Eye of the Beholder: Two Iconic Works of Conceptual Art


Neil Campbell, Boom, Boom (1993). Photo: Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver. Photographer: Chris Gergley

There is something compelling about a work of art that can play tricks with both mind and body. Saskatchewan artist Neil Campbell’s work Boom, Boom (1993) — two giant circles painted on walls that sit at 90 degrees to one another — provides just such an illusion to those visiting the National Gallery of Canada’s contemporary galleries. Stand back, and the large matte-black painted circles prompt you to question if they are painted at all. Could they be holes cut in the wall, made to look like paint? Could the circles be doorways into a blackened space beyond? Step closer, lean in, and it becomes apparent the wall has in fact been covered in acrylic paint — and yet, there remains a strange feeling of being on the precipice of a drop into nothingness.

Boom, Boom provokes a physical effect in the viewer, but there is also a psychological dimension to the work. When we are faced with the void, we tend to have this strange reaction; there is something we don’t like to look at, but we are intrigued by at the same time,” explains Josée Drouin-Brisebois, the NGC’s Curator of Contemporary Art. “It is a kind of encounter with something — something with which we are unfamiliar, that we don’t understand, and that’s what compelling about it. The artist is playing with the idea of what is present and what is absent and, as we stand before the work, rather than becoming lost in it, we are made aware we are there. It effects us, we are slightly disoriented, and that feeling becomes a realization that we exist, and are there in the moment, in front of the installation.”

Campbell has explored various shapes throughout his career, but the circle, or dot, has been the artist’s most often-used motif. His paintings and installations have been described by Vancouver artist Roy Arden as going beyond simple optical experiences to engage a viewer’s entire physiology. It is easy to see how this practice has been employed in Boom, Boom.

“The circles are scaled specifically so that there is a relationship to the body and to the architecture, and what’s really important in terms of creating that dynamic is the white space between the two black dots,” says Drouin-Brisebois. “There is really this kind of tension that happens within this white space. You feel almost like the circles are attracted to or repelled by one another. It’s painting, it’s sculpture, it’s architecture, and it’s interactive art all at once. And that, to me, is really engaging.”

On the opposite wall, there is another work that takes the same beginning point of spreading paint onto a wall, while delivering a work of art that is entirely different. Swiss artist Olivier Mosset’s Yellow Wall (2012) plays with the simple idea that a wall painted yellow can be work of art. The idea comes from the conceptual art movement in the 1960s, which sought to remove the market, the gallery — and even the process of making art —from the object itself, reducing it to an idea that can be shared and adapted by others. It is analogous to an open-source computer program that has been designed specifically to allow other computer programmers to adapt and change the program to fit their needs or plans.

“The two works are thought-provoking in the same space,” says Drouin-Brisebois. “In one work of art, we have an artist who is very involved — picking the black matte paint, creating the size of the circles, placing them a certain distance from one another on angled walls that were specifically built for the work of art. In the Yellow Wall, on the other hand, the artist has created the idea, then removed himself from it, not choosing the yellow to be used, or the size of the wall — and even permitting paintings by other artists to be hung over it.”

Both Boom, Boom and Yellow Wall can be viewed in the National Gallery of Canada’s upper contemporary galleries (B202) until September 10, 2014.

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