By Matthew Ryan Smith
Elaine Fleck Gallery
April 5 – April 30, 2012
Toronto-based artist Amy Shackleton recently appeared on CBC and CBS, and in The Huffington Post and New York magazine, for a time-lapse video that went viral in August, 2011, and has been watched by close to 950,000 viewers to date. By using social media to publicize her burgeoning practice, Shackleton’s paintings are now being circulated and criticized by a global audience. Not only have websites like YouTube changed the way artists self-promote, but they have also transformed viewing dynamics by shifting critical attention towards the painting process and away from the painting itself.
Documenting the painter in the act of painting is not a new idea: think of Hans Namuth’s controversial 1951 film of Jackson Pollock at work. While Shackleton’s video distantly references the ontological structure of Namuth’s film, her paintings clearly borrow from Pollock’s now-mythical mode of painting. In Shackleton’s work, Pollock’s “drip” technique, where he quite literally dribbled and splashed paint onto the canvas, is resuscitated for the modern day. Each canvas is affixed to a rotating wheel mounted on Shackleton's studio wall, allowing her to spin the canvas by hand to control the blanketing streams of paint poured from run-of-the-mill plastic sauce bottles. Using water to control the viscosity and speed of the drips, the intrinsic properties of gravity are embraced as an aesthetic device, as is the cosmic significance of the accidental.
This solo exhibition, Terraces: A Series of Steps to a Sustainable Future, included eight paintings that unite natural and urban landscapes to reconceptualize eco/urban renewal and environmental sustainability. Although Shackleton’s paintings are intended to be designs for the quotidian urban agriculture of the future, many could also be perceived as jarringly atrophic. On the one hand, her painting Coastlines (all works 2012) illustrates a powerful collision between the looming architecture of the cityscape with the organic ebb and flow of the natural world; in this cold polarity there is harsh beauty. Viscous blues and greens interblend with fiery reds and yellows to create an architectural and agricultural harmonization. On the other hand, the loose texture of the paint is suggestive of urban and social decay, which looms large over the landscape, and questions the distance between sustainable urban agriculture and the degradation of the natural environment. Though works like Coastlines engage with the utopic possibilities of urban agriculture, they can also be construed as a post-apocalyptic hallucination.
A second stand-out in the exhibition is Galleria Forest. Like many of Shackleton’s other works, it represents what is fast becoming her signature palette: green, yellow and blue. Specific locations in Italy, Peru and Alberta are combined in a single composition that provides a captivating synthesis of eco/urban potential. What we see are skeletal ropes of water seeping down from towering windows as the cathedral ceiling emits the white light of the sun. Its luminosity dissipates the closer it reaches the ground where a serpentine river meanders, bubbles and boils at each and every twist as it heads for a mountain range in the distant background. In the foreground, enormous black trees dwarf the river, their sinewy branches vacant of leaves. Here it would seem that the pragmatic has made way for the idealistic. Thus, it is left to the viewer to decide which is more crucial to environmental sustainability and urban agriculture.
Whether Shackleton’s work provides a feasible or phantasmagoric representation of urban agriculture remains to be seen, yet one thing that it does provides us is hope – though even the very concept of hope is dangerous for its wild intangibility and capriciousness. Ultimately, paradise may have been paved by the roads and buildings of the city, but maybe green, yellow and blue can subsist to counter the grey.
Matthew Ryan Smith is a writer, curator and Ph.D. Candidate in Art and Visual Culture at Western University. His current research addresses affect, trauma and the ethics of spectatorship in recent photography and video practices. Matthew received an MA in the History of Art from the University of Toronto in 2008 and a BA (Specialized Honours) in Art History from York University in 2007.