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Elegies and Effigies
One of three essays published in Undercurrents
Elegies and Effigies (Material Remains)
Pensive, nostalgic, haunted and melancholyóelegiac emotions such as these are inspired by solitude and lamentation, but also by places, memories, weathers, abandoned, expired and washed up things. Such is the subject matter of the works by nine Nova Scotian artists selected for this exhibition.
The indexical trace, or the mark left by something that has passed (such as a footprint or an exposure on photographic film) which is retraceable to its original cause, may be employed by visual artists with or without additional mark-making to intensify the expression of ephemerality. In this connection I think of Susan Feindelís painting, Dredged; James MacSwainís and Irena Schonís photographs; Cecil Dayís etchings and Onni Nordmanís paintings with collaged lenticular plates.
Creased, cracked, and shedding sediment, Susan Feindelís Dredged is so experimental a painting that it may not survive much longer than the scarred sea bed it depicts. Composed of an over-sized colour photograph of one of Feindelís paintings of a ploughed field mounted on unstretched canvas, with a contrasting overlay of random dredge marks executed in sea sediment, Dredged reveals, in the artistís words, Natureís unseen order beneath the sea, ravaged by the sweep of scallop rakes. In its unorthodox hybridity, Dredged also represents the artistís determined engagement with her medium and her remarkable ability to extract signification from the raw material of the environment she so eloquently defends.
In contrast to Feindelís vast under-sea landscape, Cecil Dayís small etchings depicting beach detritus reveal the littoral as a microcosm of human interaction with the marine environment. Yet her ingenious incorporation of indexical traces is technically similar to Feindelís handling of material as signifier. The design of Tidelines: Three Sisters, Bay Roberts is only partly hand-drawn. The string and seaweed images were realized by pressing string and seaweed onto the soft ground of the etching plate, and then removing it, leaving behind a printable impression. What could be more expressive of fleeting existence than a detail such as this? Other relics, rendered by hand, include fish skulls and shot gun shells. Dayís compositions scrupulously show only what was there, but as she winds her black line around patches of flat colour, the artist discovers pattern in the apparent randomness.
The reorganization of nature by culture is poignantly evoked in James MacSwainís collaged colour photographs (Hands series) such as Bones of the Garden and Ghosts. MacSwain is an animated filmmaker. His symmetrically arranged sequences of images, each with a hand collaged into the frame, suggest the documentation of a repetitious, commemorative activity. In Bones of the Garden the open-palmed hand repeatedly presents the skeletal remains of small animals against a backdrop of snow and winter-killed foliage. In Ghosts, a different hand repeatedly displays on its palm tiny figures cut out of black and white photographs, against a night-time view of a city street. The significance of these mysterious, ritualistic scenes is left to the imagination of the viewer.
Figure and landscape are more monumentally and mythically rendered in Irena Schonís haunting infrared photographs, the Circumnavigating Venus series. The photographs gain their mythological aura both from the infrared film, which redistributes light and dark tones with surreal effect, and from the dance-like poses of the female models, generally solitary and positioned to appear as much of the landscape as in it. In Calling the Wind, for example, a young woman in a transparent wet shift stands with her head thrown back in a tidal runnel on a rocky shore. Her upper body is slightly blurred, as though in motion, and seemingly veiled in light. This apparition occupies the middle distance, slightly obscured by the graininess of this brightest part of the picture. Her white legs gleam unnaturally. The sky is black, the clouds are low and heavy; the scene is reminiscent of a Birth of Venus but much more elemental. It is as if the young woman were not human at all, but a nymph recently emerged from the seaóor at any rate, a being more supernatural than most figures one would expect to encounter in a photograph.
Nothing could be more unlike Schonís carefully staged pictorial myths than the raucous, debunking spirit and clogged compositions of Onni Nordmanís Winkiní Jesus still-life paintings. Titled after Sydney restaurants, Lucky Dragon and Sirenella are executed on grids of lenticular postcards (garishly 3-D renderings of Leonardoís Last Supper). As the artist puts it, Theyíre about the industrial/post-industrial shift in factory cities, and the incessant scramble for dominion over property, resources, control and prestige...Their metaphor is that of restaurant tables around which are made the deals that go from napkin doodles to engineering and construction exploits. He further refers to the contrast between the visually repellent dregs of a meal and the extravagant schemes of the diners. Yet when I face these paintings their intended irony fades from view, submerged in the toxic palette, hyper-active surfaces and frantic inventiveness with which this artist attacks a picture. As with Feindel and Day, trace imagery and/or detritus commemorate a past event: stencils of plastic doilies and the doilies themselves are present, together with lab and washroom symbols blind-stamped into the paint and a collaged sheer drape and lace tablecloth. In addition, the paint has been combed and otherwise texturized Ėpossibly to enhance its resemblance to chemical effluent.
