TEXTS: Adriana Lademann and Huanyi Wu on Kelly Lycan: Autobiography for No One
Adriana Lademann and Huanyi Wu | August 7, 2014
SFU Galleries is supported by a number of volunteer and Work Study students who assist with various gallery tasks and activities. Some of the students spend a lot of time with the exhibitions and Adriana Lademann and Huanyi Wu, two SFU students working at SFU Gallery in Burnaby, have produced short texts in which they develop some of their questions and ideas around Kelly Lycan's recent exhibition Autobiography for No One.
Brownfields and White Cubes
By Adriana Lademann
SFU Galleries, August 7 2014
In urban planning, a brownfield is a dead zone, a site unfit for use due to toxic contamination from previous owners and a reminder of the consequences of industrial production. Within Vancouver's manicured urban sprawl, one might stumble across such a lot, enclosed by a fence, thick with yellow grass, and crowded with coffee cups, plastic bags and the odd mattress. Deserted, disheveled, and unusable, these sites lie in anticipation–pregnant with possibility–until the day they're deemed "clean."
In many ways the gallery space is related to the idea of the brownfield. An empty gallery sits waiting, white and starched. Like a brownfield, a gallery must be cleansed of the former occupant for fear of contaminating the next exhibition. To ensure the current artist's exhibition is experienced in its pure form, interference from past artists must be erased. And while the process of neutralizing a gallery is faster than eliminating toxins from the soil, the purpose and logic is similar.
Kelly Lycan's exhibition Autobiography for No One relates to the idea of the brownfield in that both reference labour, waste, economy and bring to our attention the boundaries of a toxic/institutional space. The gallery is filled with miscellaneous refuse such as coffee cups, take-out containers, broken vases, art tools and materials covered in layers of plaster and white paint, suggesting an inhabited space. Set up more as studio than gallery, parts of the installation strongly conjure the artist at work. However, there are also works that feel complete; materials mounted on the wall like paintings, molded plaster forms and paper coil sculptures seem intended for a gallery space. The exhibition seems to occupy this in-between zone, much like the unusable brownfield.
Lycan has covered items in the gallery with white paint or plaster, resulting in a stunning monochromatic landscape where white paint is used to annihilate history and simultaneously highlight and obscure form. Reminiscent of the ruins of Pompeii, the installation evokes a lived-in space that is now on display and untouchable. Does the use of white in this case work like the volcanic ash and strip away the life of the objects? Are these artifacts of cultural ruin left by the artist for the audience to project their own ideas and life onto? Or does the gallery reclaim the items, absorbing them as the earth reclaims organic matter?
In drawing attention to the parameters of the space in this way, Lycan's white intervention disrupts the ecosystem of the gallery for the installation is in fact neither gallery nor studio. As you walk through the space, you have a sense of containment, delivered through both the walls and the forms in the space. Everything that Lycan has placed is grounded by the use of white. But there is no velvet rope, no spotlights, and no signs to definitively indicate whether these things are sacred or dirty.
Do these art objects mirror the diseased trash that fill brownfields, reminding us of the waste of consumerism and the limbo our trash occupies after it's served its primary function? And if so, how do we read Lycan's gesture, to recover or reorient this material within this particular space–itself a flux space or limbo for objects?
Once in a while, a brownfield will be given a new life, maybe as a playground, a memorial site or bougie apartments with shops on the ground floor. Either way, traces of history of the former occupant are virtually non-existent. In Lycan's installation, traces of the former owner or user of the objects are more or less erased by her use of white. Moreover, the use of white would seem to collapse processes of fading and natural decay, mimicking the process of land reclaiming what's been cast off or left behind in a brownfield, but also seeming to accelerate the process of the gallery's periodic return to zero, its return to an empty white cube. As with the brownfield, which may only appear to be neutral, Lycan's monochromatic installation draws attention to the gallery as a seemingly neutral but loaded space.
Adriana Lademann is a fine arts student at Simon Fraser University. She has been volunteering with SFU Galleries since 2013.
