On ViewArt Gallery of Ontario
Sandra Brewster: Blur
July 24, 2019 – March 29, 2020
The repetition of Sandra Brewster’s “Blur” portraits in the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Canadian wing has a potency that exceeds the modest room they are displayed in. Installed with precision, there is a rhythmic nature to this single series of works that is both meditative and pointed. Probing the instability of an individual in motion, from afar the series resembles a kind of stop motion exercise, and up close, a poignant meditation on the gaze and migrant visibility.
Brewster took these anonymous black-and-white photographic portraits using a slow shutter speed, each work depicting a different person swaying their head from side to side, often making their facial features illegible. The ranges of motion are varied, with some bodies centered and others nearly out of the photographic frame. While works such as Blur 18 and Blur 21 (both 2017) are scaled up as formal framed portraits, the series of nearly 100 untitled works from 2016 to 2018 are adhered to the wall directly, displaying the paper surfaces more visibly and revealing the importance of materiality to Brewster.
The surfaces of the photo-based gel transfer portraits have a waxy yet weathered appearance. The tears and creases are a result of transferring the ink from one paper surface to another by pressing, and materialize Brewster’s interest in migratory movement, specifically from the Caribbean to Toronto. The lack of control that the artist has during the process reflects on the experience of migration, the instability in that transition, and in turn, how it alters the individual. As with migration, the image cannot replicate itself exactly in the gel-transfer process; it will always possess the strain of the transfer and signs of abrasion. This is often only fully visible on close inspection.
In addition to recalling issues of migration and movement, Brewster’s ‘blurring’ as a photographic strategy also suggests an obscuring of visibility. While the term can be understood as an action of empowerment or oppression, in the case of this project it is evident that the artist was interested in resisting complete visibility and, by extension, knowability.1 In blurring her portraits, Brewster makes it impossible for those depicted to be fixed objects of the gaze, thus countering the colonial perspective of the ‘other’ as an unchanging and completely knowable being.2 This is particularly powerful in the context of a museum. In Untitled (2015–16), a fragmented self-portrait printed in multiple frames on wood, Brewster articulates this point: despite the scale, repetition, and physical imposition of the work, the artist is no more visible than those in the small, fragile paper works hanging across the gallery.
Diagonally placed in the middle of the gallery, Brewster’s film Walk on By (2018) reflects on the surrounding photographs. Digitally transferred from Super 8 film, in this work Brewster plays with technological transfer to expand the Blur series and subvert assumption of chronological, linear time. In a series of silent vistas, Walk on By depicts Black citizens of Toronto walking through the city. The clips are short, countering any emphasis on narrative. Instead, the film considers the sensorial aspects of traversing the city and reflects on the role of nostalgia during the settling process. Presumably because of the media transfer, at times the images become slightly warped and the individuals appear to blend into the landscape, suggesting moments of rooting. The inclusion of Walk on By into this exhibition implies a subtler facet of the migratory experience than Brewster’s conceptual gel-transfers, yet these projects both meditate on the endurance of their subjects’ experiences.
As if to leave an imprint on the museum, whose interest in local artists is somewhat recent, Brewster was commissioned to install a monumental gel-transfer portrait in the cavernous permanent collection galleries. Untitled (Blur) (2017-19) is centrally visible when turning the corner from the main hallway and is deeply affecting. Unlike with the smaller works, the process is evident, with the edges of the paper resembling the weathering of posters on scaffolding. Everything is amplified in Untitled (Blur): the size, the texture, and, importantly, the significance of transferring an image directly onto the wall. The image of a woman of color in dynamic movement is not just visually impactful, it is a presence that literally affects the museum structure by adhering to it. In so doing, the work will outlive the exhibition, altering, affecting, and reshaping the space around it.
- Julie Crooks. “Sandra Brewster: Practicing Refusal.” Prefix Photo 36, vol. 18, no. 2 (2017): 22.
- Homi Bhabha. “The Other Question” in The Politics of Theory, edited by Francis Barker, 23. University of Essex: Department of Government, 1983.