Culture | Working the Wall

New exhibition examines the fundamental constructs of gallery space

Off The Wall – the Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery’s latest exposition – attempts to explore and challenge the relationship between the artist and the physical wall, inspecting the construct’s paradoxical roles as both constraint and source of creative freedom. 
Typically, it is understood that artists use the materials available to them, exploiting their limitations as well as their resources. Gallery director Michèle Thériault, for one, considers the wall a constraint. But working off the wall can be a challenging way to reframe the connections between the artist, the wall, the artwork, and the gallery. 
Off the Wall examines two broad artistic approaches to the wall. Artists like Neil Campbell, Louise Lawler, Barry Allikas, and Wanda Koop directly intervene on the walls of the gallery to create their artworks. Others sculpt pieces protruding off the walls and into the rest of the gallery space – a method adopted by Alexandre David in his untitled plywood-based piece. However, the other artists – Claude Tousignant, Michael Merrill, Guy Pellerin, and Betty Goodwin – use alternative techniques, alternatively in-between and beyond the former two approaches to reassess the notion of the wall. 
Two photo series by Betty Goodwin stood out: The Clark Street Project and The Mentana Street Project, the latter of which employs Montreal apartments as a medium. The series was a black and white exploration of the theme of passage through representations of doors, lobbies, entryways, walls, and blank surfaces. Through this, Goodwin created what curator Pierre Dorian calls a “destabilizing experience” by intervening and morphing the walls of a domestic space into “a sort of monolithic black cell.” The desolate and abandoned areas depicted in the photographs were almost unrecognizable as the rooms that inform daily life. 
Berry Allikas’s homage to Blinky Palermo, Bridge (For Blinky Palermo), was created on site directly on the walls of the gallery. Allikas uses the geometric motif of a bridge to challenge the artistic concepts of white and negative spaces. The piece’s fluorescent yellow latex paint illuminates and projects on the gallery space itself. Beyond questioning the artist’s relationship with the wall, Off The Wall aims to challenge the relationship between the art and the gallery. The physical space of the exhibition site sets parameters for what can be showcased and how it can be arranged. 
During a discussion event at the gallery, Dorion explained, “The structure of a gallery, its walls, its shape, its design, all influence how an exhibition can be shown and what kind of oeuvres can be shown.” A curator may have a certain vision when putting together a collection of pieces, but that does not always mean they come to life. Thériault added, “Certain connections are desired, but they can’t be forced. Some links between the oeuvres are discovered after the assembly.” 
Those with contempt for contemporary art can easily dismiss Off The Wall and its common thread of monochromatic minimalism, but talking with the curator, director, or any of the artists can help elucidate the exhibit’s artistic statement. Be sure to take advantage of the numerous events and online resources offered for this exhibition. Biweekly walk-in tours and “meet the artists” events are ways to really get behind the exhibition and break down the wall between the audience and the artist. 

Off the Wall is up at the Ellen Art Gallery (1400 Maisonneuve O.) through December 12. For more information, visit