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1991 04 23 Sculpture Three Donuts Michael Shumiatcher 'Untitled' close up
1991 04 23 Sculpture Three Donuts Michael Shumiatcher diagonal view
1991 04 23 Sculpture Three Donuts Michael Shumiatcher  'United Gear' sculpture
1991 04 23 Sculpture Three Donuts Michael Shumiatcher  'Untitled' sculpture
1991 04 23 Sculpture Three Donuts Michael Shumiatcher '3 Donuts, Donald, Ronald, Dan'
1991 04 23 Sculpture Three Donuts Michael Shumiatcher two piece wall view

Michael Shumiatcher - 3 Donuts
April 23, 1991

1991 04 23 Sculpture Three Donuts Michael Shumiatcher cube close up

Michael Shumiatcher

"Judd: I thought of Frank's aluminum paintings as slabs, in a way."
Questions to Stella and Judd
Interview by Bruce Glaser
Edited by Lucy R Llppard
ART NEWS, SEPTEMBER, 1966

Michael Shumiatcher's latest work seems at first to be an apologetic representation of late 1960's minimalism, a kind of repentant neo-minimalism, less a simple appropriation than a complex sort of plagiarism of minimalist discourse. This exhibition could almost have passed for a non-event or a strangely lucid but irrelevant anachronistic apparition like so much recent sculpture — by contrast that is, not only to much recent, rabidly voluble, "Neo-Expressionist" and popular media-derived art, but also to Shumiatcher's own previous work that seemed to labour more under the spell cast by Robert Smithson than the shadow cast by Donald Judd. Consider his Halifax works from the early 1980s like Monument to Stanley Kubrick ("the alien was a piece of modern art"),1 The Great Uncarved Block (one cubic yard of laminated tar paper, "you should learn to repress desire, and should desire rear its ugly head, it will be crushed down again by The Great Uncarved Block" - Lao Tze)2 and the shiny steel plate of Tomorrow Never Knows ("lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void, it is shining, it is shining…" Tomorrow Never Knows", Lennon/McCartney).3

The new works are all relatively modest in scale, structurally integral and almost forbiddingly self-contained. They are conceptually systematic but perceptually irregular, elegant without ostentation and surprisingly sensuous. They affirm Shumiatcher's new fixity of purpose, vision and means.

Each work is a 3' x 6' x 3/4" concrete slab, and whether taken singly or arranged in a series, is an emphatically self-denotive object that weds form, material and content and that, as a consequence, "exists between mind and matter, detached from both and representing neither."4 Yet for all their "detachedness", for all their homelessness and apparent impassivity, these works also have the very immediate virtue of compelling a review of the theoretical issues — once hot, now shunned and half-forgotten (recall when Donald Judd was cool) — behind their very special character, and of provoking as well, a recognition of the ways in which Shumiatcher's art and those of his contemporaries (the so-called "Lawn Boys" in Halifax, for example, with whom Shumiatcher was associated in the early 1980s) continues to be some of the best contemporary Canadian art.

Shumiatcher reasserts Donald Judd's attempt to undo the stranglehold upon art of what he regards as expressly European habits of mind and has termed Thomist or Cartesian rationalism. Judd's war was with the falsehood of so-called relational painting with its time-honored and a priori method of composition by which a painting's constituent elements are arranged hierarchically, subordinated one to the other, set to patterns of balance and counterbalance, in disregard of the work's over-all form or structure. Judd faulted this rationalism for being arbitrary, anthropocentric, sophistical, abstract. He repudiated it for failing to represent the universe of mid-20th century philosophy and science: a universe in which parallel lines meet, in which order and disorder have equal value, validity and generative power, and most importantly, in and around which exist unsettling voids, space beyond measure or comprehension. Judd's solution was to turn to simple, self-evident volumetric forms, disposed not rationally, but in linear or simple mathematical progressions — "one thing after another",5 as automatic and monotonous as counting, laconic, discomfittingly bare of temporal or procedural incident and any telltale marks of an authorial hand.

Shumiatcher's latest work (1991) — a series of 3' x 6' x 3/4" wall-hung concrete slabs cast against steel or glass surfaces — are examples, at once subtle and succinct, of the artist's canonical unitariness first established in the concrete paintings (1984 British Landscape, 1986 Japanese Landscape), but that has now become animated. The underlying self-denotive system of each work has become partially inscrutable, elusive and doubly intriguing — and this despite Shumiatcher's insistent care for the objectivity of self-evident form.

