Ways of thinking (exhibition essay)

An essay written by Rose Bouthillier on the occasion of the exhibition One Once on Which Whatever What at AKA artist-run September 14-October 20, 2018.

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Ways of thinking

  1. just enough

Troy Gronsdahl used these words to describe one of his chosen materials to me. This phrasing stuck in my mind, becoming a broader notion for thinking through his practice. While at first it might appear to imply offhandedness, or even a lackadaisical work ethic, neither is the case. There is a fine edge between not enough and too much. This tension is often apparent in Gronsdahl’s work; underscored, regarded and worried about. Whether through process, form, historical reference or sentiment, arriving at this edge is a delicate undertaking. It wavers constantly, impossible to hold.

This enough sits on the surface of Gronsdahl’s ongoing series of cyanotype prints, When the cosmos aligned, if only briefly and largely unnoticed. The series started on March 20, 2015, marking the transition from winter to spring. Each print in the series corresponds with a cosmic phenomenon: most often an equinox or solstice, though recent additions include a total solar eclipse and an aphelion (the point at which the Earth is farthest from the Sun). The results range from soft, atmospheric gradations to semblances of crumpled bed sheets and haphazard sun bleaching. They alternate (often on a single surface), between evoking celestial expanse and stressing their own obstinate, unpredictable materiality.

Making the cyanotypes requires patience and attention to details: carefully mixed chemistry, cleanly taped edges and an even coat, free of debris. The prints are exposed in the artist’s Saskatoon studio, absorbing ambient light for a 24-hour period, roughly from midnight to midnight. Gronsdahl meticulously sets the conditions, but the medium is hard to control, moving from wet to dry to wet to dry, with all of the attendant molecular and material shifts. A number of variables affect the outcome fluctuations in temperature and humidity, proximity to windows and other objects in the studio, clouds and particulates. In appearance, the cyanotypes echo the spare ambiguity of monochrome painting, repeating like exercises in looking at blue. Minimalism starts from a point of austerity (even as imbued with a range of aesthetic, philosophical and spiritual propositions). Reductive. Rigorous. Clear. Gronsdahl takes a genre rife with repetition and control, and floods it with happenstance and sensitivity.

While the series is driven by cosmic events, only the artist knows if the exposures took place when their titles claim. Other than large shifts in the intensity and duration of sunlight, there is little to indicate the season of their making, let alone the precise day. There’s humor in this futility, but also romanticism. If photography is a way of gathering or affirming knowledge of the world, what do these proto-photos relay? They are pictures of not knowing, of diligent longing and passing time. Here “brief” and “largely unnoticed” apply to order in the stars, but they also hint at the fleeting inconsequence of one’s own actions and life.


  1. on and on

As an ongoing series, When the cosmos aligned... provides a methodology but doesn’t make promises. There is no strict rhythm or set duration. The cyanotypes will be made when they are claimed to be until they no longer are. Such open-ended repetition often plays out in Gronsdahl’s work, as a way of continuing and concentrating.

Ways of listening (begun in 2015) consists of hundreds of humble wheel-thrown ceramics.[1] The smoothly curved surfaces remain unfired; fragile and useless for the functions their forms imply. Instead, they offer aural experiences. Held up to an ear, each reveals its own tenor of void, like a distant rushing wind. As with the cyanotypes, there is an element of absurdity. The series presents objects that work against utility and logic, requiring hours of effort at the potter’s wheel to form perpetually empty vessels. In countering expectation, in presenting next to nothing, the vessels ask for deeper consideration of their objecthood, the poetics of their making, and the value of attention paid. They operate not only as individual pieces but also as an undertaking, a volume.


  1. close readings

The on-going-ness of Gronsdahl’s serial productions also finds expression in his “remediated texts.” For these he alters the writing of other artists, critics and theorists, erasing most of the originals in order to carve out new compositions.  The series began with Donald Judd’s “Specific Objects” (1965), followed by Michael Fried’s, “Art and Objecthood” (1967), and has continued on a slow, anachronistic path through art theory since minimalism.[2] Gronsdahl describes this undertaking as a “fractured, disorienting compendium that sits in contrast to orderly historical narratives.”[3] The altered texts read like poems, fragments of introspective language that float on mostly empty pages. From the first book, The same as the shape of an object [Specific Objects] (2016), this page stands out as a personal annotation, an apt reflection on the manner and process of Gronsdahl’s own work:


Once again/though it would make/no difference/It is as though one/has no duration—/no time at all/to speak/as only partly present/if only one were/more/acute, a single infinitely brief instant would be long enough to see everything.


