Beyond Salvage - Renato Vitic

Beyond Salvage
Rooted in the ethnographic discourses of the early 20th century, the principle of the “salvage paradigm” represents “a desire to rescue ‘authenticity’ out of destructive historical change,” or implicitly from those through whose negligence it might be lost.1
This subject might seem outdated and irrelevant to discussions of contemporary cultural production. Any attempt at “cultural salvage” can only be greeted today with suspicion, given the contemporary discourse around Western systems of the objectification of otherness. The principle of “salvage” signifies cultural, aesthetic, and institutional practices best discarded as obsolete.2 Despite the above intellectual awareness, this desire persists within contemporary anthropological discourse and in the cultural practices of art collecting, connoisseurship, and practices of art production. As part of a series of Discussions on Contemporary Culture sponsored by the Dia Art Foundation in 1987, in a session entitled Of Other Peoples: Beyond the Salvage Paradigm, Virginia R. Dominguez states that “salvage,” in it’s broadest sense, “lies at the heart of most forms/practices of representation – visual, audio, literary, expository – in which the presenter uses or incorporates material or immaterial objects that s/he perceives to be the creation/property of others.”3 Thus the process of “salvage,” the saving of imperiled property from loss, is alive and well in the contemporary visual practices of appropriation and the persistence of nostalgia in contemporary art production. 
How does one step beyond the paradigm of “salvage,” this desire to rescue authenticity from neglect? How does one engage with the past in a meaningful manner that opens up a critical space in the discussion surrounding practices of visual representation without simply resorting to a citation game of “salvage?” Euro/American art history is littered with narrative and allegory; stories that express profound fundamental human experiences that follow a lineage of tragedy that leads all the way back to Eden.  In his exhibition Romanian Debacle Mathew Reichertz chooses to engage with a story that exists without biblical proportions or global historical significance, but still falls within this lineage of loss. Multilayerd, indirect, and operating between abstraction and figuration, Reichertz engages with narrative without repeating what has gone before. History, politics, and aesthetics collided, providing fertile ground to explore and transcend narrative and establish a critical space in which the experience of these events occurs. In Reichertz’s exhibition, the subject of “salvage” functions both literally and allegorically. Materials and representation transcend this ideological paradigm and engage in a process of associative or semiotic autonomy through narrative with the past. 
Romanian Debacle recounts the events surrounding the 1979 international exhibition, 8 Contemporary Romanian Painters. The story begins in April 1979 with a financing agreement of up to $1 billion US by Canada's Export Development Corporation (EDC) for four CANDU reactors to be sold to Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu’s government.4 During this same year, the state sponsored exhibition of contemporary Romanian painting was organized. Possibly organized as a cultural exchange of good faith. Or, given Ceausescu’s subsequent request for a 'counter trade' agreement where Romania would export goods instead of cash, as currency for the sale of Canadian nuclear technology to a country that could not afford it. A dubious honour for these 8 artists given the tactics of the Romanian government of the time, which during the construction of the Cernavoda reactor transferred workers from factories, farms, and military conscripts, to be used as forced labour.5 Transported to Canada by air, the works arrived at the Halifax International Airport where, through the negligence of Air Canada employees, the crates were left on the tarmac over 6 rainy Nova Scotia days.  The works arrived at Saint Mary’s University Art Gallery water logged and damaged by mold. With the making of an international incident at stake, agents of the Canadian Conservation Institute in Ottawa were dispatched to Halifax in order to salvage the works.  Through painstaking technical feats, the works were reconditioned and eventually exhibited. To be met with very little acclaim by a Canadian public.
Reichertz approaches this subject in a series that consists of 8 large portraits and 60 smaller works that spin the narrative of these events. Moving physically between these works, the viewer mimics the intellectual dynamic required in order to move between the narrative of the experience of these events, and the broader context in which this process of representation occurs. Sourcing the original exhibition catalogue and the “implicit stereotypes” posited therein, Reichertz’s tactic also involves the appropriation of the stylings of contemporary western painters. Within these works can be seen the imagery of Hockney, Pollock, Richter, and Close. Lesser-known painter such as Tony Scherman and Ida Applebroog also find a place in the larger portraits. In the larger works, watery images from Hockney’s A Bigger Splash  in the “Portrait of Horia Bernea” from the Pollock drip to Richter’s abstraction and blurry realism, and in the “Portrait of Georgeta Nqpqruw Grigorescu” a pastoral backdrop of a scenic waterfall containing echoes of Applebroog.  It is in this manner that Reichertz constructs a relationship between the Romanian contemporaries and those artists that set the standards of painting’s discourse. This selective appropriation defines the parameters of the taxonomy of “salvage” that occurs in the context of the pluralistic nature of contemporary painting.
Throughout his career Reichertz has made the manner in which individuals are remembered a part of his methodology, often dealing with the subject of memory and loss. Moreover, Reichertz has found himself configured within the imagery of his work, through fictional narrative, and incorporating himself as model. Both conceptually and figuratively, the Romanian Debacle is no exception. It is within the smaller works that the narrative occurs, in a nonsequential fragmented form that owes more to the filmic image layering of Kurosawa, than to the realism of Courbet. It is through the question of literalness and ambiguity that the possibility of allegorical narrative is explored within the smaller works; testimony to Reichertz’s statement that “painting is non sequential, even in narrative, and narrative becomes a means of grounding a practice in painting.”6 Fluctuating between figuration and abstraction in the smaller works, Reichertz offers up images of the “Ararat Anomaly,” the Cernavoda reactor in “Study for Portrait of Constantine Piliutq and CANDO Reactor,” a portrait of an executed Nicolae Ceausescu in “Ceausescu, December 25 1989,” fungal like abstracts, self portrait as a negligent “Air Canada Employee,” studies of the original Romanian works, and local landscapes. Materials and meaning combine in this series of works as the liquid form and nature of paint is pushed to its limits. The hydrophobic mediums of wax, resin, and oil betray their own molecular nature in mimesis of water, a major player in the narrative.  Water flows in and out of the narrative, like the viewer moving between the larger and smaller works. From a “Wet T-Shirt Contest on Mars After Sabin Bqlawa,” through “Wave After Ewan after Hokusai,” and finally, to a delicate black abstract that feels like droplets of rain on a black asphalt tarmac. The disparate imagery weaves a web of meaning that functions as narrative and denies literality.  These are fragments of a larger whole that must be seen in their entirety to approach understanding; unlike the salvaged parts of a whole that are invested with the authenticity of experience. Viewing these works becomes a process of what Virginia R. Dominguez referred to as “pushing for semiotic self-determination.”
The exhibition Romanian Debacle explores the breadth and depth of narrative, alternating between materials and meaning to opens up a space for the exploration of the “story.” Mathew Reichertz achieves a means by which both the artist and viewer are able to move beyond the “salvage” ideology. Not simply as a representation of allegorical repeats, but the construction of a relationship between artist, viewer, and the story of the works presented in this exhibition. Is this enough to transcend this phenomenon? Likely not, but perhaps in the space in which this exhibition situates itself a necessary condition is achieved to move beyond.