrow’s gut-vibrating sculpture contrasts the quiet spareness of Jones’s work. The sudden shift in tone is as jarring as a chord change in Giant Steps. Where Jones’s canvases are rigid and neat, Woods-Morrow’s sculpture is overtly squalid. A pair of mattresses slumping against each other form a makeshift shelter that quakes lewdly with the distorted thumping bass of a club tune cranked through a cheap car stereo. For all its off-putting crassness—the mattresses are dirty and stained—Woods-Morrow’s How do we memorialize an event that is still ongoing? shouts into the quiet gallery for more than the pleasure of disrupting this pristine space. The heavy, sagging forms of the mattresses—as soft and large and battered as bodies—are as precarious as they are intrusive. How do we memorialize an event that is still ongoing? insists on snatching joy and disturbing the peace at any opportunity, perhaps because such an opportunity may not come again.

Ron Bechet’s charcoal line drawings, churning with vines that might ensnare, entangle and choke, are like a sudden key change. Sinewy, muscular, fibrous—you could easily be swallowed by the velvety charcoal darkness of these enormous gridded drawings. The grid is a structure, not containing but supporting the rampant wilderness. The grid also provides an insight into the artist’s sanctum—his studio walls—that emerges as another layer impressed upon these remembered landscapes, a wild, dim, cool sanctuary of their own.

The body is not depicted but is urgently present in these works. Bechet must stretch, arc and twist his limbs and torso to unfurl these creeping tendrils from the stick of vine charcoal in his hand. There’s an ominous symmetry to drawing vines with the charred material of vines. The artist’s contortion mimics the undulating masses of trailing plants like a ritual that merges human and vegetal.

In jazz improvisation, the soloist will pick notes from the harmony to refashion into a melody. Similarly, Deveney returns to Jennie C Jones’s diagonal slash by positioning Whit Forrester’s bisected gold leaf disc on the facing wall at the far side of the gallery. In The Electric Universe Theory, Forrester expands upon the handful of shared phrases—bodily sensation, evocative materials and spare geometry—that the artworks express before soaring into the otherworldly, heavenly and esoteric.

Installation view, “Open Structure,” 2023, School of Art Gallery, University of Manitoba. Courtesy School of Art. Photo: Karen Asher. Left to right: Derrick Woods-Morrow, How do we memorialize an event that is still ongoing?, 2022, used mattresses, various natural stains, subwoofer, wake work; Ron Bechet, Only Change Is Dependable, 2021, charcoal on paper; Ron Bechet, Fragile, 2021, charcoal on paper; Ron Bechet, Transformation, 2021, charcoal on paper.

Bathed in the golden light reflecting off this artwork, it’s easy to view the immense circle of The Electric Universe Theory as a dusky, low-sunken sun or a massive halo— something divine and magical in numerous metaphysical traditions. The conjoined arcs of The Electric Universe Theory are like the twin values of spiritual and physical, much as the halo in Christian iconography represents the light of divine grace united and in harmony with the physical body. Mystical and material are consolidated by applying gold leaf, equally signifying economic value and divinity. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, gold-leafed icons are considered windows to heaven; Forrester suggests his works act as portals to another time and consciousness.

Daring to touch Forrester’s dazzling hemispheres is to invite a smiting. A dangling snarl of wires snaking toward a wall plug reveals the prosaic as the root of the divine. This mundane machine, a TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) device, is familiar to stiff and aching late-night infomercial watchers. However, the jolt it delivers via the artist’s golden disc does more than make you aware of the tender and tenuous physical body. It awakens its wondrousness.

Recoiling from this giddy, animating jolt, I sheltered within a small enclosure of movable walls where I was showered by Jared Brown and Janelle Ayana Miller’s decidedly un-new-age soundscape. I imagined o composition 00 as a score generated by the other artworks in the exhibition. Within Brown and Miller’s light barrage of noise, ranging from a gentle exhalation of breath through ragged laughter and cries to staccato clapping, nothingness and breath were as privileged as expressions of joy.

From this meandering audio, I approached Harold Mendez’s Winter in America, which sounded like an alarm rather than a trilling improvisation. A bare, blackened branch emerging from a brittle, jagged-edged wafer of scorched dirt writes a tragic calligraphy. Glittering flakes like ice crystals crust the twisted twig; a pale puff of popcorn, like a frost-blasted blossom, is caught in the crook of the branches. The thin crust of ashy earth is studded with a few scattered pieces of popcorn, daubed with primary colours. This darkly whimsical diorama of extreme fragility was accompanied by a drawing on a lithographic plate of a spider’s web glistening with dew as viewed through a cracked pane of glass. Deveney’s accompanying text explained Winter in America’s musical reference, Brian Jackson and Gil Scott-Heron’s album of the same name, and Mendez’s reprisal of the album’s theme of strength in frailty.

Winter in America made me uncomfortably aware of my body and my privilege. The fear that I might unintentionally crush this delicate, brittle landscape, just as our seemingly benign lifestyles threaten indigenous plants, insects and everything else in the world that we find captivating and unremarkable, paralyzed me. I held my breath. Breath, “Open Structure” reminds us, is not empty space but space to consider the body. Like the exhibition itself, breath is quiet, vital and urgently political. ❚

“Open Structure” was exhibited at School of Art Gallery, Winnipeg, from November 3, 2022, to January 28, 2023.

Sandee Moore is a White settler cis-woman whose artworks have been exhibited across Canada and internationally. She earned her BFA (Honours) from the University of Victoria and MFA in Intermedia from the University of Regina. Moore has worked as an arts administrator, writer and university instructor.