By JENNIFER MCMACKON
I have a vivid memory of the credenza that housed the record player in my parent's living room. It was long and low – all dark wood with vaguely Spanish wrought iron details. Its surface was sectioned such that the table top lifted in the middle to reveal a discreet turntable hidden below. The console had a matching cabinet for my Dad's collection of various symphony orchestras playing this and that – these were only so interesting to me then. Even if the image on the front of the record sleeve was big, romantic and promising, no matter how intense the storm cloud face of the distinguished conductor or composer on the back, invariably the text was too dense for my five year old sensibility. Much more attractive were Glenn Campbell records. Or who could forget a certain Herb Alpert and The Tijuana Brass album on the front of which a beautiful naked lady sat covered in whipped cream? These were friendly, flashy corollaries to the mellow sounds on the vinyl inside and I liked to look at them.
My older brother and I had our own records too – soundtracks for Disney films like Mary Poppins, Jungle Book, and The Aristocats. Most famously, we had a Hanna-Barbera cartoon album chronicling the adventures of Huckleberry Hound. On one side of this recording, Huck played Sheriff Huckleberry against a nefarious wild west gang known as The Dalton Brothers. The worst member of the gang was named Dinky Dalton, which was pronounced "Daaaiinky Daaaaaaalton".
My brother's great trick was to insert this album in the jacket of one of my Dad's records whenever my parents had guests. He banked on the idea my father would set the needle to the wax without really looking at it. And presto! My father's carefully crafted playlist, that special, tinkling Ray Conniff party mood was rudely, if not hilariously interrupted by the shoot out between Huckleberry Hound and "Daaaiinky Daaaaaalton". In retrospect this was a great lesson in metaphor. Not just familiar with the adage you can't judge a record by its jacket , my ten year old brother with his penchant for hijinx was already working it. He already wanted to know how the sound of Saturday morning's Dinky Dalton cartoon would play in the mellow swish of cocktail hour. He was somehow aware even then that meanings could be upended and more, that wonderful ironic effects could be achieved with a little leger de main.
There is something of this sensibility in the work of Corinne Carlson, an artist who knows a thing or two about metaphor. A playful approach commingles with heartfelt sentiment, achieving an effervescence that is uncharacteristic of much conceptual art currently made in Toronto and Canada . Funnier, sweeter, overtly visual – her work seems truly considered more than determined by overarching theoretical declarations. Over the years she's made beautiful (rotoreliefesque) drawings exploring the possible colour combinations of Laurentien pencil crayons in an ongoing, series called Arizona Topaz - Topaz Bruleé . She endowed used car lot signage with sweet love song sentiments in the installation Used Cars (pictured). She installed a shimmering, sequined billboard asking a cryptic question of passersby on a mangy urban street. And she created a wonderful installation (complete with 3D glasses distributed via a weekly newspaper), emblazoning James Carl's Kensington Market balcony* with the gaze of the original love bomb, King Kong. Somehow at the core of each of Carlson's works there resides a little heart shaped engine. Even in these cursory links to jpegs, one can sense the sheer loving fun bound up in the presentation of her work.
In reading the PR for her exhibition, Record Jacket, in the Project Room at Mercer Union, "Carlson critiques gender inequalities and the romantic notion of the (male) genius artist by creating a fictional narrative using liner notes from Classical music LPs and collaged snapshot photographs.", it should have registered with me this particular exhibition sounded …well – like a somewhatpaler shade of fun than what I have come to expect. But it didn't register and it came as something of a surprise that for Record JacketCarlson turned the visual impact meter on low. A modest plate rack in two parallel tiers enclosed three walls at one end of the gallery. This apparatus supported a collection of covers for a spectrum of predominantly classical music on vinyl performed or conducted by men. In each case, where a photograph of a "male music star" appeared on the album cover it was replaced with or exchanged by Carlson for a photograph of her partner Karen Henderson.
The subversion of gender inequalities and romantic notions of male genius proposed as critical, by the gallery's own PR as well as curator Martin Arnold's exhibition pamphlet, may well have been so at its impetus. But something was lost in transmission. Carlson's appropriation of the record jackets did not so much depose musical male genius as it framed pictures of her paramour, Karen… Here were all kinds of pictures of Karen - happy Karen, pensive Karen, Karen in the garden, Karen drinking coffee and so it went. Looking at these snapshots induced a guilty pleasure. The record jackets were peek-a-boo windows to a normally private world. The longer I stayed in the gallery with Carlson's images of Henderson, the more I wanted to be sitting on the floor with a big, fat, well thumbed photo album covered in hearts and flowers and the more the work's staging with its record jacket frames was left wanting, fading – into the white of the walls.
I left Mercer Union thinking about the album cover paintings of Kevin Ei-Ichi De Forest and Steven Shearer's "albums" both of which enact similar appropriative subversions with greater visual impact. Their works have critical strength, not because they perform any take down of an institutionalized meaning but because they visually embody multiple and sometimes contradictory ones. Carlson's exhibition was oddly devoid of such tensions and it suffered because of it. At least this time out. One virtue of the artist run system and galleries like the Project Room at Mercer Union, is that they offer an exhibition environment where artists can take risks. But such spaces have a dangerous capacity for turning playful, risk taking installation artists into self-conscious makers of shelf art. The result is viewer beware. A friend once remarked, "Thank God for art galleries. Thank God they can still show you things you don't like." Well, I wouldn't go as far as to say I didn't like this exhibition. Record Jacket was simply comparatively unresolved when I think about other works by this really terrific artist. Nor did it compare to my own checkered history with record jackets - though an associative criteria like "Daaaiinky Daaaaaaalton" is a hard thing to anticipate.
Corinne Carlson will show her drawing series, Arizona Topaz - Topaz Bruleé in an upcoming exhibit at Montréal's Articule. What better time to visit La Belle Province?
Mercer Union, Toronto
"Corinne Carlson: Record Jacket" was on view April 20, 2007 - May 26, 2007 at Mercer Union.
All images are courtesy of the artist and Mercer Union.