The sleeper show this summer has been John Massey: The House that Jack Built, which winds up its stay at the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography in Ottawa on Labour Day. The show has revealed Massey at the top of his game, every inch the inheritor of the Michael Snow mantle (he is 20 years his junior), an artist who uses photography to create a world of slippery illusion charged with eroticism.
The character of Johnny, and, later, of Jack (a diminutive of the same name) is the thread that binds these works on view. One must assume that this figure is a cipher for the artist himself, engaged here in an extended act of self-portraiture. Massey, however, has always maintained a coy distance from his enigmatic creation, refusing tidy explanations.
The current exhibition begins back in 1980, with Room 202, A Model for Johnny, an audio installation originally created for PS1 Contemporary Art Centre in Queens, N.Y. The work is a somewhat idealized, pristine miniature replica of the battered former schoolroom in which the work was first sited -- complete with wainscotting, pressed tin roof, antique radiators and blackboards.
As the viewer approaches, a motion detector activates a voice that recites a list of substances and their properties (for instance, lead, iron, nitrous oxide, coal), with the sound issuing from an absurdly large audio speaker set into the blackboard at the front of the classroom, the teacher's place.
There are several pleasures here: the craftsmanship of the piece and the artist's rather fiendish attention to detail (a precursor to the faux architectural views Massey would create in the later eighties and nineties); the ambiguity between reality and fiction (particularly in its original incarnation at PS1); and the subtle mocking of authority implicit in the big booming voice droning on its lessons to an empty school room.
Massey's photographic suite The House that Jack Built (1981 to 1992) again mines the material of childhood, drawing on the famous children's rhyme, "This is the house that Jack built," a staple incantation in every Commonwealth nursery. Massey takes the propriety of the rhyme and infiltrates it with the stuff of his own lived experience.
The opening image in his photographic suite shows a replica of Massey's Toronto studio ("the house that Jack built"), with its filing cabinets, work table, stool and ladder to a loft. Overlaid atop this interior view, Massey then orchestrates a montage of images, reflecting the cumulative structure of the verse, but adding some unexpected twists. "This is the maiden all forlorn" is illustrated by the image of an ungainly female stripper, turned from our view with her hands over her head; her kiss is illustrated with a still from From Here to Eternity. The "cock that crowed in the morn" is an erect phallus. The "cow with the crumpled horn" is, improbably, a rhinoceros.
As in his work As the Hammer Strikes, shown last year at the Ydessa Hendeles Art Foundation in Toronto (and currently showing at the National Gallery of Canada), this suite of photographs gives us a sense of the free associations that float to the surface of the mind uncensored -- including the artist's personal erotic musings, fragments of popular culture, media imagery and so forth -- all of it subverting the rosy-cheeked innocence and tidy order of the original text.
In the late eighties, Massey would produce his most refined and restrained series of works, titled Twilight's Last Gleaming (1988) and From the Dawn's Early Light Until Twilight's Last Gleaming (1988). To make these photographs, Massey created painstakingly perfect models of empty rooms; windows, lighting and ceiling details are their only distinguishing features. Too perfect by far for this world, these spaces have a cerebral precision that is almost thrilling.
Other artists have worked with the idea of photographing faux architectural space -- one thinks of the U.S. artist James Casebere and Germany's Thomas Demand -- but Massey, with his dazzling clarity of light, crisp printing and elegant black and white composition, expresses a yearning for perfection and the rarefied realm of the pure idea, a vision exquisitely distilled.
Massey's next creation was a small wooden artist's mannequin -- the kind used in art-school anatomy classes -- whom he called Jack.
Throughout the nineties, Massey presented this little fellow in several incarnations, exploring the then-new technology of Photoshop to splice images of his own real body -- his hands, feet, eyes, phallus -- onto the wooden body. The result was an eerie hybrid of cold, hard wood and warm flesh and blood. As a viewer, you feel a strange sympathy with this quasi-human creature, who appears vulnerable, beseeching, even grotesque.
The show goes on to present several later series of works, including one of his most ingenious creations titled Model Waiting Area (1997 to 1998), originally made as a photographic commission for the Toronto investment firm of Gluskin Sheff and Associates (and ultimately refused by them). To make the series, Massey photographed the firm's reception area, the space where the work was to be ultimately installed, and then made a suite of images in which those images were subtly manipulated. These were to be presented alongside downward looking views of a gentleman's wrist clad in its wristwatch (and a crisp white shirtsleeve), resting on the chair arm.
The suite expresses tension, and the low thrum of anxiety (particularly when the subject draws back his sleeve -- in a second image -- to check the time again), and they were no doubt deemed a bit too edgy for the firm's clients to cope with. But they are Massey at his best, compressing a world of feeling into concise and meticulously conceived visual packages.
The exhibition also contains Massey's more recent work, including the new series Phantoms of the Modern (2004). The images feature the home of the artist's architect father, a modernist steel and glass pavilion. Into these pristine interiors, Massey has digitally inserted a variety of objects. Some seem to fit the environment, like the sculptures by Maillol, Brancusi, Arp and Giacommetti, as well as works by Canadians Ron Martin and Michael Snow. Others seem wildly incongruous: a large blue exercise ball, a sex doll, a smattering of pornographic magazines. Massey's choice to metaphorically defile his father's house is revealing, particularly since his own patrilineal family line is such a highly charged one. John Massey is the grandson of Canada's first Canadian-born governor-general, Vincent Massey, and the great-nephew of the famous actor Raymond Massey. The patriarchy -- which Massey has examined through his interest in pornography, through his exploration of his own male sexuality in the Jack series, through his examination of the clenched corporate ethos in Model Waiting Area -- has long been his subject, but always held in a fierce restraint.
In Phantoms of the Modern, Massey in a sense comes clean by being so explicit with his subject, but the work lacks the taut sense of compression of the earlier pieces, verging at times on naughty schoolboy territory. For him, this is a step down.
It leads one to wonder whether it was the force of repression that drove Massey's most successful artistic forays in the past, producing the classic Massey oeuvre that has won him a deserving place as one of this country's most intriguing and inventive living artists. To her credit, Martha Hanna, the curator of the show, has made that accomplishment crystal clear. That the exhibition is still not firmly booked to tour (only the gallery at the University of Quebec at Montreal has tentatively raised its hand) is an indictment of the Canadian museum community. Why the apathy? It would be hard to think of a more refined body of work than this. No doubt we will have to satisfy ourselves with coarser fare.
John Massey; The House that Jack Built continues at the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography in Ottawa until Sept. 6. For information, call (613) 990-8257.