F O R E W O R D:


by Craig Scott*

Raymond Waters’ first solo show – the “Values ” exhibition at Craig Scott Gallery (January 19 – February 29, 2008) – engages with the values and symbols of American life and of the United States’ presence in the world.1 Each work simultaneously affirms and queries those values and symbols by making art from raw materials of American cultural identity. In “Values ,” Waters transforms vintage film reels, flag fabric, US currency, and tabloid newsprint into remarkably balanced works – powerful both conceptually and aesthetically. “Values ” focuses on notions of allegiance and belonging, on the secular sacred and desecration, on the communication and defence of cultural (including political) values, on the struggle between the reflective and the hollow in public discourse, and on the interaction of American worldviews with universal experience.

The majority of the pieces in the “Values ” exhibition – eleven in all – are created by Waters from the interaction of film and light. In a process of controlled spontaneity, Waters generates works that resonate with the spirit of Jackson Pollock’s ‘drip’ works, both in result and process.2 As Jackson Pollock so famously did and as did the Navajo sand painters who inspired Pollock, Waters works by standing over and moving around his canvas as he lays down his image.3 For the film works in which the light is from LED bulbs, Waters carefully prepares his canvas: first stretching it, then priming it, and finally painting it with either white oil paint or 12 karat gold leaf. He then engages in random, while still intuitively guided, drilling of holes for LED lights to be inserted from behind the canvas. The LED lights (for example, 70 lights in The Skeleton Dance [1929] and 535 lights in King Kong [1933]) are inserted, the canvas is then laid flat on the floor face up, and the lights are turned on. At this point, Waters lets the film roll off its reel and spool onto the canvas while he moves freely – again, both randomly and intuitively – around the canvas. At times he allows the weight of the reel to direct his movement and at times directs the reel in response to the evolving shape of the work as it gradually builds up on the horizontal canvas – like a dancer, alternately guiding and being guided by his dance partner.4 When the reel has fully played out, Waters affixes the film in a variety of places, carefully retaining the film intact where it has fallen on the canvas. Waters then seals the canvas inside a Plexiglas case to produce the final work.5

The precise interaction between the aesthetic and a conceptual planes of Waters’ film works depends in each work on a range of factors from the physical properties (colour, gauge, length) of the film used, to the subject-matter and cultural referents of the film, to the source, intensity, and density of lighting selected for the particular work. Following on from the opening observations, each work also embodies a tension at the level of social commentary about values (especially about American or Americanized values), a constant tension between homage and critique. In conversation with the works around them (notably Waters’ flag works, discussed below), various film works interrogate the relationship between film and foundational values like freedom, democracy, equality and, now, security in American narratives. However, of at least equal significance is a reading of the works that emphasizes a difference between the film works and the other works in the show, albeit within an overarching thematic project concerning the relationship between objects (especially as commodities or as commodified) and value. Such an understanding arises from an interrogation of the value placed on the particular film media that Waters has chosen for these works (8mm and 16mm films, as well as one 35mm trailer). The essay in this catalogue by film scholar Michael Zryd, Associate Professor of Fine Arts at York University, explores this dimension in some depth.6


If Waters’ film works draw life from their open-ended meaning(s), Waters’ flag works – three in total (New Orleans August 2005; You Are Either With Us or Against Us; and White Flag)7 – are positively redolent with ambiguity. The flag works involve reconstituted American flags undulating against a backdrop of pure white gold painted on canvas. “Reconstituted” refers to the fact that the flags have first been shredded by Waters into strips before being put back together as new – and, paradoxically enough, renewed – objects. Respect embedded in critique, reverence alongside irreverence, the sacred faced with sacrilege, the emotive with the reflective, preservation within destruction, each work oscillates between these various poles and, as such, embodies the debates about values alluded to in the titles of the pieces.

The normative stakes signaled by Waters’ flag works encompass both the symbolic significance of the American flag and a host of questions for which the flag8 as both image and physical object serves as a sort of stand-in: patriotism, inclusion, loyalty, constitutionalism, freedom (including the freedom to transgress), hope, and so on, as well as connected themes such as militarism, imperialism, and social stratification. At one further remove, the subject of Waters’ works can also be understood as being not (only) the American flag but (also) the American flag in art – that is, the Stars and Stripes as already appropriated by contemporary art as well as contemporary art of the flag as already appropriated in popular imagery. For one cannot but draw a straight line through history that links Waters’ works with Jasper Johns’ 1950s flag works. It is also this icon and not simply the flag ‘itself’ as icon that is addressed by Waters.9 And we can expect that perceptual clashes over the meaning of Waters’ work will parallel (while never replicating) the debates over what the Johns flag works meant, should be taken as having meant, now mean, or should be taken as now meaning.10

In the same way that medium categorically distinguishes what Waters has created with celluloid and light sources from what Pollock created with paint and enamel, the use of actual flags as medium (layered on top of gold, with all of its own symbolic and metaphoric meanings) categorically distinguishes Waters’ flag creations from those of Johns. There are also, of course, contextual features beyond medium that render Waters’ works distinct (such as that the works in “Values ” are produced in a different era with distinct societal and geopolitical backdrops framing both their creation and reception, that Waters leans even more toward the conceptual by choosing titles that serve as textual interlocutors with the works, that the works are produced not by an American but by a Canadian, and the fact that Johns and Pollock created what they created). One effort to take this interplay of concept and context seriously is the inclusion in the catalogue of an essay by a leading American law professor and civil liberties advocate, Professor Norman Dorsen of New York University, on the contemporary discourses of protected values that surround the issue of desecration of the American flag.11

