"The Best Art In The World"
Barbara Steinman: Diving For Dreams
June 13 - August 25, 2019
By JAMES D. CAMPBELL, August 2019
Barbara Steinman has activated the main exhibition space here with an unusually spare and eloquent installation. She has transformed the space into an equilateral triangle and luminous palimpsest. The Montreal-based artist began her career in Vancouver as a video artist and has since been celebrated for the excellence of her multidisciplinary work. Working here at the top of her form, the artist lures viewers into a seamless consideration of issues involving architecture, home and, not least, constituting alterity.
In Diving for Dreams, which also serves as the title of the whole exhibition, five simple neon drawings are installed on three sections of an interior wall painted in the liminal hue of robin’s egg-blue. These delicate light interventions around the perimeter of the Main Hall are pure poetry. The simplicity is deliberate and evokes folk art and children’s art and even art brut with stripped-down images of a baying wolf, hearth and home, heart, bed or divan, bird of prey. Steinman collated some of these outlines from immediate renderings she had asked people to make in response to their idea of ‘home’. She then executed a series of neon graffiti works that freely integrated those almost pictographic renderings as core subject matter -- and they stand as a source of authentic distillation of communal discourse.
In Niche, Steinman made use of a lucky find: the crevice on the towering back brick wall of the space. She installed a mirrored rectilinear glass panel. Letters in white glass meander across the reflecting surface: “to which we belong & which belongs to us”. The suggestion of ownership and home and belonging is a thematic opening wedge that in fact unified the entire exhibition. We live in an economic climate where most 30-year-old Canadians are far less likely to own their own home than their baby boomer parents did at the same age. The national home ownership rate is in a state of continuing decline. Being at home, therefore, is related less to having a fixed abode and more to transitory, partial and provisional relationships with where we live. As is her usual wont, Steinman opens the parentheses on this phenomenon without recourse to aesthetic shock therapy. But the effect is no less profound, no less revelatory.
Day and Night (1989) is the third facet of the exhibition. It is a powerful series of four staged photographs in light boxes. They depict an anonymous figure sheltering in the recessed alcove of an industrial building like the Darling Foundry in its earlier incarnation. It was originally executed specifically for the space above the atrium of the contemporary galleries at the National Gallery of Canada. It has now been removed from that context and stands on the floor plane here at specific intervals. Writing for another publication on Steinman’s Study for the Installation “Day and Night” a few years ago, I noted that she dilates with acuity on the nature of a shared social reality. In fact, Day and Night is a profound meditation on homelessness by an artist who has always been attentive to the fate of the disenfranchised and the dispossessed. It is especially fitting because it is iconic for her practice of four decades and is not dated in any way. It is a piece of philosophical reparation for those whom history has hurt. Installed on the floor instead of lifted up on the wall plane, the large heartrending images provide a sort of moral weight for the more whimsical renderings in neon that shine down from above. Certainly, these light boxes have all the wherewithal we have come to expect of her practice before and since, and they are just as compelling as anything we have seen over the years by Jeff Wall, including his latest works at Gagosian.
Steinman works seamlessly and stealthily across the surface of things, a sort of covert operative on the go, searching out and assessing sites that she can palpate and bend to her purpose as a politically engaged artist. Yet her work is also profoundly chameleon and is less anchored in the specificity of given place than in a dynamic reflection on migration, home and the liminal. The exhibition transforms the former foundry into a metaphorical shelter safeguarding the promise of those left by the wayside of the historical process in a cascade of litanies that forms a potent critique of economic oppression and power relations.
Daring Others (Photo Souvenir) is a fitting coda for the show. Near the exit, visitors are invited to take home a postcard with an image of the facade of the Darling Brothers Foundry, referencing the original function of the building, and reversing polarities, so to speak, so that it is seen with all its attrition and effacement on display. It is ironic and clever and strangely numinous ephemera.
Writing on Steinman’s work 30 years ago, I quoted Frederic Jameson, the American literary critic, philosopher and Marxist political theorist of distinction. His words are as relevant to her endeavour now as they were then:
“History is what hurts, it is what refuses desire and sets inexorable limits to individual as well as collective praxis, which its 'ruses' turn into grisly and ironic reversals of their overt intention. But this can be apprehended only through its effects, and never directly as some reified force. This is indeed the ultimate sense in which History as ground and untranscendable horizon needs no particular theoretical justification; we may be sure that its alienating necessities will not forget us, however much we might prefer to ignore them.' 
Yes, history is what hurts and Steinman – in a voice never strident, sometimes elliptical, always radiant -- critiques the alienating necessities of History precisely so as to reclaim in present discourse those that History has estranged and dispossessed. She effectively memorialises subjects denied a common name, a concrete identity, a reasonable life. She has a savvy and acute political consciousness and her hugely sophisticated installations are socially symbolic acts. The works exhibited here are as luminous and nourishing as starlight on a clear night. WM
 James D. Campbell, “History Hurts: Barbara Steinman and Installation as a Socially Symbolic Act” in ” C Magazine # 22, Summer 1989
view all articles from this author
James D. Campbell is a curator and writer on art based in Montreal. The author of over 150 books and catalogues on art, he contributes essays and reviews to Frieze, Border Crossings and other publications.