It’s almost impossible to look at the most recent show of Jacob Whibley’s work at the Narwhal Projects without feeling a little unstuck in time. Whether it’s the busy, scattered play of collage works like With Red Wedge, with its clear affiliations to the lyrical abstractions of Joan Miro or Wassily Kandinsky, or found-object bricolage as in It From A Bit or Memoir Genre reminiscent of towering Russian avant-gardist Kasimir Malevich, there’s a powerful connection to the esthetic revolutionaries of a bygone era.
Why, then, does Whibley’s work feel so remarkably fresh? There are larger forces afoot, namely the re-appraisal in the contemporary art world in recent years of intense tactility and material innovation. Call it a response to the weird disembodiment of our techno-everything world, but art, at least, seems to prioritize, more than it has in a long time, work made by human hands that screams out to be touched.
In our own little corner of the world, a clever expression of that impulse turned up at Oakville Galleries last summer that looked at collage as a thoroughly contemporary thing. Called Freedom of Assembly, it made a convincing case for the medium in the context of our throwaway world, where replacing old with new, and as often as possible, underpins our entire economy.
Reduce, reuse, recycle — and its appalling, landfill-filling lack, despite the best efforts of most governments — becomes the thematic foundation of collagists in the 21st century, which gives an old avant-garde technique a fresh, unforced context that fits with the times (Picasso or Braque, say, and Malevich, in their Modernist mash-ups, weren’t overly concerned with disposal, you can safely bet).
The Moderns, version 1.0, still beguile and Whibley’s work echoes their formal concerns — for material, proportion, space, fundamental breaks from figuration — loud and clear. Nonetheless, he snaps neatly in place in the here and now. For years, while still an active member of the illustration collective Team Macho, Whibley was squirreling away reams of cast-off paper, unsure what he might do with it but compelled to keep it all the same.
It’s not a difficult impulse to understand. In a culture raptly devoted to a rapidly-evolving virtuality, having and holding real-world things becomes more precious, not less (or so we in the newspaper world desperately hope).
Whibley’s work is both re-animation and reclamation of unwanted things as it is a 21st-century impulse to impose order on an ever-more urgent circumstance of looming trash-heap spillage chaos. Within Red Wedge, a hectic, fragmentary paper assemblage, is a larger-scale treatment of his longstanding practice. Others, like It For A Bit or Memoir Genre are rougher object-assemblies that suggest more specific histories, and push the project forward into the more fraught territory of the recognizable. (It For A Bit contains the neatly-sliced spine of an withered old bible, for example).
Objects carry cultural freight in the way simple paper fragments can’t, and Whibley seems game to grapple with those burdens, though the more operative term of engagement would be tease (a series of sculptures here crafted from packing foam suggest intricate ghost objects with machine-age forms and indeterminable purpose).
One series of collages, the obliquely-named There Are No Soloists In A Fugue, gleefully break from abstraction, but not really: they look like nothing so much as enigmatic schematics drawings for some long-lost engineering project.
They are abstractions made of very real things that tease with a sense of purpose that can’t possible exist. They are irresolvable, and all the more beguiling because of it. Labouring with dizzying intensity to craft new works from his accumulated storehouse of material histories, Whibley is an odd kind of archivist, piecing together both histories of futures past, and yet to come.
Jacob Whibley: Just a Conspiracy of Cartographers, Then? continues at Narwhal Projects to Sept. 29. 2988 Dundas St. West