A Response to Autobiography for No One
By Huanyi Wu
SFU Galleries, August 7 2014
"Can I come in? Are you open?" As a Work Study Research Assistant at SFU Gallery, I have spent a lot of time with Kelly Lycan's show Autobiography for No One and grown accustomed to these questions as a common response to the exhibition. The all-white environment lures audiences in but the seemingly random placement of the sculptural forms, which might be interpreted as unfinished, compels many visitors to ask if the gallery is under construction. This confusion on the part of some visitors prompts me to think about the effect that Lycan has created in Autobiography for No One and how this effect is received by audiences.
Marshall McLuhan said that the nature of art is to set traps for the audience's attention in order to create an effect. Lycan uses a variety of means to create different levels of awareness and effect for the audience. Translucent works by Lycan hanging outside the gallery doors signal a different kind of space or activity from the other signs and banners in the hallway. Instead of printed messages on colourful glossy paper, Lycan has poured different shades of white paint on see-through sheets of plastic, creating a more open-ended communication and provoking questions about what this space is. Once inside the gallery, the visitor must navigate a variety of textures, surfaces and materials; some visitors have commented that the shift from walking on a hard floor to carpet slowed them down or prepared them for a change in the next room. Most dramatic is the immersive, all over use of white, which functions to minimize and neutralize objects and materials.
The use of white gives audiences a sense that the art works in the room are untouched by time and its vicissitudes. White paint for example, makes a replica stove a monument. Recreated by Lycan with plastic buckets and an old drawer, the stove is a reference to Eugène Delacroix's painting Corner of a Painter's Studio, the Stove (c. 1830-1855). Contrary to the general function of a stove, used in everyday life to provide heat and prepare food, this stove isn't a tool for cooking surrounded by steam and flames, but rather is frozen in time and space. The monochromatic colour neutralizes associations we might have with a stove, and, in the artist's words, "de-sentimentalizes" the second-hand materials used to produce this work.
Lycan uses what we might consider useless waste as raw material. Coffee cups, fast food containers and dumped furniture are transformed into art with plaster, paint and glue. Such objects are signifiers for the value-less, by which I mean that the material has succeeded in its original use and in being discarded loses that value. The objects set up an awareness that might be opposed to the general expectation of the gallery as a place for high art and objects deemed valuable, unique and rare. In situating these mass-produced, second-hand goods within the gallery, Lycan gives this material another use value and ability to signal meaning.
As a communications student, I am particularly interested in this communication process. The communication process can be defined as a set of connections along which messages flow from a sender to a receiver on some medium. A simple analysis might view Lycan as the sender of and the audience as receivers, but the medium–the matter or content that carries the flow of the message–is not so easily distinguished.
The carriers of the message create emotional and cognitive awareness and shape the environment in which receivers interpret the meaning of the information. This is an important consideration for Lycan who, in Autobiography for No One, draws attention to the gallery environment by laying white drywall on the floor and turning on bright, fluorescent lights to exaggerate the idea of the gallery as a "white cube." But the objects, which have also all been painted white or are made with white materials, meld with the space. The eye moves from materials stacked on tables and draped on chairs, to materials leaning against the wall or simply placed under tables. There is a flow between the objects and the gallery environment; the medium is not one thing or entity but a dialogue between forms. Hence, is it right to assume that the artist is the "sender" and the audience the "receiver"? Could we imagine for example that the objects and the space are also, autonomous, individuated "senders" and also, "receivers" of messages?
Furthermore, when the installation is documented or photographed, and as the images circulate on paper and computer screens, the gallery ceases to be the dominant container or context. For instance, for you, reading my text and viewing photographs online, the experience of Lycan's show may generate a different set of interactions between objects, spaces and mediums.
Lycan's exploration of our relationship with objects in fact emphasizes the changing nature of the "messages" emitted and absorbed by objects. For example, mass-produced paper cups are signifiers of cheap, disposable containers used in our everyday routines. By piling these paper cups up until they start to fall over and encasing them in white paint, Lycan explores the possibilities of these objects, converting the paper cups from unseen objects into thriving life forms and phallic symbols. "Messages" in this case are not static and unchanging nor are they predetermined or finite. They don't move in one direction, like an arrow, but change within different contexts.
Huanyi Wu is a fourth-year student in the School of Communication at SFU. Wu has been working as a Work Study Research Assistant at SFU Gallery since May 2014.
 Marshall McLuhan, "Marshall McLuhan Full Lecture: The Medium is the Message," ABC Radio National Network (Sydney, Australia: ABC, June 27, 1979).