Douglas Coupland, primarily known for his disaffected novels such as ‘Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture’, ‘Microserfs’ and ‘Jpod’ has, in more recent years, reignited a successful art career that hinges on wry observations of his Canadian homeland. The selective solo exhibition ‘Our Modern World’ at Daniel Faria Gallery is timed to coincide with the major retrospective ‘everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything,’ which showcases Coupland’s brand of pop Canadiana across two other Toronto venues. Setting itself apart from this, ‘Our Modern World’ is an altogether more global, pared back and darker affair that focuses on three recent series - ‘Deep Face’, ‘Trash Vortex’ and ‘The Montecristos’.
The first works to encounter are ‘Deep Face’, a line-up of anti-portraits in which large-scale monochrome head shots have had their facial features obscured by painted block abstractions. With hard modernist edges cruelly cutting through soft facial contours, the geometric patterns at once become representative of pixels, redactions and technological appendages, demonstrating Coupland’s design sensibilities while bringing to mind a dystopian hash of advertising, technology and the individual.
On the opposing wall a second set of portraits, perhaps taken from school yearbooks of the 80’s and 90’s, are masked with CMYK colours. The underlying concept behind ‘Deep Face’ is based upon Facebook’s recent assertion to identify all faces posted to its platform using facial recognition software, with or without consent. The irony is of course that social media essentially offers a means for recognition, yet the complex battle between individual privacy and commercial ownership rages on. That the individuals seem to represent the first social media ‘user’ generation gives an extra sense of this optimism and perceived online ‘freedom’ turned sour.
From the individual to the global, focus shifts to the glibly titled ‘Trash Vortex’, a collection of antique globes that have been slicked with poured paint in an assortment of candy colours. The source of the pour all comes from the same point to give the effect of some horrible clasp around the earth, with drippy tentacles reaching toward the area where the Pacific Trash Gyre – an oceanic dumping ground – collects waste materials cast off from land. While the work certainly demonstrates this toxic geography under its initially playful appearance, the globes struggle to shake off their twee vintage aesthetic and the repetition of a number of them in the exhibition adds little conceptually. Perhaps Coupland is suggesting that given further chances for redemption the human race would still sully future worlds with detritus - is the optimum point therefore not that less is more?
Meanwhile, ‘The Montecristos’ presents a collection of found objects that could have been taken straight from the trash gyre. Recovered posters, packaging, playing cards, drawing stencils and other ephemera are collaged together, framed and covered with a shiny resin veneer. Some of the works bring to mind the collages of Rauschenberg and Schwitters, yet with their glossy appearance and polite framing, ‘The Montecristos’ lack the raw energy that made those other works so vital.
Throughout the exhibition it is this sense of urgency that seems to be missing. ‘Our Modern World’ puts forward concepts that are critically pitched yet comfortably packaged in works that borrow from art and pop culture histories but frustratingly offer little below their manicured surface. The easily digestible explorations of technology, society and the individual are valuably accessible (and perhaps this is Coupland’s point), but those seeking a more acute and subtle exploration of ‘our modern world’ may come away feeling as though something is lacking.