Installation view of B-Side Agnes Etherington: Paul Litherland.
In the midst of the latest deluge, I went to the Agnes Etherington Art Centre to have a look at its roster of new exhibitions for 2020, and I was glad I did. (Going to a gallery or museum during inclement weather, as long as it’s safe to drive, is, incidentally, an excellent way to spend an otherwise dull afternoon — it’s a sure-fire way to distract you from gloomy thoughts about the weather, and it gets your imagination sparking — as I’m sure all the others I saw at the Agnes could verify.) There is a host of new shows, but one, in particular, grabbed my attention this time around, and that one is B-Side Agnes Etherington, featuring photographic works by Paul Litherland.
The basic gist of this show is that the artist has photographed the back sides of numerous paintings from the Agnes’s historical European art collection and printed them to scale on commercial-grade canvas stretchers. It is brilliant. Now, you might ask, what could possibly be exciting about the back of a painting? And you’d be forgiven for thinking it couldn’t be even remotely interesting. But the truth is that it is actually quite intriguing, not to mention fascinating, as you are literally looking behind the scene on the front of the canvas, in more ways than one. (A caveat – the interest in these back views comes from their age. I’ve seen the backs of plenty of paintings, and the fresh, clean canvases of relatively young artworks are usually pretty much yawn-inspiring.) Indeed, the verso of a work has the potential to tell you much about the artwork itself, even if you don’t have a lot of information to start with.
As the wall text in the gallery space suggests, inscriptions, labels, staples, nails, hooks and so forth help to tell a story about the journey of a particular artwork through time. The style of the painting and the canvas itself can give you an idea of the approximate age, given that particular styles tend to belong to particular eras, and canvases without a uniform weave likely pre-date those that are machine-woven. You can sometimes tell whether a picture has been cut out of a larger canvas, or if the canvas has been reused (which should make you wonder what was sacrificed and painted over). Labels can be handwritten notes (whole, or frustrating fragments), gallery labels, auction house stickers or packing labels, and these also contribute to the life story of the painting. Sometimes there is evidence of previous conservation or restoration work that has been done on the painting – some good, some bad. One can also guess whether a canvas has been reframed at some point, or if you’re looking at the frame that is original to the artwork. All of these are clues that help in confirming or determining identification of an artwork. Under normal circumstances, one doesn’t have the opportunity to see this rather privileged perspective on a painting, and not only is it interesting but you also get an idea of what a curator, art historian or conservator deals with when researching a particular artist and his or her work.
As part of all that, seeing only the back of a painting like this is apt to incite you to ask questions and to spark your curiosity about the particular object. Why, for example, is one work in this exhibition given one title for most of its existence according to the older labels, and then given a new title on its most recent label? Why, if for the longest time a painting was accepted as being by a given artist, is it suddenly only “attributed” to that artist, or to someone entirely different? Why does this canvas have such a weird stain? Why, in the conservation treatment of this work, is there a temple-shaped cutout in the new backing material? Was all the information from the labels just visible through the coroplast on another painting that had conservation work done on it transcribed onto the new labels? (The answers to many of these questions might be in the acquisition or conservation reports for each work, but most of us don’t have access to those, either, so why not have the fun of wondering and, perhaps, making something up.) And then also, why do a couple of the backings look like the framer was trying to keep the painting from escaping from its stretcher frame?
The text for this show in the online and winter print editions of the current slate of exhibitions states that for this show, the viewer is invited “to contemplate notions of the simulacrum and the trompe-l’oeil tradition,” but this seems to be a somewhat specious suggestion, and one that frankly took up barely a fraction of my own interest. Seeing the back sides of these works mostly fires the curiosity about the history of the work itself and, like an itch that can’t be scratched, an intense desire to also see the front side of each of these canvases. B-Side Agnes Etherington is a novel and inspired exhibition that is both fun to view and that inspires creative thinking. Step behind the scenes and fire up your own imagination.
Kamille Parkinson earned a PhD in art history from Queen’s University, and is currently a freelance writer and art historian at large.