Friday, October 2, 2015

The Telling Detail: Robert Tombs by Design

The exhibition Robert Tombs: Index. Graphic Works 1985-2015 is a retrospective survey of the design work of the Ottawa-based artist/graphic designer. Held at the Owens Art Gallery from 2 October to 18 November 2015 it will travel to the Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery where it will be on display from 2 December 2015 to 21 February 2016. My essay, "The Telling Detail: Robert Tombs by Design" appears in the exhibition catalogue, along with an essay by Marina Roy, a note about collaborating with Robert Tombs by Ingrid Jenkner, and a foreward by Gemey Kelly.


Looking through Index, one can quickly surmise that a good majority of the work that Tombs has done is designing exhibition catalogues for art galleries and their exhibitions, including the one at hand. [The catalogue for Index is listed as one of the items in the exhibition.] A closer look will reveal that he has also designed printed matter for exhibitions of his own work as an artist. As an artist and a graphic designer, he forcefully inhabits both roles and Index’s examination of his activity as a graphic designer, and its relation to his artistic practice, reveals a commitment to the notion of discourse within the public sphere and a continuation of the tradition and history of art. Sven Lütticken has asked some pertinent questions about the critical role that art plays in society. In his book Secret Publicity, he suggests that the contemporary art milieu has the potential to form a counter-public in opposition to the spectacle of an uncritical consumer society.[i] One could question this potential, and Lütticken does, but it is heartening to think of contemporary art as a kind of publicity that competes with everything else that is being marketed and is vying for our attention. It may not be a level playing field, but at least it’s the same field. Printed matter as elegant as Tombs’s should convince an audience that its subject matter is of central importance.

In her essay “Par-al-lel,” Diana Nemirof makes the related observation that it could be counterproductive to think of artist-run centres as alternative contemporary art galleries (or “parallel galleries” as they were once called), and by extension the kinds of art that they exhibit, since conceptualizing them that way serves to marginalize them from mainstream society, diminishing the impact they might have.[ii] Perhaps it would be better not to think of the history of most contemporary art in Canada as marginal history, but to think of it more potentially as overlooked history. As has been stated by AA Bronson, this was partly the rationale that led to General Idea’s creation of FILE magazine in the ’70s.[iii] It was a way to make a community visible to itself. The community was there, but it didn’t see its own reflection in the media. If no one was going to publish a magazine that was going to turn Canadian artists into celebrities, then they would have to do it themselves. Benedict Anderson’s theory, set out in Imagined Communities, about printed matter’s centrality in the construction, dissemination, and propagation of national identity [iv] is perfectly suited to the context of Canadian art history. An indexical approach to Tombs’s work in this exhibition serves to underscore his participation in, and construction of, an imagined community for contemporary Canadian art. My essay offered descriptions of some of the books that figure in Tombs’s production in order to define the contours of that community.

Copies of the catalogue are available from the Owens Art Gallery and Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery.



[i] Sven Lütticken. Secret Publicity: Essays on Contemporary Art. Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2014.
[ii] Diana Nemiroff, “Par-al-lel,” in Sightlines: Reading Contemporary Canadian Art (Montreal: Artextes editions, 1994), 180-189.
[iii] AA Bronson, The Humiliation of the Bureaucrat: Artist-Run Centres as Museums, in Museums by artists, ed. AA Bronson and Peggy Gale (Toronto: Art Metropole, 1983), 29-37.
[iv] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities. New York: Verso, 2006.

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