In the paintings of Claudia Mannion and Ed Huner, and the prints and drawings of Diane Castonguay Rosati and Susan Wood, it is iconography (or subject matter), rather than indexical signs, which inspires thoughts about absence and mortality.
Like her friend Cecil Day, Diane Castonguay Rosati lives near the seashore and depicts her beach finds in prints and drawings. Often it is the corpses of sea mammals that inspire her most elegant compositions. In the linocut Beached (Sei Whale), the artistís close-up view of the baleen, printed in gold, black and red, is accurately observed yet because of its proximity to her eye, abstracted so as to resemble wood grain. In the black-heightened-with-white drawing Minke Whale, the skeleton emerges gracefully beyond beach pebbles drawn simply in outline, maintaining aesthetic parity between the curves of the ribs and the shapes of the stones. Because of its beige ground, the colours of this drawing resemble those of a toned black and white photograph, accentuating the elegiac aura of its subject matter. Paradoxically, Castonguay Rosatiís reductive treatment of her inert motifs yields undulating compositions full of implied motionóit is as though her purpose were figuratively to reanimate those lifeless remains.
Susan Wood practices drawing as an end in itself. She often combines collaged papers bearing random marks with intensely observational drawings of botanical and (dead) zoological specimens, so as to explore the boundary between the intentional and the unintentional, the found and the closely observed, the saved and the discarded. Her series entitled Janetís Heron, through its progressive abstraction of the birdís pathetically limp form, demonstrates the emotive qualities and representational license that separate her work from scientific illustration. The Found Birds, tiny detailed drawings on coloured papers, approach scientific accuracy more closely, however subtle disparities in proportion and emphasis conspire with the minuteness and fragility of the unmounted sheets to produce an effect that is far from dispassionate.
The poignancy of Woodís dead bird drawings is intensified by the isolation and tight framing of the figure against a completely uninflected ground. The reverse is true of Ed Hunerís diptych Look-Off, in which the absence of a figureóits stand-in suggested by the empty Adirondack chair in the left panelóis key to the nostalgic effect produced by the long shadows and the sun-bathed landscape. Perhaps the painting distils the memory of a summer vacation spent by the water. The landscape, rendered in greater detail on the left than on the right panel, shows a shoreline that curves from the middle distance on the left into the distance on the right. The shoreline and horizon are continuous from the left to the right panel, but the foreground of the right panel is broadly painted in a disjunctively hazy fashion, as if remembered rather than observed.
Claudia Mannionís ambivalent treatment of pictorial space is one of the qualities that make her work so painterly. Applied in broad strokes with plenty of impasto, the red grounds of her tiny paintings surge forward, as though demonstrating the viscosity of the paint were the principal event in these intensely dramatic scenes. Moving, Crossing, Dreaming: in each panel a solitary, almost featureless black figure roams in undifferentiated space, as if lost in a dream. Occasionally the figures are cropped at the panel edges, heightening the cinematic impression of frame succeeding frame in a sequence extracted from a film. Despite their small size, these paintings project a brooding sense of alienation; their lack of detail contributes to an impression of vast emptiness that is subtly disturbing.
Vastness, of course, is Susan Feindelís stock in trade as a landscape painter. In Salt Baths the vista is filled edge-to-edge with rapidly brushed images of the wooden boxes in which cod used to be salted. The impression of endless extent is produced by the low vantage point. This results in a radically distorted perspective which follows steeply angled and fractured orthogonals toward a vanishing point above the horizon, near the upper edge of the painting. As in Hunerís work, the effect is rendered nostalgicóor rather, elegiacóby the absence of any figure, even fish. Feindel comments that her painting offers mournful praise for the once over-productive cod fishery. Appearing through its minimal detail and thin paint layer to be already fading from view, Salt Boxes brings to a fitting conclusion this discussion of elegies and effigies.