Even if one is familiar with the sources, and tries to read through understandings of them, there are too many blanks to fill in. Reading them feels like going over the memories of a long-ago day, words smattered on the page like a series of impressions, bits of clarity drawn from a cloud. The remediated texts are personal and idiosyncratic, and in this way emphasize something essential about reading. It is always experiential, a link in a chain, cohering in a moment and dissipating over time. In creating one path through each text, Gronsdahl’s compositions also imply the myriad other paths that could be taken, in a way that “unmediated” texts rarely invite such conjecture. In paring down, they formalise one of an infinite series of possible un-writings/re-readings.


  1. hardly

Gronsdahl’s approach to art history aligns with his material investigations; both convey a deep curiosity about knowledge, understanding and the ways that we parse meaning from what seems insignificant. Even as these subjects (aesthetics, our place in the universe) are complex and often overwhelming, Gronsdahl broaches them with levity. There is a certain lightness to his work; lightness of touch (the artist’s hands very involved but not in evidence), lightness in material (reduced, responsive), lightness from means to end (spare parameters). This airiness leaves room for soft focus and speculation—even inviting doubt—but it doesn’t equate to effortlessness. There is striving in the repetition and restraint, along with recognition that some things can’t be rushed or overly determined. Reflecting back to the viewer, there is an invitation to take time and care, and a caution—not overlook or over think, less something essential be missed.

– Rose Bouthillier


[1] The title invokes John Berger’s iconic television show and book Ways of Seeing (1972), which explored how people derive meaning from art and images, guided by context, technology and culture. There is a contrast between Berger’s forceful, structured arguments and the quiet reiteration of Gronsdahl’s vessels.

[2] So far other source texts include “Death of the Author” (1967) by Roland Barthes, “Grids” (1979) by Rosalind Krauss, “What Is a Minor Literature?” (1975) by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, and “The Poetics of the Open Work” (1962) by Umberto Eco.

[3] Email to the author, August 15, 2018.

AKA Gallery, Artist Feature

Chances are you know Troy Gronsdahl in one of his various incarnations. You may have seen him perform under his moniker soso, an internationally touring rap artist who has graced the stages of Saskatoon’s Mosofest, Les Transmusicale de Rennes, France, as well as multiple venues in Europe and Japan. Perhaps you’ve browsed the websites of various art organizations, this gallery included, not knowing he set up the interface, or, as in the case of PAVED Arts, designed their branding. In all likelihood you’ve visited the Mendel Art Gallery where he serves as Associate Curator and whose programming has included The Name of Things, which featured work by local artists Zachari Logan, Terry Billings and Stacia Verigin. Most pertinent to this article, however, is his internationally exhibited art practice, which spans multiple mediums and synthesizes his various other cultural contributions. If multidisciplinarity is the de facto obligation of the contemporary artist, and I think that is becoming more and more the case, then Gronsdahl has certainly lived up to it by seamlessly moving from one practice to another while maintaining an impressive level of quality and criticality in each undertaking.

His recent solo show at the Frances Morrison Library (Saskatoon) More of the Same, and now part of a group exhibition at the Dunlop Art Gallery in Regina, utilizes his self-described “museological fetish,” as a strategy to unpack two romantic proclamations found in the revolutionary manifesto titled Le Refus Global: “Make way for magic! Make way for objective mystery!” Written in 1948 by Quebecois painter Paul-Émile Borduas and signed by fellow members of the Automatistes group, the manifesto was a challenge to the traditional values of Quebec and a call to incorporate international thought into an otherwise provincial discourse. Gronsdahl’s lifting of two seemingly innocuous phrases, however, pays little heed to the manifesto’s original revolutionary fervour, and favours an absurdly earnest approach to fulfilling its more whimsical imperatives. To this end, Gronsdahl created a series of letterpress prints embossing the barely perceptible words “magic” and “mystery” onto manila sheets. He also melted the letters used in the process to produce seductively mercurial shapes that were presented under vitrines.

The show’s presentation gives it an analytic appearance that is undermined by its decidedly lyrical content. Elegantly framed, impeccably presented, the subtle works only ever present traces of the magic and mystery that is so carefully catalogued, and put on display. What is highlighted instead is the apparatus by which these traces are archived. Gronsdahl admits there is an irony to the museum’s archival role, which is to preserve and present important documents for future generations, and consequently undermining the urgency of the original artefact, which in the case of Le Refus Global is a call to resistance. He notes, citing examples from his experience as a curator, that the institution has a remarkable talent for “owning dissent.” Yet the tongue-in-cheek mode of presentation utilized by Gronsdahl in More of the Same also highlights how elusive that ownership may be. While we may own a set of objects, the ideas they were intended to embody may perpetually evade us and be exceedingly difficult to actualize.

