OPEN STUDIO: ARTIST-IN-RESIDENCE

SEPT 1 to SEPT 30, 2020

ABOUT THE ARTIST / ROULA PARTHENIOU

Roula Partheniou’s largely sculptural practice centers on an exploration of the replica, calling into question the language of everyday objects and the ways that we read and decipher our environment. Her installations, which are often site-specific, utilize mechanisms such as optical illusion, associative play, visual similes, material puns, colour cues and the double-take, to draw an alternate logic from commonplace materials and to deconstruct the experience of perception.

Partheniou has exhibited across Canada and internationally including shows at Arróniz Arte Contemporáneo in Mexico City; The Museum of Bat Yam Israel; Tanya Bonakdar in New York; Wu Gallery in Lima; Fundacion Calosa in Guanajuanto; Oakville Galleries in Oakville; Musee Regional de Rimouski Quebec; and the Dunlop Art Gallery in Regina. Her work is held in numerous private collections and in the corporate and institutional collections of the Bank of Montreal, TD Bank, MunichRe, The Royal Bank of Canada, Blackwood Gallery at University of Toronto Mississauga, Art Museum at University of Toronto, Hyundai Corporation, Fidelity Investments, The Art Gallery of Peterborough, Musee d’art Contemporaine de Montreal, the National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives and Fundacion Calosa.  Roula Partheniou is co-founder of the Nothing Else Press, a publisher of artist’s books, multiples and editions. She is represented by MKG127 in Toronto. www.roulapartheniou.com 

STUDIO VIEWS /

ESSAY /

Premises and Punchlines

by Fynn Leitch

 

A true joke, a comedian’s joke, suddenly and explosively lets us see the familiar defamiliarized, the ordinary made extraordinary and the real rendered surreal Simon Critchley

 

A really good joke stays with you. It points out an incongruity and changes the way you see the world. The exact phrasing, even the punchline, may later elude you, but if well-crafted, the core of the joke gets under your skin and stays there.

 

Roula Partheniou’s works do something similar, by employing what has been called a “beguiling bait-and-switch”. The set-up is simple, relying on a few established perceptions to play with the audience’s expectation of what galleries show and of what qualities justify art. Common, inexpensive, functional items from our everyday lives don’t make immediate sense in the codified space of an art gallery, even though it’s not the first time we’ve seen household items elevated to the status of art. Marcel Duchamp—the art world’s preeminent toilet humourist—transcended production with his readymades to question the authority of authorship, while Pop Artists regularly plundered the pantry for subject matter.

 

Partheniou’s installations, which typically feature an accumulation of (mostly household) objects, repeatedly tackle the question of the replica evolving with each variation on the theme. The objects, often recurring characters, play to and subvert their respective archetypes in each iteration, not unlike a classic joke told over and over again, to different ends. Partheniou forgoes the pithy punchline in favour of a more complex and nuanced route to the pay off, initiating in the process a series of double takes, moments of discovery and unsettled notions that spark within the audience a new hyper-awareness to their surroundings.

 

Caution Yellow, 2009, a realistic polymer clay sculpture of a discarded banana peel, is a meta-joke on slapstick comedy. The slipping-on-a-banana-peel gag is a classic. Dating back well over a hundred years, its use was so prolific in vaudeville and silent film that it was quickly considered old hat, but comedians are compelled to reinvent it. Each time, the punchline is relocated to elude expectation adding tension with every evasive maneuver. Following the principle of Chekov’s gun, a banana peel placed on a stage foreshadows a pratfall. Installed in a gallery, something different happens. Caution Yellow was originally shown in an exhibition exploring the theme of gravity. There, it was stepped on several times and nearly swept up and disposed. Several repairs were required and the piece was eventually remade and subsequently purchased by the University of Toronto. Partheniou worked with the school to strategize safeguards and decided to mount it permanently on a 30-foot-high ceiling in a main corridor on campus. Regardless of these efforts, it was removed twice: once by a night janitor, once by security. The janitor procured a scissor-lift for the procedure but it is still unclear how security accomplished the task. Partheniou imagines “a slapstick-type episode of trial-and-error apropos of the conceit”.

 

Partheniou’s exhibition Odd One Out, at the Art Gallery of Peterborough, took place during a short-term relocation necessitated by renovations. The gallery shop, offices and exhibition area merged in the temporary open-concept layout. Rather than ignore the elephant in the room, another is invited in. Partheniou’s intervention included a seemingly functional desk outfitted with office supplies, an assortment of construction materials, and a display of books. The proximity of the replicas to their real life counterparts made them near indistinguishable on first sight and it took time for the punch line to land. The eventual realization that she made all of it triggers a series of re-evaluations that expose the fragility of common sense and the strength of our presuppositions on art, economics and authenticity.

 

Textbook comic devices (such as repetition, juxtaposition, mistaken identity and the double entendre) feature heavily in Partheniou’s work, particularly the pun. But like the era of silent film comedy, they are conveyed non-verbally. Even her titles are workaday and perfunctory, demanding the associative and linguistic qualities of the work be read visually. The objects are often colourful and vibrant, but never expressive. They are almost deadpan in their delivery. A hotdog on the wall isn’t played for laughs, which in and of itself is kind of funny.

 

Observational humour begins with shared experience and positions the things around us in unexpected ways that somehow become immediately obvious. That “How come I never thought of it like that before?” feeling marks a shift in perspective and a new sensitivity to our surroundings. Whether looking at something recognizable in all its possible forms (as in 100 Variations, 2008, which photographically documents one hundred variations on 100 stacked gray-scaled Rubik’s Cubes), or exploring wry but latent logic structures (like the daisy-chain of objects in Chalk to Cheese, 2016), Partheniou’s work re-presents the material of our world with the clever delivery of a great stand-up.

 

Slapstick or physical comedy translates easily. Observational humour, not so much. Getting a laugh that way, or conversely, getting a joke, requires tremendous fluency. The nuances, loopholes and entendres in the mode of delivery are the material with which to surprise and subvert. Using her remarkable facility in materials, aesthetics and art theory, Roula Partheniou reveals and challenges our expectations. Her work tests and expands the audience’s fluency with a premise that challenges presuppositions and a punch line that activates a latent love of the mundane. Through it all, she ensures we’re in on the joke by rooting her practice in the familiar.

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