Arts & Entertainment
2 min

Art review: The Septemberists

Something strange is going on — but not the strangeness you'd expect from Anthony Goicolea

Anyone with a passing familiarity with Anthony Goicolea’s work is in for a surprise with his latest show, The Septemberists at Monte Clark Gallery. New York-based Goicolea gained much-deserved art-world fame for his vast photographic constructions riffing on the perversities of adolescence, in which he played every character. In his first solo show in Toronto, Goicolea has taken an abrupt turn from this bizarro narcissism and populated the world of his new photographs with a gaggle of gorgeous guys, Abercrombie And Fitch models to a man.

The show is structured around the eponymous 30-minute video on loop in the gallery’s lower level. The photographs adorning the walls of the upstairs gallery are large-format, sumptuously photo-graphed still versions of scenes from the video, with a few largely unrelated drawings thrown in for good measure. While Goicolea might have left himself out of his work this time around, he still maintains the same love of highly formalized tableaux compositions. Without the infinite repetitions of his face to show it off, Goicolea’s Photoshop wizardry has become much more subtle. The theatrical scenes of boys sleeping in their barracks, inspecting cotton bushes or performing a baptism down by the lake all seem realistic enough on the surface. The seamless photo-collage illusionism of the photo-graphs hides their utter implausibility; their conflicting perspectives, impossible angles and otherwise off-kilter weirdness only emerges after a good, long stare.

The Septemberists (the show in general and the video especially) follows a clear, if strange narrative, and comes off reeking of literary references. We find ourselves in the midst of some kind of gothic prep school — think Edgar Allan Poe meets EM Forster’s Maurice by way of horror flick Children Of The Corn. The works follow pillow-lipped, sleepy-eyed students through a highly ritualized day of preparation leading to the execution of an enigmatic unnamed ceremony. There is no dialogue; instead, we are led through the narrative by a lush, string-draped musical score.

The boys, as it turns out, live quite the self-sustaining Amish lifestyle (if the Amish were kitted out in haute couture). Up at dawn, they pick greenhouse cotton, sheer sheep, collect the ink sacs from local squid and then sit down to sew and dye their uniforms. This is followed by a solemn procession to the river, where a combination baptism/ wedding/burial takes place. It all unfolds with the languid, elegiac pace of a particularly vivid dream.

It’s beautiful.

Still, something troubled me as I left the gallery. There was an alarming lack of depth to all this, and I realized that the video and photographs seduced me not because they were particularly involving, or that there was some conceptual puzzle to sort out, but because they were so pretty: The boys, the scenery, the music, the clothes. This is generally the same terrain as Goicolea’s earlier photo-graphs, but its disturbing punch — all that perverse, animal ferocity — is gone. The weirdo Wicker Man-meets-Southern Gothic processions are all well and good, but there doesn’t seem to be much behind them, other than a nice budget and gorgeously tailored prep-school suits.

A quick Google search confirms this. In fact, The Septemberists was conceived of and produced as a showcase for New York mens-wear designer Thom Browne’s spring/summer 2007 collection. This explains the parade of beautiful boys (they look like models because they are models!), the camera’s strange propensity to zoom in on shirt-cuffs and linger over jacket lapels, hems and knee socks, the rambling pointlessness of the video’s narrative. Goicolea’s aesthetic has been drafted into the service of someone else’s very particular needs at the great expense of his own vision. That the gallery’s press release is totally mum on this collaborative fact seems particularly disingenuous.

I’m sure The Septemberists makes a brilliant high-concept marketing package, but as its own self-contained piece of video art,it is painfully one-dimensional and so falls terribly flat.

The clothes are lovely, though.