In the 1920’s in Southern Ontario, homebuilder Jack Lake autographed his handiwork by signing a framing board inside the home he’d just built. Upon renovating that home, artist Jack Niven discovered the indexical and personal imprint and took it up like a thrift store jacket. Thanks to this random, years-old encounter, we now have “Jack Lake, Redux” posited onto two grateful walls at Staple Goods throughout the month of March and early April.
“Redux” consists of 30 miniature but perfectly constructed “billboards” perching cheerfully on the gallery’s east wall. They allude to eager expeditions by automobile, with the rear and side view “mirrors” reflecting what is already so quickly the past. They tilt and even face opposite. In one case, “Pendleton Monument,” they're hidden like an emphatic, fleeting message we’ll miss forever. Through some maneuvering with a mirror (or an iPhone) you could glimpse bold letters spelling “J. Lake” in red logger’s plaid. An imagined memory, Jack Lake represents a buoyant flight of fancy in Niven’s teeming mind. The turn of the 19th century has been a lifelong preoccupation for the artist, and Lake’s strange emergence from inside its stick-built cask has fleshed it out in vivid color, bringing us along for the joyride in this show.
There is a little “Universal Mule”-type magic in “Redux,” both in theory and practice, in the form of “Blue.” The sweet-faced, big-eyed pack animal-without-a-legacy pokes his big old head out of one of Niven’s preciously-constructed memories. “Blue” silently speaks of roadside attractions that coincidentally contain the soul’s secrets, a possible byway leading to the new limits of an ever-expanding universe. Rightfully priced alongside “Gulp,” – a shapely work and a clever play on the Gulf Oil logo – “Blue” rides somewhere in the trunk or back seat of the car if we obey only the current view of space and time.
If we go along with Niven for the full metaphysical ride, though, “Blue” seems more like the journey’s metaphorical beginning than a fleeting identity. Rather than dying like a Doppler effect as we pass it on by, maybe the creature ride’s with us, driving each and every one of our fleshly “vehicles” and symbolizing the commonality of our earthly existence. Perhaps the little guy is just too lovable to leave out.
“Iktsuarpok” seems a specific key to Niven’s journey, spelling everything out but also holding it under layers of understanding. An Inuit word with no English equivalent, “iktsuarpok” is a feeling of anticipation so intense that it forces to the window awaiting fulfillment. Such is the car trip, such is the excursion into J. Lake’s life and times. In this case, the anticipation has taken a life of its own in the mind of the traveler, propulsively driving the windshield on.
Another best of the show, “Love Canal,” depicts a pristine, overgrown riverscape rolling into the horizon, an emerald green and eye-blue perfection in miniature. Niven has fashioned on the surface of the work droplets on the windshield, creating the effect with luscious and inventive precision. Concentric circles of placid distortion make Lake’s memories as real for the viewer as his handwriting must have been for Niven on the day he discovered the magical signature.
Back to the west wall, a diminutive drive-in screen sits alone, playing an undisturbed scene of beach waves washing in and out. Rhythmic and passive, oblivious to the action on the east wall, the proud little art deco styled screen plays on, loving placed on a field of gallery wall white.
Niven’s gift to Lake is immortality, or a chance at it. The spirit of the show leaves you connected to Lake forever, just like the artist has become. His “spastic chronologies and past lives” read much less like Nietzsche’s flat circle and much more like swirling cyclones. In Niven’s concept of being, we check into time and place from constant existence, inhabiting a galaxy-sized house with infinite doors. We have to feel a little grateful that Jack Lake wandered into Niven’s consciousness the way he did, with a secretive and indelible gusto only Niven could properly translate.
The show is ridiculously successful, its own yin and yang. It is busy with advertising that actually serves as a quaint oasis from internet-generated pop-ups and spam email. It is tiny like poetry but still bursting with huge messages because it chooses its words and ideas carefully. It rounds up all the right road-tripping buddies and fits them inside like a magical clown car, miraculously leaving Robert Frank, Walker Evans, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg with more than enough leg room. “Redux” is an economy of everythingness, intellectual meatiness charbroiled on a bed of crisp, green, nourishing emotion. It is a feast and a catch. The one you shouldn’t let get away, at once gorgeous, funny and smart with a heart of pure platinum.
Jack Lake, Redux is on view at Staple Goods (1340 St. Roch Ave.) through April 6.