Art by number: Ken Nicol (and Mel Bochner, and Mary Temple, and Roman Opalka)

On the tweeted advice of Leah Sandals, we stopped by MKG127 gallery for the last day of Ken Nicol’s show. Aside from an irrational desire for Cy Twombly books and a penchant for Bic four-colour pens, we personally share with Nicol a complete and not unwelcome inability to multitask. Perhaps this explains our delight in his show, titled Hundreds of Things, Volume 1, for which he executes extremely well-crafted permutations of the number 100 in a wide range of seemingly mundane, normally discarded materials. From his gallery’s website:

Hundreds of Things: Volume One is the newest show by Toronto artist Ken Nicol. It is his second solo show at MKG127. It includes works that Nicol has made or collected. There’s a hundred-pound steel sculpture. There’s a hundred plastic lids arranged in a grid. There’s a piece that’s comprised of a hundred white hairs that the artist plucked from his beard. It takes time to make things by the hundred or to make things that are made of hundreds of other things. It takes hundreds of hours. This description has a hundred words in it. No, now it does.

The artist’s ample wit suffuses the show with a playfulness that belies a rigorous attention to formal and conceptual detail. One hundred bugs and one hundred bugs and one hundred bugs is a three-part work for which Nicol repurposes the tiny suicidal flies which collect under the desk lamps of Toronto each fall. The first part appears to have been made by the first 100 bugs themselves, but the second is a perfect square grid composed of 100 bugs’ carefully arranged dead bodies. In the third part, 100 more bugs are encapsulated in an exquisite little vial, handcrafted by the former jewellery maker in such a way as to humourously confer the status of treasure onto some of the lowliest creatures on earth. Lucky bugs.

Other works include My name written one hundred times by people I’ve never met, an engaging twist on Mail Art; One hundred cups one hundred ways, for which the artist made geometrically precise rearrangements of his coffee cup collection in the gallery each day; and One hundred pieces of metal I found on the ground as arranged by Micah Lexier, a collaboration with the well-known Toronto-based artist with whom Nicol shares a conceptual affinity and friendship.

While distinct in its focus on conceptual and aesthetic arrangements of a highly personal collection of objects, Nicol’s work is closely associated with that of other artists whose practices investigate forms and processes of measuring, counting, cataloguing, and marking time. Mel Bochner’s groundbreaking room measurements come to mind, as do his early drawings and prints which explore numbers as conceptual units and visual patterns.

Artist Mary Temple’s 1,000,000 Ellipsoids project shares with Nicol’s a similar focus on a special number. Through the repetitive drawing of ellipses, she embarks on a process-oriented journey to mentally and physically experience the number 1,000,000. Executed in various colours on translucent paper, the drawings trace the effect of repetition on the artist’s hand, as well as her exhaustive search for compositional variation. Each can also be read as a pure expression of emotion, as the artist experiences meditation, frustration, or discovery throughout the long process.

The psychological component of Roman Opalka’s life work, the finite defined by the nonfinite, rests not in the gestural quality of his mark-making, but rather in the absolute commitment with which he pursued his project. Beginning in 1965, Opalka focused exclusively on paintings of numbers from 1 to infinity, filling canvases with the evidence and experience of passing time. On August 6, 2011, Opalka painted his last number, dying soon after at the age of 79. The final number, neither even nor round, embodies a sense of interruption, even as it signifies the final resolution of the artist’s work and life: 5,607,249.

But back to 100. As Ken Nicol’s exhibition title suggests, a second volume of works in this vein may be in the offing. Might we assume, by logical extension, that he intends to make a total of one hundred works? If so, as many as 83 more may be in store (depending on how one counts them). Let’s hope we won’t have to wait 100 months to see them.

Ken Nicol: Hundreds of Things, Volume 1 at MKG127
Leah Sandals’ Q&A with Ken Nicol in the National Post
website of artist Ken Nicol
website of artist Mel Bochner
website of artist Mary Temple
website of artist Roman Opalka

hundred word text by Derek McCormack
website of writer Leah Sandals

images, from top to bottom:

Ken Nicol, One hundred cups one hundred ways, 2011 (three views); One hundred bugs and one hundred bugs and one hundred bugs (detail), 2009; My name written one hundred times by people I’ve never met, 2011; One hundred Imperial Increments, 2011; One hundred pieces of metal I found on the ground as arranged by Micah Lexier, 2011;

Mel Bochner, Measurement: Room, 1969, tape and vinyl on wall, size determined by installation; Range, 1979, screenprint, irreg. composition 22 1/16 x 23 15/16″ (56 x 60.9 cm) sheet 24 11/16 x 36 3/16″ (62 x 91.9 cm), John B. Turner Fund. © 2011 Mel Bochner

Mary Temple, 441,500–443,500 from the series 1,000,000 Eliipsoids, 2001–2003, pigmented ink on mylar, 30 x 36 inches; installation views 1 and 2, from the exhibition For the Millionth Time, Mixed Greens, NYC, 2003

Roman Opalka, the finite defined by the nonfinite (details), 1965–2011, acrylic on canvas, 195 x 135 cm

Ken Nicol in his studio, 2011, photo by  Nick Kozak/The Toronto Star
Ken Nicol,
Counting to one hundred with my four color pen, 2011

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