The survey of work by Toronto artist Arnaud Maggs that opened at the National Gallery of Canada last Friday includes an unusual piece from 1989. Entitled 15, it features eight sheets of used carbon paper, each one labelled with three rows of numbers that, rather like a mini Sudoku, add up to 15 horizontally, vertically and diagonally. The black carbons are unreadable but they do carry the faint impressions of the text that was typed on them, autobiographical statements by the artist. The title is a reference to the 15 minutes of fame promised by Andy Warhol.
The narrative, the personal, the emotional – these elements are often hard to discern in Maggs's work, a stubborn artistic practice that is characterized by an impressive aesthetic rigour and an abiding interest in systems of cataloguing and categorizing. (After all, he is the artist who made a series of prints featuring nothing but the numbers used by musicologist Ludwig von Kochel to catalogue Mozart's compositions.) Still, those elements are always present, and their passage from faint impressions in the 1970s and 1980s to full flowering in the 1990s and beyond is the story of one of the most remarkable careers in Canadian art.
Maggs, one of three finalists for the 2012 Scotiabank Photography Award that will be presented on Wednesday in Toronto, was a graphic designer and fashion photographer before he turned to fine art in the mid 1970s. Between 1976 and 1978 he created what he considers his first artwork: 64 Portrait Studies, which opens this show, is a series of frontal and profile views of the head and shoulders of 16 different men and women, all posed almost identically.
Their facial expressions seem neutral – Maggs says he was seeking calm or placidity and had to reject many photographs because the sitters looked too energetic – and this collection of mug shots appear as some kind of crazed attempt to catalogue physiognomy. Crazed because all that emerges is that everyone is wildly and totally different, which was rather the point of the project.
Maggs applied a similar approach to the experimental German artist Joseph Beuys, asking him to hold an identical pose for 100 shots to create Joseph Beuys: 100 Profile Views, but his subject slouches a bit toward the end, again defying the containment. In his work about music, including, in this show, a giant grid created by lining up 828 white-on-black prints featuring all the numbers of the jazz recordings on the Prestige record label, the subject, music, disappears altogether to be replaced only with its symbol.
It was when Maggs started fishing around in French flea markets in the 1990s, however, that his obsessive collecting and arithmetic ordering found their richest raw material in the shape of domestic and industrial ephemera from the 19th century. In this show, curator Josée Drouin-Brisebois includes the lovely Les factures de Lupé, photographs of the pastel-coloured household invoices of an aristocratic French couple from Lyons. Who were the Comte and Comtesse de Lupé and why did they keep all their bills for furniture, jewellery, perfumes and linen? We don't know, but these pristine photographic enlargements of their mundane household papers read as an emotionally gripping act of historic retrieval.
The point is made more emphatically in Notification XIII, a similar work featuring a series of black-edged envelopes from the stationary that would have been used by families to announce a death or send letters during a bereavement: Maggs is now clearly involved in an act of memory, fighting valiantly against the inevitable victory of all-effacing time.
His Contamination, from 2007, features photographs of the blank pages of an accounts book dating to the Klondike Gold Rush, revealing the presence of a gorgeous, cloud-shaped water stain. Unfortunately, because the full work is large, and this show is a survey rather than the full retrospective Maggs deserves, it features only nine of the 16 images that make up the work, but the effect is apparent if emotionally muted: As the viewer moves through the sequence of photographs, the beautiful stain gradually fades away to nothing. Maggs the artist deserves his 15 minutes thousands of times over, but the man himself, who turned 86 on May 5, will also, inevitably, fade away.
Not before he has left us his own birthday present, however. Scrapbook is a 2009 work built up from his own ephemera – baggage tags, tickets, jam labels, cards and photographs – as though he could now finally, 20 years after 15, make the personal visible. To throw things out is to admit that something is over; like the Lupé family, we all hoard scraps of nothing in an effort to deny the passage of time. Only the artist has the rare privilege of turning that obsessive collecting into art, or perhaps simply the rare ability to reveal his collecting as an art, the kind of art that might just possibly hold immortality in its hands – or at least take our breath away with the necessity of its striving.
Arnaud Maggs: Identification continues at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa until Sept. 16.