Michelle Allard/The Parker Branch

London, Ontario

All images courtesy The Parker Branch unless otherwise noted.All images courtesy The Parker Branch.

By Christopher Régimbal

Thread No. 5: Solid Rock
The Parker Branch
March 27 – April 10, 2010

The Parker Branch is an independent micro-museum co-directed by sculptors Anna Madelska and Jason Hallows. The artists have presented five occasional exhibitions over three years, originally in their former studio in the Wright Lithography building on Wellington Street and, more recently, in a small storefront space on Stanley Street.

Their pseudo-curatorial approach to art making concerns the presentation of found collections, using non-traditional organizational models, often complimented by contributions by invited artists. Thread No. 5: Solid Rock, their latest exhibition, presents found objects ranging from photographs to audio recordings, along with a new sculpture by Vancouver-based Michelle Allard.

The title Solid Rock invites viewers to begin their reading of the seemingly unorganized collection through vintage photographs of mountain scenes and snapshots of amateur caving expeditions on either side of the gallery. The artists also incorporate a 33-1/3 rpm recording of the Great Stalacpipe Organ into the exhibition, a lithophone that literally plays the stalactites in the Luray Caverns, Virginia with small rubber mallets, producing a haunting sound.

Allard’s work connects to the mountain and cave focus with a sculpture of a three-dimensional topographical rendering of a two-peaked mountain assembled from stackable, plastic storage containers. The stacked lids rise over a base of empty containers, forming a post-consumer depiction of a mountain landscape above and below the surface of the earth.

Through the rest of the exhibition, Madelska and Hallows develop their collection like a meandering conversation, with each new object leading to the next, exploring the limits of the original discursive proposition. Natural caverns become man-made caves with a hand-drawn mine rescue map from Algoma and colour snapshots of a mine rescue crew testing fire-suppressing foam.

Exhibition view from street with sculpture by Michelle Allard in window.Exhibition view from street with sculpture by Michelle Allard in window.Geological shapes are parodied by the inclusion of Madelska’s actual wisdom tooth (complete with hollow roots), a clear plastic toy fish with exposed skeletal system, and a similar human doll with a clear plastic opening over half of its chest. These lifeless objects lead to depictions of death: a vintage stereograph showing the gaping entrance of a mausoleum, a black-and-white photograph of a Masonic funeral with an insert of the deceased person, and a found image of a lone grave in the woods.

The objects and artworks are threaded together by recurring references to cavities and filled cavities. Caves, after all, are cavities in solid rock while photographs of mountains can be read as solid rock filling the cavity of the sky. This thread continues in the positive and negative spaces of Allard’s sculpture, but also appears in photographs of water-filled caves, fire-suppressant foam that expands into mine shafts to suffocate underground fires, and the Great Stalacpipe Organ that fills the Luray Caverns with an eerie percussive song.

The thread resumes with the hollow tooth and empty dolls that represent the body as a cavity and is reversed by the gaping entrance of the mausoleum, the implication being that a body recently filled the burial chamber. The photograph of the Masonic funeral inserts an image of the dead man into the void left by his passing; a sentimental void that is especially felt in the photograph of the anonymous grave, which appears lost in the woods.

Harald Szeeman’s exhibition Grandfather (1974), in which the pioneering curator displayed his late, beloved grandfather’s hairdressing paraphernalia in his own Zurich apartment, sets an interesting curatorial precedent to the Parker Branch. Madelska and Hallows seem to update Szeeman’s narrative approach by introducing a taxonomy similar to N.E. Thing Company’s landmark Portfolio of Piles (1968), a collection of 59 photographs taken by the Vancouver duo of piles (loosely defined) in and around the Lower Mainland of British Columbia. In Solid Rock, as in several of their previous exhibitions, the two young artists establish a series of guidelines to direct their collecting, allowing the sequence of collected objects to resolve itself internally, and finish off a compelling exhibition through their collaboration with Allard.

Christopher RégimbalChristopher Régimbal is an art historian and curator from Timmins, Ontario. He is Curatorial Assistant at the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery, University of Toronto and his criticism has appeared in Fuse Magazine and on 89.5FM CIUT.