But ambivalence about art’s political efficacy is not what is at stake here. There seems to be a cross-disciplinary concern with the creation of context and meaning that unites Gronsdahl’s various practices. In his studio, his works in progress continue to explore the layered meaning of the word through typeface, text, erasure, and its visual representation. His current use of literary metaphors seems to hint at a convergence between his role as a lyricist and as a visual artist. Moving through the various incarnations of the word, from spoken, to written, to spatial (as in the case of the melted “magic” and “mystery”), Gronsdahl alludes to the ways in which meaning is created but simultaneously eludes us. His incursion into mystery, metaphor and ultimately the unknown, is also an incursion into the space between the signifier and signified (or lack thereof), where meaning gets lost, remade and recycled.

-Dagmara Genda


On Surrender as an Act of Infiltration

On Surrender as an Act of Infiltration
Troy Gronsdahl’s The Knot
by Lee Henderson

Troy Gronsdahl’s short video The Knot opens in the middle of a forested landscape; a young tree trunk appears in focus among older trunks, small saplings, the stumps of fallen trees, and clusters of leaves, all blurry. The sharp trunk is slightly off centre, leaning towards the edge of the frame, and two or three soft fingers of bright green leaf peek in from the top.

We, as observers, are given time to absorb all of this, as the uninhabited vista lasts for 16 seconds of the 70-second work. Eventually, a blurry figure emerges from the background, navigating the undulating terrain on foot. In jeans, plaid shirt and glasses, the artist approaches the trunk—and us—and continues just off-camera, from whence he ties a clean white cloth around what we now realize to be a branch, perhaps an inch or so in diameter. A knot is formed by the artist’s hands, and they disappear, leaving us with the scene in which we started, save for the addition of the small, white banner.

An art historical context of imaging the Canadian landscape springs readily to mind, and one could easily be tempted to think of Gronsdahl’s gesture as Thompsonesque: the artist is a lone wanderer who emerges from and disappears back into the forest, leaving only art-tokens behind, or so goes the mythology. But the quietude of the artist’s performance—and, indeed, his overall avoidance of the camera’s lens—implies both purpose and resignation. This figure is no ecological flâneur, no enviro-tourist; he is on a mission.

That mission is one of surrender. Gronsdahl marks the young branch with a white flag, and retreats. The solitude of the location and the lingering absence of other bodies suggest that, perhaps, his surrender is to us, an anonymous citizenry—the body of the observer occupies this territory only virtually, by means of the apparatus of the camera. Gronsdahl’s camera, in this case, becomes a paradoxical witness… paradoxical because the camera is always placed, and captures nothing by accident. But if the camera is the ultimate, universal, secular confessor to whom the artist submits—a stand-in for any and all potential viewers of its public record—then the artist operates from a position of abstract guilt, or culpability, or complicity. The white flag of surrender is placed before us, but not for us.

What, then, are the stakes of this surrender? They must be high, for no protest is made, no ceremony nor complaint issued (silence is, after all, reserved for the most profound of sentiments). The work’s title, and indeed the knot itself, suggest an ambivalent binding—neither tight nor loose, the band is formed efficiently but gently around the tree, and the branch bows in submission to the hands’ ministrations. It continues to sway, tentatively, after the hands have left the picture entirely and it has been left alone with the camera, bowing in a subtle response to its context and its use as collaborative performer. The white handkerchief, for its part, is a personal object made semi-public, or at least unleashed into the landscape, and the tying of a marker on a branch is a way of sectioning and owning a part of that landscape.

We should not be lulled too easily, however, into thinking of this work as an expression of abject shame; it is far more ambivalent than that. Invoking Canadian landscape as he does, and given his position as a white, male, Canadian artist, Gronsdahl is, perhaps, surrendering to Canada, as construct or context or concept, without apologizing for it. His hoser-hip costuming suggests middle-class North American privilege, while he engages in a nearly anonymous declaration of reclamation and relegation—a thankless and, dare I say, almost pointless action that refers to larger political narratives of race, belonging, and Grand National Identity (if only with tongue firmly in cheek). The ambivalent elegance of Gronsdahl’s gesture is that it is as much a literal marking of territory as it is a signifier of surrender; the swatch with which he binds the tree is itself the indication of his giving it up.

