Sleight of hand combines the quickness of hand with the psychology of perception to create illusion. Julia Dault’s solo exhibition at The Power Plant has a sense of clever deception about it. An enormous white vinyl grid titled Time After Time stretches to cover the entire main wall to the ceiling. Every cypher or mark she has made inhabits its own square, like a lexicon. The invitation is extended to follow the ‘clues’ and find these marks in the other works, an impossible mission.

Contrary to the expectation of linear exposure, her meaning is quite dense and comical. The ‘joke’ is an art historical one lodged in the post-minimalistic era epitomized by artists like Eva Hesse and Richard Serra. This exhibition comprises mainly paintings along with two of her trademark formica bound sculptures. One room also has a mirror wall that distorts the reflections of the paintings mounted on it and a faux marble plinth for viewers to sit on. It feels staged as if to evoke a certain era.

Dault’s paintings are very individual and expressive of their unique identity yet without any particular purpose. They are reminiscent of a Value Village clothing depot, filled with bygone patterns nestling alongside newer fashions. Like the title of the show, Color Me Badd, which references the R&B/Soul group, the paintings are titled with movie and pop cultural references like Dangerous Liaisons and Iron Maiden. One senses that it’s all about the 90’s material look.

The critic Clement Greenberg had a disproportionate influence on late modernist art. He could make or break an artist and largely defined the trajectory of Minimalism. This wasn’t by chance since the CIA was sponsoring and orchestrating the proliferation of American Abstract art, which began as a Cold War strategy in the 50’s. It included the funding of magazines like the Partisan Review for which Greenberg wrote. Artists like Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis and Jack Bush were almost coached into their expression by Greenberg. Post-Painterly abstraction evolved into Minimalism, developing certain tenets like ‘removing’ the artist’s hand from the work and striving for an industrial materials look, thus encouraging prefabrication. In a stroke of irony, socialistic artists were harnessed into Capitalistic factory production. Artists like Jeff Koons continue the tradition by using teams to execute ideas.

Dault reinserts the artist’s hand in her work but maintains an emotional distance so the marks she makes are almost machine-like and dictated by the shape of the tool. She strategizes works and reveals the product by stripping away material methodically. The ‘truth to materials’ approach held that there was an inherent abstract value within a material or colour and the artwork would assert its objective nature without artistic intervention. Dault debunks this process comically by becoming a ‘machine’. She uses store-bought materials like metallic canvas in Iron Maiden, covers the entire piece in paint then removes the paint with tools like rubber combs to reveal it’s sumptuous beauty. The Wilds deploys a patterned spandex embedded in the painted structure so as to be almost camouflaged. The viewer is drawn into the work to explore regions they cannot quite see. Other works make use of a collage of marks and pieces of plexiglass that conform strictly to creating an all over pattern. Materials like pleather and tinfoil add their qualities to generate very tactile designs that indicate the popular world beyond art.

The bound formica sculptures reference process art as they require the artist to do battle with the tensile forces of bending metallic sheets of plexiglass and formica to bind them very economically with a single rope and suspend them from a wall. One thinks of Serra’s leaning walls of core-ten steel, with a suggested potential for destruction. Similarly, Dault’s constructions hint at releasing this hidden energy but are actually quite secure. She titles these works with the date and time of her struggle with them. To me they seemed quite comical in their pretension and are perhaps a foil on the dire threat contained in Serra’s work.

Dault records phases of her work methodi­cally and in some instances provides a ‘key’ to the construction timeline on the painting’s side. Despite the temptation to see these pieces as separate artworks they are actually all trussed up, like her formica sculptures, into a complex presentation. The cool intellectual flavor of this exhibition made it especially memorable. 

The Power Plant, Toronto
20 September 2014 –4 January 2015