REVIEW: Michael Davidge on Samuel Roy-Bois: Not a New World, Just an Old Trick

Michael Davidge | November 25, 2014

Here's a good review by Michael Davidge of Samuel Roy-Bois' Not a new world, just an old trick, which is on display at Carleton University Art Gallery until December 14 before moving to Oakville Galleries in the new year. Originating from SFU Gallery, the work changes with each installation, drawing artifacts from its different host institution's collections. Davidge's review begins below.

Samuel Roy-Bois, Not a new world, just an old trick, 2013, wood, paint, clear acrylic, and art objects. Photo: Justin Wonnacott.

Samuel Roy-Bois at the Carleton University Art Gallery in Ottawa
By Michael Davidge
Akimbo, November 15, 2014 

I was at a gallery last week with a friend when she said, "Going to see art exhibitions is like playing the slot machines at the casino. Most of the time you lose." We even saw a few works of art on display that have reportedly made viewers cry, but we were unmoved. Could our hearts be too hardened? Regardless, it's not necessarily the tear factor but separation anxiety that counts for me as one of the criteria for good works of art. When I'm in the presence of a work that I don't want to leave, I know I've encountered something great. Samuel Roy-Bois'Not a new world, just an old trick makes me feel that way. You might say I hit the jackpot with it. I've visited Carleton University Art Gallery (CUAG) a number of times to see it and as the end of the exhibition nears, the sweet sorrow of parting with it increases. The last time I was there I even choked back a few tears. 

The installation is one of the more recent works by the Vancouver-based artist that continues on a trajectory he has been following for many years: making art out of the mechanics of displaying art. By fabricating new spaces within art galleries, such as a recording studio or a private apartment, he effects a mise en abyme that mirrors the function of the space within which it is located and augments its potential. Like his other work, the piece at CUAG could be categorized as an architectural folly. Though a little roughshod and rickety, its details suggest a DIY Grecian temple, with modern touches like vibrant coloured throw pillows to create a relaxed vibe. At every stage it engages the viewer in a new role or experience, like a stroll through a manicured garden. It also suggests an ark with an art gallery inside. 

You must climb up and enter an environment reminiscent of an unfinished basement where a selection of works chosen by Roy-Bois from the CUAG's permanent collection is hung salon style and in every nook and cranny. When curator Melanie O'Brian gave Roy-Bois carte blanche to do a project at Simon Fraser University Gallery, the first version of this piece was the result. Knowing they had something special, they sent it on tour. Now it is at CUAG, where the height of the ceiling has permitted the addition of a plexi-tower. Each iteration of the piece uses the local collection and allows for new discoveries. Next year, it travels to Oakville Galleries, where it will take on another configuration. 

Samuel Roy-Bois, Not a new world, just an old trick, 2013, wood, paint, clear acrylic, and art objects Photo: Justin Wonnacott

Of the three locations, I'm absolutely sure that the one at CUAG is the best, even though I will probably never see the others. A sense of local pride makes me say it. Can the others say that theirs offers a view of the Ottawa River from Barrack Hill circa 1860? Or a Claude Tousignant, which, nestled up near the rafters, looks like a hockey puck? The space provides an up close and intimate look at a percentage of the permanent collection that would otherwise be hard to see. Like a curiosity cabinet, it is crammed full of works, with dozens of pieces from a collection of over 27,000 showing in microcosm the character and idiosyncrasy of any public collection. There is a marvelous selection of Northwest Coast Graphic Art from the George and Joanne MacDonald collection that includes sweatshirts. There is a range of great works from contemporary Canadian artists, such as two pieces by Irene Whittome donated by Philip Fry in memory of Jacqueline Fry. A gift from W. McAlister Johnson, the engraving Coup d'oeil exact de l'arrangement des Peintures au Salon du Louvre, en 1785, deepens the mise en abyme one step further, visually echoing the style of Roy-Bois's installation and the attendees that animate it. Directly below is a photograph by Henry Kahanek, Suzy Lake Exhibition Opening at the National Film Board, a more recent depiction of people at an exhibition, showing a couple in a passionate embrace sprawled on a bench next to a man ignoring the catalogue in his hands. Roy-Bois's installation has by a few accounts inspired similar instances of canoodling. While its title suggests that there is some mischief at play here, and Roy-Bois has certainly pulled some pranks in the past, I really don't sense any maliciousness. The installation's title is more likely an honest assessment of art as one of the few bulwarks we've got against the passage of time. The longer I spent in there and the more I looked, the more I saw thematic associations and formal links between the elements of the work. It was almost too much to bear. 

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