An Interview with Diana Thorneycroft

Photo: Michael Boss, 2015

Winnipeg artist Diana Thorneycroft, recipient of the 2016 Manitoba Arts Award of Distinction, may be the master of the double take.

At first glance, her images appear endearing, whimsical, even bucolic. Move in closer, however, and what you see may shock, alarm, or make you laugh out loud. Her photographs, sculptures and multimedia works are frequently sinister, dark and controversial. At other times, they are a wry commentary on human nature.

Thorneycroft was born in Alberta, but because her father was a pilot in the Canadian Armed Forces, her family frequently moved. While her father was stationed in Yellowknife, she applied to the University of Manitoba, where she earned a BFA in 1979. In 1980, she attended the University of Wisconsin to major in printmaking.

Today, Thorneycroft lives and works in Winnipeg. She creates dreamlike, often disturbing works that explore sexuality, memory, society and relationships. Thorneycroft has exhibited around the world, and in Canada at venues including the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, and the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography (now part of the Canadian Photography Institute of the National Gallery of Canada), which owns a number of her works. 

She cites her early influences as Georgia O’Keeffe, Louise Bourgeois, Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Brueghel the Elder. She says her art practice shifted in the mid-1980s, when a friend showed her a book called Joel-Peter Witkin: Forty Photographs, leading her to start using a camera.

This year Thorneycroft received the 2016 Manitoba Arts Award of Distinction, presented by the Manitoba Arts Council to a Manitoba artist who has reached the highest level of excellence and long-term achievement. The award includes a $30,000 cash prize.

Most recently, Thorneycroft explored the “human condition” through an installation entitled Herd. In that work, 150 plastic toy horses in various postures, manipulations and alterations ascend a 12-metre ramp.

In this interview with NGC Magazine, Diana Thorneycroft talks about her creative process, the frequently controversial results, and why she never sets out to deliberately shock or offend.


Diana Thorneycroft, Untitled (Bridle), 1998, silver print, 71.1 x 61 cm. Courtesy of the artist

NGC Magazine: Bodies — human, animal, bird, fish — are a continuing creative inspiration for you. What is it about bodies that draws and inspires you?

Diana Thorneycroft: I am interested in pathology and the remarkable array of bodies that exist in our world. In the 1990s, I was making work that simulated the body in pain and used — for the most part — my own body as the object and subject of my photographs. Beginning in 2000, the content of my work shifted, and the human form was replaced with surrogates: rabbit carcasses, dolls, action figurines, and plastic toy horses.

NGCM: What is it you particularly like about imperfect bodies? Is there a certain beauty in that imperfection or so-called “disability?” 

DT: I have always admired difference and have appreciated the complex issues surrounding any body that has been classified (often wrongly) as abnormal.

NGCM: While you see beauty in those imperfections, you also frequently take a benign or cute object or a “pretty” human facial feature (smiling lips, for example), and see something sinister. Can you explain what you are exploring in those works?

DT: I think you are specifically referring to The Doll Mouth Series, which was a suite of analog photographs I made in 2005. Many people assumed the dolls' mouths had been tampered with prior to their documentation, or were subsequently altered in Photoshop. When photographing them, I simply isolated the dolls' mouths, and by doing so, their innocence and cuteness was lost and replaced with something sexual and sinister. When enlarged to 40 x 40 inches, some of the mouths of these little-girl toys became sexually charged, while others transformed into hyper-grotesque holes as they revealed the scratches, dirt and grime of everyday use. 

Diana Thorneycroft, Doll Mouth (pout), 2005, C-print, 101.6 x 101.6 cm. Courtesy of the artist

NGCM: You have said your work often gets you “into trouble.” How?

DT: As I get older, I'm beginning to figure things out; but earlier in my career, I was very naive when it came to anticipating audience response to my work. For example, in 1997 I had to shut down an installation because the smell of the fallen leaves covering the floor of the gallery was making people sick. My next installation, entitled Monstrance, which included the use of rabbit carcasses, was outdoors. I said to my husband, "Well, at least no one is going to complain."

The installation, subsidized by a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, set off a national debate about arts funding. It also created a s— storm amongst Catholics (for using the word “monstrance”) and animal rights activists. 

NGCM: In your practice, is creating art mainly about taking risks?

DT: I have never made work with risk-taking in mind. It just happens that the things I am interested in, and make work about, are viewed by some people as controversial.

NGCM: You have been named the recipient of the 2016 Manitoba Arts Award of Distinction. What does winning this award mean to you?

DT: Recently Sarah Swan wrote an article for the Winnipeg Free Press entitled “Artists must battle inner, outer critics.” The following paragraph touched on something I feel all the time: Doubt and uncertainty, for example, are never far off. The spectre of failure haunts every new effort. And the art world, for all its efforts to help artists succeed, can be a real source of  anxiety. Really, it is something of a miracle most art even gets made.

Receiving this award is a validation of the amount of time I dedicate to my work, and that sometimes I get it right. Manitoba is rife with incredibly talented artists. I also felt honoured and humbled for being considered amongst so many other deserving individuals.

NGCM: Some of your works in the National Gallery of Canada collection explore familial relationships, but through a self-portrait. For example, Self-portrait (Mother Mask with Dolls) and Self-portrait (Sister, Diana, Mask). Are you the conduit, or the medium in exploring those relationships? What are you trying to communicate about these relationships?

