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What They Say

David Garneau: Void - Avoid - Voyeur
[Catalogue essay for “Peripheral Pictures” by Leslie Dawn,
Rosemont Art Gallery, Regina 2002]

Some wit once claimed that obscenity, like beauty, lies in the eye of the beholder. This unlikely equation between seeming opposites contains a certain truth. We have all experienced the difficult task of trying to pin down a precise meaning for either. Both have in common shifting and ambiguous boundaries. Even the origins of the word "obscene" are in dispute. Sometimes it is traced back to classical theatre, to that which occurred off stage and was screened from public view. In this sense, the obscene represents a restriction. The pornographic, closely linked to the obscene, lies at the other extreme. Derived from the Greek word for writing about prostitutes, it is now defined as showing too much, as the obscene staged in graphic detail. In short, if the obscene is based on a prohibition of representation, the pornographic is characterized by its excess.

The obscene and the pornographic operate in many fields. Each usually involves a trespass, violation or invasion into a restricted space. These barriers occur primarily around the unstable boundaries of the body. Feminist criticism has noted that bodily orifices, and the substances which flow through them, are often associated with such transgressions. It follows that sexuality, and the voyeuristic pleasures taken from its representation, are their main subjects. But these categories may, by the same token, be extended to areas of danger and pain. Explicit depictions of the destruction of the body, in particular its violation through violence, can become equivalent to images of its sexualization. There is a sense that neither should be shown. In popular and public productions, and especially television, warnings are commonly posted for each. Their similarity is testified to by the fact that these double edged notices, which both repel and attract, are usually presented at the same time.

Discussions concerning the problems presented by the obscene and pornographic have shifted from their initial moralizing base. They are now more often addressed in terms of power. These debates usually centre on either the privileged positions in the relationships between the figures represented, especially if sexualized, or in the voyeuristic relationship between the viewer and these figures. Arguments are seldom put, however, in terms of the position in which they place and hold the viewer through continual enticement and simultaneous repulsion.

Yet the power of both, it seems, results from the conflict between the drive to abstain on the one hand and the impetus to overindulge on the other. Fear and taboo, and temptation and transgression, are closely related. Excessive restriction and gross overindulgence call each other into existence. But they also form a trap. In the oscillating field between the extremes of repulsion and fascination, there appears to be no middle ground. Instead, there exists only a looming void, the threat and horror of the unimaginable and unspeakable. To avoid plunging into this terrifying absence, one must either eternally turn away or endlessly glut. Neither course offers a bridge over the chasm. This tortured and split condition places its subject in abject suspension in which resolution is forever deferred and escape rendered impossible. It forecloses discussion of any other possibilities.

David Garneau‚s series of paintings interrogate the mechanisms for maintaining this power. His repertoire of meticulously rendered images includes explicit sexuality, or titillating cheese- and beefcake shots, as well as graphic depictions of horrifying accidents or acts of violence. Following post-modernist practice, he appropriates this material from the realm of mass produced popular culture. But these reproductions are not simply re-presented. Had they been, he would have fallen prey, as many have, to the tendency to complictly re-produce, and exploit, the very problems he might claim to critique.

Following another strategy, he has superimposed opaque black, or coloured, squares over these images. The blanked out areas leave only the edges of the initial image exposed around the parameter of the canvas. Restricted to the margins, they become difficult to decipher and require an active engagement of the imagination to fill in. The squares, which bear a resemblance to the black rectangles placed over the eyes of figures in cheesy soft porn, serve to withhold the image and yet entice the viewer to extend their vision. This can have two effects. It makes explicit the void that has been excavated between the obscene and pornographic, and reveals the double bind between abstaining and indulging that gives them their power. At the same time, it allows the viewer to begin thinking outside of the margins of the work and to posit new possibilities for dealing with the problem.

But Garneau‚s eloquent squares also serve other functions. As the artist points out, they possess multiple references in the history of art. Worked into various exquisite textures, they refer obliquely to Leonardo, Malevich, Reinhardt, or the Canadian artist, Chris Cran. All of these figures occupy the realm of high art, which has been presented in modernist discourse as being the irreconcilable opposite of popular culture, figured as kitsch. By exposing and articulating the gap which was thought to lie between them, here seen as the difference between abstraction and representation, the paintings have provide a bridge which links the two cultural realms. The works again ask that new possibilities be considered.

But Garneau goes further. He also offers paintings of flowers covered by the same opaque squares. Here, the images are of commonplace and conventional beauty. Is he saying that beauty has become unrepresentable, restricted by a taboo, and thus similar to the obscene, as our wit would have it? There may be some truth here too. In the past decades, or at least since Robert Morris removed all aesthetic value from his piece Litany, beauty may be said to have been excluded from the discursive field of artistic production. In this sense, the beautiful may lie in that area just outside of language, yet also be part of it, again invoking a dangerous and unstable boundary. Yet there may be something to be said for the idea of the obscenely beautiful. It too may form a needed bridge for a new discussion of art‚s future possibilities.

Leslie Dawn


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David Garneau
Associate Professor at The University of Regina
Faculty of Fine Arts, Visual Arts Department.
RC 245 | (306) 585-5615 |