November 1, 2018 – January 12, 2019
Modernism in art history was arguably born in June 1907 to two men at the Ethnographic Museum of Trocadero. It was there that Picasso and the French writer Andre Malraux laid eyes on African tribal masks that would appear as motifs in Les Demoiselles D’Avignon. In another version of the story Picasso was introduced to Fang sculptures by the painter Maurice de Vlaminck, years before the Trocadero date. Modernism is promiscuous, passing quietly between artists, writers and cultural traditions. Shannon Bool’s critical re-imagination of it in Bomb. Shell. shines a light on these transactions, and the limiting role of women within them.
In the face of such outings, past and present, celebrated men and their defenders have counted on the power of denials. Picasso said he owed nothing to African art, and for much of the 20th century his interpreters pointed to the aesthetic achievement of near-total abstraction in Les Demoiselles, burying a more profane story about five Spanish sex workers (the titular Demosielles) on whose bodies his achievement is imprinted. From these ingredients of a Modernist stew, its austere lines and abstraction, and its less frequently acknowledged libidinal and colonial investments, Bool draws a series of stunning tapestries, photo-based works and assemblages. Picasso’s fractured nudes make an appearance in one of the works, but Bool’s sights are mostly trained on Le Corbusier and the primal scene of his architectural Modernism in French Algeria. Bomb. Shell. emerged from her research on erotic drawings made by the architect while he was in Algiers developing his Plan Obus for an imperial capital. The title for the exhibition, the first of many digs at Le Corbusier, makes a play on “Obus” which means both “bomb” and “shell”. Bool finds that the war metaphor perfectly captures the architect’s patronizing intent to “wipe out the Casbah” and bring Algeria into his Modernist century. The colloquial “bombshell”, in turn, announces Bool’s intent to critically examine the rather pervy men behind the Modernism.
With a deft sensitivity to formal echoes between objectified bodies and colonized land, her works present avatars of Le Corbusier’s sketched Moorish women mingled with excerpts from his urban designs. The integration of French and Muslim subjects in this exhibition has a charged subtext in our era of debates about reasonable accommodation, but Bool’s vision is more phantasmal than journalistic. The figures in the large tapestries Oued Ouchaia and Maison Locative Ponsik are lumbering giants, mocking the great architect’s carefully laid plans with swollen and splayed limbs. They haunt his streets and overwhelm his mega-structures. More frightening monsters are to be found in the series of photo collages, hung here in a room painted and lit after Le Corbusier’s design for the Villa La Roche, where architectural plans are imposed on images drawn from European postcards of Algerian women. In Bomb Shell #2 a forking ribbon structure hangs from a model’s neck like the Venus of Willendorf’s out-of-proportion breasts, and in Bomb Shell #13 Le Corbusier’s plans for a sea barrier replace a seated woman’s legs like crooked prostheses. Traces of the gendered violence of colonial encounters in these works undermine the utopian scheme of Plan Obus.
Architectural Modernism travelled much further, geographically and historically, to Chandigarh in Le Corbusier’s administrative complex for a post-Independence India, and to Tel Aviv’s White City and its 4000 Bauhaus-inspired buildings. Indeed, a few kilometres from here Mies van der Rohe’s Toronto-Dominion Centre reminds us of this city’s Modernist inheritance. But the ghosts are even closer than this, uncomfortably close in Bool’s group of works including a squinty-eyed homage to Picasso and Delacroix titled Women in their Apartment. In it we are given a cluster of uncanny signs – bits and pieces of Cubist body-parts are strewn around an image of the bathroom in Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, and a white horse languishes beneath urinals in Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building. We are drawn deeper still into the private spaces of Modernist masculinity by Sugar Veins, a black countertop on which Bool has cut two lines of powdered marble. With Kim Kardashian’s “internet-breaking” shelf floating in the picture over the counter, it’s hard to not read our own debauchery and excess between these Modernist lines.
The historical arc in Bool’s Bomb. Shell. is described well in the late Edward Said’s book Orientalism. For Said, over the course of the 19th century and 20th centuries we may distinguish various Euro-American styles of representing and dominating the so-called “Orient”, but they are all premised on a fantasy about the radical otherness of the East. The West as a site of putative civilizing powers, whether in the hands of artists like Picasso and Le Corbusier, French and British colonial administrators or US foreign policy experts is contrasted sharply in Orientalist discourse with an available, feminized and primitive East. In Bool’s work, a disquieting continuity emerges between these historical fantasies and the ones we continue to feed in the privacy of high-end hotel bathrooms and tastefully designed Modernist apartments.
– Tammer El Sheikh
Shannon Bool was born in Comox, Canada and lives and works in Berlin. Bool attended the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design, Vancouver, Cooper Union, New York, and graduated from Staedelschule, Frankfurt (2004). Bool was artist in residence at the Villa Romana in Florence, Italy (2013). Her work has been featured in solo exhibitions at: Illingworth Kerr Gallery, Calgary (2017); Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver (2015) and recently at Musée d’art de Joliette, Joliette and Peles Empire, Berlin (both 2018). Bool has been included in various group shows at: Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt, Frankfurt (2017); White Cube Gallery, London (2017); The National Gallery, Ottawa (2017); Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2016) and La Biennale de Montréal (2016). Her work can be found in the collections of the Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Lenbachhaus, Munich, The National Gallery of Canada, Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, and numerous private collections, including Saatchi Collection, London.