DT: In order to answer your question, I have to give a brief background about my family. My mother was a nurse, my father a fighter pilot in the Canadian military. My older sister wanted to become a nurse, but due to a gap in her education, had to settle for pharmacy school. However, she did follow in our mother's footsteps by marrying a fighter pilot. My younger brother repeated the familial role to perfection; he became a fighter pilot and married a nurse. Both my siblings and their spouses had children.

My parents, brother, and sister epitomized gender stereotypes, right down to how they looked. I, on the other hand, was often mistaken for a boy. When I began making photographs in my mid-30s, it occurred to me that I could use my androgynous body to explore physical and psychological aspects of gender and familial relationships. Wearing a mask of my mother's face, along with fake breasts, it appeared I was playing being female. Likewise, it seemed I was playing being male when I donned a mask of my father's face and a plastic penis. In its relative neutrality, my body became a conduit for ideas about sexual fluidity and bisexuality.

Diana Thorneycroft, Group of Seven Awkward Moments (Winter on the Don), Chromogenic Photograph, 2007, Edition of 20, 61 x 76.2 cm. Courtesy Michael Gibson Gallery

NGCM: You also explore the so-called “Canadian identity” in works such as the Group of Seven Awkward Moments series. How do you define “Canadian identity?”

DT: Although most Canadians reside in urban centres, the quintessential Canadian identity is inextricably connected to our geography and the consequences of living in a northern, rugged environment. 

In the early 1920s, a group of artists began painting landscapes that captured the essence of how we envision ourselves. In his book The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson, David Silcox wrote “we relate to the iconic painting of these natural aspects of our country as being part of who we are as Canadians.” Later on, he writes that the paintings have “come to stand for something more complex and comprehensive than what they simply describe or depict, and (that) they evoke emotions and responses that are powerful.” So powerful, he claims, that well-known images like Thomson’s paintings “are the visual equivalent of a national anthem, for they have come to represent the spirit of the whole country.”

I agree that, for many Canadians, these landscape paintings trigger feelings of national identity, and are viewed as uplifting symbols of our land — “the true North strong and free.” While Silcox’s concept of what the paintings represent is admirable, I believe Canadian society is not nearly so benevolent, and that our environment — the same one for which “we stand on guard” — is fraught with anxiety and contradictions.

In the photographic series, Group of Seven Awkward Moments, reproductions of paintings by Tom Thomson, Emily Carr and the Group of Seven are used as backdrops. In the foreground a fabricated set is constructed that contrasts with their iconic landscapes. The content in some of the photographs (such as a burnt-out igloo, or tongues stuck to cold metal) reflect tragedies caused by bad weather and poor judgement. Others, like Birches in Winter, Algonquin Park, refer to the complex and often conflicting feelings we have towards embracing difference in Canadian society. All of the images are intended to subvert the upstanding idealism the Group of Seven paintings have come to embody.

Diana Thorneycroft, Canadians and Americans (Best friends's complicated) —The Battle of Queenston Heights (War of 1812), Chromogenic Photograph, 2013, Edition of 20, 50.8 x 76.2 cm. Courtesy Michael Gibson Gallery

NGCM: Considering that your work has often been labeled controversial or shocking, what advice would you have for an emerging artist?

DT: My advice to emerging artists is for them to express, without censorship, their own voice. Never make art in which the primary goal is to shock people. If your work is honest and comes from your heart, you will be able to defend it, should that be required.

NGCM: What are you currently working on?

DT: I have spent the last three years altering plastic toy horses. Standing as a stark contrast to the iconic representation of the horse as an animal of great power and grace, the ones I have transformed epitomize the grotesque. When I began altering them, I simply covered their bodies with fabric, but in time, the changes became more severe: limbs were cut off, prosthetics attached, and new skins of various materials were adhered to the plastic. Eventually I started melting them in an oven, and as the heat drastically morphed their shape, the original “horse-ness” receded and a strangely beautiful anomaly took its place. In their disfigurement, they became exotic, hybrid bodies contaminated by otherness.

The horses are a major component of a touring installation called Herd. The inaugural exhibition took place at the Tom Thomson Art Gallery in Owen Sound in April 2016, and will be shown next at the Ottawa School of Art Gallery in Orleans September 2016, and the Art Gallery of Burlington the following year. I am currently working on a series of photographs called Black Forest (dark waters) that are also part of Herd.

While altering the horses, I began treating human figurines in a similar manner. These new “beings” have become the horses' herders and, like the grotesque animals in their charge, they too feature evidence of otherness and hybridity. The unfolding narrative in each photograph suggests that a community of herders has formed, with each character playing a role. What is also consistent in the photographs is the presence of a landscape: forests, beaches, wild gardens, and bodies of water. I’m interested in establishing a friction between the natural beauty of the environment and the questionable actions being carried out by the protagonists.

Herd will be on view at the Ottawa School of Art Orleans Campus Gallery in Ottawa, Ontario, from September 23 to November 13, 2016. Upcoming exhibitions include Once Upon a Time, in the Deep Dark Forest, on view at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ontario, from September 2016 to March 2017, and Oh Canada (I’m sorry) on view at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies in Banff, Alberta, and at the Strathcona County Art Gallery @501 in Sherwood Park, Alberta in the spring of 2017. 

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