One day before his show opened, the Scottish painter Andrew Grassie stood in a space known as ‘the cathedral’ at Vancouver’s Rennie Collection. With its towering, 12-metre-high walls, it is one of the most commanding gallery spaces in North America. Hung on massive opposing walls were two miniature paintings, no larger than splayed out paperbacks – photorealistic tempera renderings of exuberant earlier exhibits that dominated this same room. They are precise yet glimmering, like well-worn memories; they squint across at each other.
In the building’s other galleries were three more paintings of previous Rennie Collection shows; Grassie has been travelling here, at the invitation of owner Bob Rennie, for every opening since 2005. Mona Hatoum, Richard Jackson, Damian Moppett – all their solo exhibitions (or, rather, the messy days leading up to their opening nights) were photographed exhaustively by Grassie, and then a single documentary image from each was chosen as his subject. ‘I prefer other people’s openings,’ he muttered, as we leaned in together to peer at a 15 × 20 cm painting on paper. (A vast metal orb by Hatoum, disgorging a pile of unkempt cables and attended on by miscellaneous installation gear.) ‘In college,’ he continues, ‘we were constantly being told to find a signature style – a gimmick, you know – and I found it impossible. So, when I started doing this, it was such a relief. This solved the problem of what to paint.’
He has solved nothing for the viewer, though. By depicting earlier shows that were hung in the same gallery, Grassie places the gallery-goer in a virtual hall of mirrors. The obvious, but flawed, comparison to all this is Louise Lawler, whose meta-works show us Warhols hung in living rooms or Degas sculptures trapped on gallery pedestals. However, where Lawler’s photographs comment blatantly on art markets, Grassie is far more personal. His paintings – matter-of-fact and even humble in their studious, immaculate technique – speak to his angst over his own practice and the impossibility of authenticity in a grossly derivative world.
This is not to say that Grassie’s work escapes Lawler’s mercantile concerns. Surely as he immortalizes these elite spaces, capturing moments of becoming – when galleries are strewn with ladders, equipment, unhung canvases – he calls up traditions of patron portraiture. Indeed, aside from the exhibit images, this latest show included two paintings of Rennie’s home and two of the warehouse where he stores his collection.
Again, the Lawler comparison is useful as a point of distinction: Grassie’s intimate tempera paintings, which possess a coolness and permanence that neither photography nor oil paint can achieve, seem to be un-opinionated, apolitical; instead they are deeply vulnerable efforts to look at the art world with a wallflower’s eyes. It’s an effort that becomes increasingly fraught as Grassie’s career grows; his bijou visions are swallowed by larger expanses of fierce gallery wall now that he’s absorbed into grander institutions. And yet, thanks to that superlative technique, that uncanny creation of timeless simulacra, he can still create cracks in the façades that such institutions present.
Those huge surrounding fields of white, the gallery’s bare walls, recall the myriad institutions Grassie and all artists must work within. And, as a comic side effect, the scale of the paintings compared to the size of the rooms makes documentation of Grassie installations nearly illegible – so it’d be difficult to visit upon him the same treatment he doles out to others.
Grassie’s work would be less often compared to Lawler’s if viewers saw past the gimmick of ‘art about art’, and saw instead his uncanny ability to complicate and make weird the gallery. By fusing the reportage of photography and the fresco quality of tempera, Grassie manages to intensify the awareness of his viewers, even while he reminds us that art works are never read by the casual viewer alone; they are read collectively, by the gallery, by curators, by an impossibly ornate machinery, in which our perception spins unawares.