The connection of the “Values ” exhibition to Pollock and Johns is not only a substantive one. The show also represents what might be called a planned happenstance. It was originally planned to take place some time in late 2007 but then ultimately scheduled for January 2008 in order to pay a more obvious kind of arthistory tribute to the work of these two great American artists for whom 2008 marks a significant anniversary. The vernissage of “Values ” is precisely on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the opening of “Jasper Johns – Paintings” (January 20, 1958, Leo Castelli Gallery, New York), which was Johns’ first solo show (and a show in which several of his iconic flag works were exhibited).12 This year – 2008 – is also the 60th anniversary of the year that is generally recognized as the single most important year in the development of Pollock’s signature ‘drip’ paintings including Number 1A, 1948 (1948), which was the first Pollock painting acquired by the Museum of Modern Art (in 1950).13 As well, that year – 1948 – was the year of Pollock’s first solo show of works produced since he had evolved his path-breaking techniques.14

Thus it is that the probing of values in Raymond Waters’ inaugural solo show takes on added significance in view of the connection to two central exponents of post-war American art and to a legacy that both announced and contributed to new understandings of contemporary values, in and through art. Nor should we ignore that the work of Johns and Pollock helped accelerate debates about the value of art itself, leading eventually, through Warhol and others, to an era of simultaneously ironic and mutually subversive relationships between art and commodity (a long moment in which we still find ourselves). By including the non-flag and non-film work Five Hundred Dollars in the show (as well as by calling on the seductive beauty and power of white gold in the flag works, and in some of the film works), Raymond Waters reminds us that works of art about values can never avoid turning their gaze back on themselves.

Craig Scott*

Notes on Foreword
* Director, Craig Scott Gallery, Toronto; Professor of Law, Osgoode Hall Law School of York University, Toronto

1 Born in 1965, Raymond Waters is a graduate of the Ontario College of Art (now OCAD), and a student of media, communications, and the history of contemporary art. Until now, he has chosen to be a below-the-radar artist. His work – including pioneer work in New York involving bar codes as themes of his paintings – has been acquired by a select circle of collectors (primarily in the US, Canada, and Russia).

2 When the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) writes about Pollock’s ‘drip’ work that “the image as a whole is dense and lush — yet its details have a lacelike filigree, a delicacy, a lyricism,” they could also be describing Waters’ film works, such as The Gold Rush (1925) Charlie Chaplin, or The General (1927) Buster Keaton, or Martin Luther King Jr., From Montgomery to Memphis (1972). The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights 194 (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999). In terms of the phrase just employed to describe Waters’ film works – “controlled spontaneity” – this could also apply to Pollock, who bristled at the notion that his drippings and pourings were entirely accidental (or, worse, produced while inebriated). Apart from the fact that “Pollock never touched alcohol when he was in his studio” (Ines Janet Engelmann, Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner 54 (Munich – Berlin – London – New York: Prestel Verlag, 2007), Pollock is recorded as saying that “I can control the flow of paint; there is no accident…” Ellen G. Landau, Jackson Pollock 152, 172, fn. t 258 (London, 1989) quoted in Engelmann, ibid., 54.

3 In Pollock’s own words: “…I prefer to tack the unstretched canvas to the hard wall or the floor….On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting. This is akin to the method of the Indian sand painters of the West….” Kirk Varnedoe, “Comet: Jackson Pollock’s Life and Work” in Jackson Pollock (exhibition cat., Museum of Modern Art, 1.11.1998-2.02.1999), New York, 1985, 53, as quoted in Engelmann, ibid., 54.

4 Compare: [A]lthough “[Pollock’s] works …have neither a single point of focus nor any obvious repetition or pattern, they sustain a sense of underlying order. This and the physicality of Pollock’s method have led to comparisons of his process with choreography, as if the works were the traces of a dance.” The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights 194 (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999).

5 For the works with light boxes, canvas is replaced by a Plexiglas sheet and no holes are drilled. Otherwise the process is the same.

6 Michael Zryd, “Raymond Waters”, infra.

7 White Flag will appear in the exhibition but has not been completed at the time of going to press. Thus, no image of White Flag is reproduced in the catalogue. A fourth flag work, New Orleans No.2, will not be exhibited, but is available to view on request.

8 And, indeed, for so many Americans, metaphorical meanings that have ossified into the literal in a way not dissimilar to fundamentalist readings of scripture.

9 A half-century after the first flag works by Johns (in 1954-55), a journalist speaks of “the iconic status of [Johns’] Flag, one of his earliest works, an equivalent in American college bedrooms to the place occupied in British ones by Matisse’s Blue Nude:” Emma Brockes, “Master of few words” (Interview: Jasper Johns),” The Guardian, July 26, 2004.

10 Johns himself recently offered some insights, along with journalist Brockes, into both contested meanings and the evolutions in meaning over time with respect to the ‘same’ object: “Johns’ most important work with signs is Flag [1955]. It is a collage of the Stars and Stripes made out of encaustic, …which Johns dropped scraps of newspaper into and allowed to set. Flag’s challenge to the notion that symbols of state are fixed and inviolable – that they are not, under any circumstance, open to interpretation – was received at the time as blasphemous. The bits of newspaper symbolised the conflicting fictions upon which nations are built and the encaustic, an unstable material, was perceived by critics


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