Becoming Book, 2013

Becoming Book - Dunlop Art Gallery. Jan 19 - March 17, 2013


Becoming Book - Dunlop Art Gallery. Jan 19 - March 17, 2013Becoming Book - Dunlop Art Gallery. Jan 19 - March 17, 2013

Troy Gronsdahl, Lee Henderson and Éve K. Tremblay
Organized by the Dunlop Art Gallery
November 3, 2012 to January 10, 2013
Curated by Blair Fornwald

Dunlop Art Gallery, RPL Sherwood Village Branch, 6121 Rochdale Boulevard
Opening Reception and Artist Talk: Saturday, January 19 at 1:00 pm

Held in conjunction with Freedom to Read Week (February 24 to March 2) Becoming Book investigates the relationship between readers, writers, publishers, and censors as embodied through the physicality of the book. Each artist in Becoming Book engages in an active dialogue with the printed word, assuming a role more “writerly” than “readerly.” The artists’ subjective readings of classic literary and political texts in turn create new “texts” that assume various forms. The artists draw upon the contents of the published text, its interpreted meaning as applied by the reader, and social and political circumstances surrounding its writing, publication, dissemination, and effect on a social body of readers.

The exhibition features the work of three artists: Troy Gronsdahl from Saskatoon, Lee Henderson from Toronto, and Éve K. Tremblay, who is based between Berlin, New York, and Montreal. Troy Gronsdahl’s Make Way for Magic! Make Way for Objective Mysteries! cites Refuse Global, Les Automatistes’ anti-establishment and anti-religious manifesto. The emphatic call to political action present in this text is absent in Gronsdahl’s eloquently simple, if not melancholic gesture: the words “magic” and “objective mysteries” have been lifted from the manifesto and embossed and debossed on stacks of white paper. Gronsdahl then melted the metal letterpress type, forming a “magic” blob and a blob of “objective mysteries,” as if these properties are inherent in the words themselves. Lee Henderson’s Refinement Pavilion series is comprised of books that were published posthumously, against the author’s wishes. The artist has acquired rare and valuable first editions of classic literary texts, including Vladimir Nabakov’s Laura and Franz Kafka’s The Trial. Refusing to read them, Henderson has had the books cremated, sealing their ashes in urns, in a poetics attempt to fulfill the deceased’s wishes. Finally, Éve K. Tremblay presents excerpts from an ongoing project titled Becoming Fahrenheit 451, where she has been attempting to memorize Ray Bradbury’s famous anti-censorship text in its entirety, thereby becoming one of his fictitious “book people.”

Back and Gone, Blackflash Magazine

Troy Gronsdahl’s installation “back and gone” is, as David LaRiviere describes in his essay on the work, a pursuit of the sense of vulnerability. It is true that the work continues Gronsdahl’s exploration and exposure of human frailty and vulnerability, with himself and his family and friends as the common subject of the exploration. Both as a visual artist and rap artist Soso, Gronsdahl pushes the audiences’ limits of comfort in their exposure to human imperfections, vulnerability and loss. In the work “back and gone” Gronsdahl takes this exploration to a new level by putting the viewer into a controlled environment that has the potential to elicit comfort or distress.

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Back and Gone (essay)

For some time now Troy Gronsdahl has pursued a sense of vulnerability in his artistic practice, the kind of visceral reckoning that establishes eye contact, and one in which the interlocutor is forced to acknowledge and deal with the compromised state of his subject. the generosity of mechanics (is not well documented), for example, is a short video work from 2008 in which we encounter a man standing quietly before the camera exhibiting forbearance in the face of persistent tremors endemic to Parkinson’s disease. The key word here may well be “encounter”, which generally connotes an unexpected meeting, one that may even entail a confrontation of sorts. The particular character of Gronsdahl’s preferred encounter is important because it is not constituted out of a confrontation with the subject so much as it is an internal confrontation with our own attitudes and insecurities. As we find this man standing before us, with no soundtrack to offer narrative refuge, we must deal with the humanity of the situation in a manner that transfers and thereby implicates our own, human condition. This dynamic resonates in Gronsdahl’s earlier work as well, such as the 2003 video installation We always thought that she would be the first to go, and, in every measure as intimate and direct, the artist’s 2005 hip hop video project under the MC alias soso, entitled hungover for three days straight (don’t matter). These formative projects variously draw the spectator into an unarmed proximity that clearly raises the stakes of our dealings. Hence the vulnerability that is engendered is our own, drafted from a chance encounter with a subject that propels us into unexpected yet deeply reflective territory.

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Mind the Gap

Celebrating, with resounding exuberance, the wealth of talent amongst the diverse population of emerging artists in Saskatchewan, Mind the Gap! displays contemporary visual art by 30 artists. Comprehensive and ambitious in scope, the exhibition offers insight into the trends, innovations, energy and interests evident in the artwork of our contemporary artists who have mapped our province geographically, cerebrally and artistically.

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