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Bad People: Portraits of the Punishable


Culture is a vast and flexible medium, and so is its critique. Jay Senetchko’s pieces in this Phantoms in the Front Yard exhibition present ten critical categories, and twenty opposing perspectives engaged in cultural dialectics.  The implication being that although cultural critique may present itself in simple binary terms of good and bad, when examined more closely something more complex and dark is revealed.

Cultural critics throughout history, by definition, have been antagonistic to prevailing paradigms.  In the aesthetic realm, the Ukrainian painter Kazimir Malevich was critical of both status quo religious and political systems.  His infamous Quadrangle (commonly referred to as The Black Square) attempted to re-symbolize ultimate meaning through the unification of the spiritual and rational. The traditional Orthodox religious icon was to be replaced with his thoroughly modern one. It is involved in its own dialectic with religion, history and tradition. 

Owing to the circumstances surrounding Stalinist Soviet Union, and its aesthetic program of socialist realism, The Black Square has now itself become iconic as a symbol of cultural critique.  A traditional icon hung in the corner of the home, and Malevich’s Black Square replaced it; just as rationality has long since replaced religiosity in many areas of the world.  The Quadrangle now serves not only as an enduring reminder of cultural oppression, but also as a symbol of hope for cultural progression. 

The Black Square and its installation corner unit, provide the setting within which two participants within a designated cultural sphere engage in symbolic dialogue.  The monochromatic colouration and oppositional positioning imply binary view points, black and white mentalities, domination and subservience.  However, the individual pairings reflect something much more complex.  The death masks of individuals are presented within a system of oppression that had adversely affected their lives, regardless of their relationship to the poles on a binary spectrum.  Their relationship may be inverted, or removed altogether to reveal the system itself, which is alone enduring.  The dialogue reaches beyond the grave.

The unnerving aspect of this revelation, is not only the instability upon which cultural critique rests, but also the unstable nature of culture itself.  We moderns bemuse ourselves in our technological wisdom that history, society and culture are all progressing towards an ultimate goal. The implication being that the ‘goal’ is better for all.  Senetchko’s pieces suggest the opposite.  Both participants in the dialectic are invested in their perspective, and even if these points of view do not oppose, the system itself is ever present as a potentially punitive force.  There is no firm ground upon which to identify a ‘right’ or ‘better’ worldview, only a symbol of hope which promises its possibility.