There are two levels of perception operating in these works, two opposed but interlocked modes of seeing, operating within the context of the historical minimalist discourse — more marked now than to the earlier work. The first level is the literalist one originally championed by artists like Donald Judd. This level presents a clear, elementally structured, physical and phenomenological world. These works, however, also conjure up a platonic or ideal geometric space and in relationship to this, call up the spectre of historical minimalism. The first level is simultaneously literal, real — and in its devising — conceptual. Yet, however stable, concrete and ideal, the structure of the work is continuously jostled, even controverted, by appearance: it is experienced as dashed with incongruities, illusory effects, fluctuations. If clarity of structure (even in Judd) ever entirely re-establishes itself, it does so gradually and then only to thought, for the work's second — and strictly perceptual — level is non-ordered, shifty, arrestingly complex. This second level is carried mainly by the very fragile, thin surficial skin of the concrete, a consequence of the technique of casting the concrete slab against a sheet of steel or glass. (As well, Shumiatcher has allowed various few bits of small metal detritus — a washer, a tiny gear, to become embedded in the concrete matrix.) The bubbly, viscous nature of concrete, an artificially recrystalized limestone, is evident. This second level of perception shifts with the viewer's position and lends the work a temporal dimension that argues against the anachronistic, stalled temporality of this work as an historical minimalist discourse. As a result of the visual dance across these dark grey slabs, Shumiatcher's works remain skittish and mysterious. They encourage the wondrous, slothful gaze rather than the social glance or the voyeuristic glimpse — they beg construing.

Minimalism, when confused with decadent socialist constructivism, has been historically pitted with its own quasi-utopian fervour, against illusionism as an inessential additive to contemporary art making, against representational Illusions of "gesture" and pictorial space that invoke some foggy subjective realm; but Shumiatcher's slabs are founded on the ubiquitous standard 3' x 6' rectangle of the modern construction trade: they cannot help but recall the built environment and while perhaps bare of naturalistic associations, are obvious products of human intellection.

Shumiatcher's literalism stops short of gigantic scale and the dull, bludgeoning dead-end emphasis on physical mass that enthralled so many minimal artists. His works are wall mounted, medium scaled, scrupulously self-framing and thus recollective of the painting discourse to general as well as the minimalist discourse (recall the origins of Judd's work in painting) and absorbed with formal properties, with surface, edge, shape, and shade, the cancellation as well as the articulation of real space, and the behaviour of a material.

Unlike Judd's materials, which may have been chosen initially for their foreignness to art making and for their "objectivity" and "neutrality", unencumbered with outside reference, whether aesthetic, emotional, naturalistic or industrial, Shumiatcher's slabs immediately evoke historical minimalism. They come ready-made as minimalist clich├ęs, yet as deployed by Shumiatcher, cast concrete is not a pastiche of historical minimalist practice. The slabs, with their complex surficial grain, become engines of almost labrynthine plays of equivocating surfaces, of subtle gradations of shadow.

Shumiatcher has replaced the traditional as well as the contemporary neo-expressionist ordering of objects, settings, emotions and ideas as well as the recent mimicking of the popular media's look, forms and functions, not with apparent fact, as so many of the historical minimalists have been accused of doing by their uninvited apologists, but with a further order of illusion, which is precisely what the historical minimalists actually did achieve. Shumiatcher treats us to the difficulty and inherent subjectivity of sensory elements. His new works push to an extreme of material fact, double back into a perceptual and finally allusive fiction and then double back again as an extension of minimalist discourse. And it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter, except to an understanding of current art practice; the dumb, obdurate survival of minimalism, that the "fiction", the "illusionism" of each work is a direct consequence of its mundane materiality. These works are vestiges or perhaps merely representations, at second remove of themselves, illusions of fictions, and thus, in a complete and ironical upending of minimalist "objectivity" they are express indices of an artist's structuring process.

Mainstream minimalist and reductivist theory gave rise in the 1970s to Conceptual Art (from Carl Andre to Lawrence Weiner for instance, the first grounded in real space and time, the second totally circumventing the issue in favour of social practice), and at the same time generated a crisis for contemporary sculpture — an impasse for which Shumiatcher's work holds a degree of solution. Three-dimensional art (particularly the work of the eclipsed modernists) that is not unitary or resolutely self-contained, can now be seen as overly illustrational and thus dated, passe. The literalness built into unitary forms — a literalness that haunts sculpture simply because it occupies real space — has come to be an all-too comfortable prison cell. Much recent sculpture has retreated to the wall relief, allying itself once again with painting rather than sculpture and reassuming painting's capacity for meandering back and forth between the literal and the fictional. The illusory surfaces of Donald Judd set a stage and provided a point of departure for Shumiatcher. In this exhibition, there is also a solid cast concrete sculpture of a cube, one foot square, at the centre of the room.

Michael Shumiatcher and Donald Judd
by Robin Peck, 1991

Footnotes

  1. Michael Shumiatcher, Notes on Previous Work, 1990  back

  2. Quoted in Shumiatcher, Notes back

  3. Quoted in Shumiatcher, Notes back

  4. Donald Judd, Quoted in Lucy R. Lippard, "Cult of the Direct and the Difficult", Changing, New York, E.P. Dutton and Co., 1971, p .116 back

  5. Donald Judd, "Specific Objects", Donald Judd, Complete Writings. 1959-1975, New York, New York University Press and Halifax, The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1975, p.184 back