John Player at Pierre-Francois Ouellette Art Contemporain
Because of a trip west and the general nuttiness around this time of year I nearly missed seeing a show of paintings by Montreal artist John Player. Pierre-Francois Ouellette Art Contemporain is just a few blocks west of St. Lawrence Market, which had a raucous atmosphere on this sunny Saturday afternoon before Christmas, and I was able to slip in to see the show on the last day.
At Art Toronto (Toronto International Art Fair) I saw a couple of John Player’s art works. They stood out as not only visually startling but also loaded with frank, serious content. I was looking forward to coming across more of these paintings.
This artist has tapped into something entirely current, and that is the culture of surveillance. It’s a fact of life now that surveillance data is captured, stored, analyzed and traded. We all carry tracking devices (cell phones) with us. We identify all our friends and even acquaintances (Facebook) and offer up all there is to know about our habits, thoughts, opinions in texts, Instagram, Snapchats and email. Its accepted that while working, shopping, driving or just walking around the city we are all in somebody’s crosshairs. For the most part, we accept it all as an annoying requirement, like security screening at the airport.
John Player’s paintings make us consider the upshot of this obsessive documentation. His paintings explore fear and its manifestation as a powerful and cold bureaucracy in which listening devices are linked with incarceration structures and drone excursions.
I recently saw Citizen Four by Laura Poitras and the paintings inspire the same kind of spine tingling unease as the movie. Whereas the film is shocking in its focus on the few pivotal days in which Edward Snowden “came out” and then fled, the paintings suggest something equally dark but more stable and entrenched; a sprawling, well funded set of infrastructures with their own expotentially expanding agendas.
Frequently the mysterious structures, often in desert locales, reference architectural drawings in their replication of space and mass. The palette is often very subtle, as if the objects are sun-bleached and the viewer has caught the image from a distance, hastily and warily, like the scene of catastrophe or menace. Some of the interiors have a subterranean, over-lit feeling, as if there is no off switch for the flourescents. The installations appear deserted yet infused with paranoia and anxiety. Who exactly is the viewer? Is John Player trying to turn the tables on the surveillance establishment and watching the watchers?
John Player’s paintings also have a rich sensuality. The painting above, titled Tactical System, depicts some unknowable, militaristic hijinx from the night sky and the ominous view nearly disolves into just paint and colour and shape and light with appealing success.
Meanwhile, although Mr. Obama has assured Americans that the NSA is no longer listening in on their phone conversations (internet data continues to be collected even for US citizens) Canadians and the rest of the world might be interested to know we are still under full monitor. According to The Guardian that means all phone communication and includes: “a log of every communicative act that you make in cyberspace – where you went; who you emailed or texted; who emailed or texted you; the URL of every website you visited; a list of every web search you’ve ever made; and so on.” It’s sobering to think about all that scrutiny. Makes me want to detach from my gadgets and start writing letters again… in disappearing ink.