Shining the Light on Four Biennial Artists


Luke Parnell, A Brief History of Northwest Coast Design (2007), acrylic on wood, installation dimension variable. NGC. Courtesy of the MacLaren Art Centre, Barrie, Ontario. Photo: André Beneteau

If you want to see what’s happening in contemporary art production in Canada, the National Gallery’s Shine a Light: Canadian Biennial 2014 is illuminating.

The exhibition highlights a selection of the Gallery’s recent acquisitions of Canadian Contemporary, Indigenous and Photography holdings, created by twenty-six artists from all over the country. Covering a variety of media, they range from drawings, paintings and sculptures to photographs, films, videos and multimedia works.

In the weeks preceding the opening, I caught up with four artists — Shary Boyle, Geoffrey Farmer, Stéphane La Rue and David Alexander Six — to talk about their installations.



Shary Boyle, The Cave Painter (2013), plaster, wood, foam, synthetic hair, sculpting epoxy, metal, paint, glitter, glass, 3 overhead projectors on custom-sculpted plinth, photo-collage projection acetates and timer sequencer, 301 × 427 × 457 cm. NGC. © Shary Boyle (2013). Photo: Rafael Goldchain

Toronto-based Shary Boyle is known for a multidisciplinary practice that includes carefully crafted porcelain sculptures of fantastical characters. With a background as a photo researcher for magazines, Boyle also makes use of her sizeable collection of images in her collaborations with musicians, in which she projects images on stage during live performances.

For Virus (White Wedding) (2009) and The Cave Painter (2013), shown here, she has brought together these two genres, projecting myriad images onto life-sized or oversized plaster sculptures. In the first, patterns from textiles, porcelain, animal fur and skeletons shine on a female nude spinning a spider web. In the second, another collage of images — these ones related to historical and political events, and scientific wonders — spreads across the walls of an elaborate cavern, and over the mermaid nursing an infant within.

During a break in her work, Boyle told me that Virus was a first on many levels: her first large-scale sculpture, her first plaster work, and her first time combining sculpture with overhead projection. “I created it the way Henry Moore or Rodin would have made a plaster sculpture,” she says, “with a metal-and-wooden armature and a hand-lathed, tooled application of layers of plaster, then sanding it to create a smooth marble finish, almost like a Roman or Greek sculpture.” Then she added the images. “I wanted to see what would happen with the projection wrapping around the body.”

The process of decorating the white sculpted figure seems like a natural progression from Boyle’s porcelain work, and results, in both works, in a sort of Illustrated Woman: a striking female form with a full-body tattoo.

An ardent apprentice, Boyle learned the laborious techniques of the Flemish and German porcelain masters for her earlier sculptures. For these recent works, she trained with a master plasterer from France. “Plaster’s a very old material, and there are lots of organic components to it that are very compelling to me. It’s a slow process, and I get great joy from that.”

The reclining mermaid in The Cave Painter, which was created specifically for the 2013 Venice Biennale, is, like most of Boyle’s fictional characters, strange and mysterious: a white-haired, wrinkled, lactating mother. Marginalized people and notions of aging, mortality, decay and regeneration are of particular interest to Boyle. “Exclusivity and inclusivity have been a preoccupation for me since I was a child,” she says. “Things that set us apart, what makes us lonely, and what makes us unique. And I’m interested in the private world of the individual. So, often the disfiguration is not literal. It’s a manifestation of an internal state — the secret life of the individual. Giving voice to the marginal is something I feel really strongly about.”



Geoffrey Farmer, Leaves of Grass (2012), cut-out images from Life magazines (1935–85), archival glue, miscanthus grass, floral foam and wooden table, installation dimensions variable. Installation view, dOCUMENTA 13, Kassel, 2012. NGC. Courtesy of the artist, Catriona Jeffries Gallery, Vancouver and Casey Kaplan, New York. Photo: Anders Sune Berg

Across from Boyle’s installation in the Lower Contemporary Galleries, Geoffrey Farmer was assembling his monumental piece, Leaves of Grass (2012). For this project, Farmer glued over 20,000 magazine images onto dried miscanthus grass, and set each leaf into florist’s foam. The news and advertising images, cut out from fifty years of Life magazine (1935–1985), and strategically placed along a 124-foot-long table, create a mesmerizing collage that recounts fifty years of evolving culture in America. The Vancouver-based artist has described it as “a strange kind of history lesson.” Leaves of Grass was a hit at dOCUMENTA13, in Kassel, Germany, where visitors lined up for hours to see it.

The title of the work refers to Walt Whitman’s book of poetry, first published in 1855, which was intended to be a portrait of America, in all its diversity. “I am interested in Whitman,” said Farmer in a later interview, “and his desire to write what he wrote, at that time, which is similar to my interest in the ambitions of Life magazine and its role in creating certain mythologies.” 

The project evolved from a convergence of ideas and inspirations. “I visited Kassel in the winter,” recalls Farmer, “a year before the opening of dOCUMENTA13, and was standing in the Neue Galerie in the sculptural loggia, looking out over the park. There was a gardener doing something, and later I went down and they were tying up some tall grass. It was similar to the grass that I had been growing in my garden in Vancouver. When I returned home, I cut down some of the grass and took it into the studio to dry out.” Later, while looking through his large collection of Life magazines, he came across an issue on Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and started cutting out photographs.

Gradually, the project grew to a size that forced Farmer to call in the troops. “It just sort of began to unravel, and in its unraveling, it seemed to need a lot of people to assist in this process of undoing, almost like a small factory, or a film crew size. I have often thought of it as a three-dimensional film.”



Stéphane La Rue, For-te (2012), Russian plywood and stain, installation dimensions variable. NGC

At the opposite end of the spectrum, both in terms of location and genre, Gallery B204 in the Upper Contemporary Galleries is devoted to a group of paintings and sculptures that draw on Modernist precedents, including Cubism, Surrealism and Minimalism.

For-te (2012), by Montrealer Stéphane La Rue, consists of ten stained plywood boards assembled on the white wall of the gallery, the whole measuring over ten metres in length. In conversation, La Rue described his creative process. “It all starts with acknowledging the material, the light — everything the material can offer me. In the case of the piece here, there’s the colour of the wood, its grain, and its original form, which is a Russian plywood that you can buy as a square or rectangle.”

From there, La Rue explores the possibility of imagery, within a formalist approach. “In the formalist approach, they eliminated the whole idea of an image or representation. What happened for me was that, in spite of myself, there were elements of illusion that kept reappearing in my work, that I couldn’t control. And instead of fighting against them, I decided to work with them.”

With For-te, what emerged as he worked was a series of shapes that played with perspective. “You can see, in the black spaces, a kind of window that might open to a background. You could call it night, or whatever, but what’s certain is it creates a space. I’m playing a bit with perspectivist constructions.”

The title, which makes reference to the musical term meaning “loud,” suggests the relationship of the work to music. The shapes on the wall are reminiscent of musical notes on a staff, the whole work communicating a sense of rhythm and musicality. La Rue insists he doesn’t set out to represent music visually: “These are accidents ¾ desirable, fortunate ones.”

For La Rue, it is his working process that most resembles music, specifically jazz. “I can make and re-make a form many times in my head. Some musicians will spend hours and hours practising the same structure, but in every way possible. The only thing that is improvised is on the night of a show, when that bit will be, essentially, a variation on what they have already practised. It’s more in my approach that my work is jazzy.”



David Armstrong Six, The Radiologist (2012), from the series Brown Star Plus One, steel, polyethylene foam, plaster, cement, resin, paint and flies, 167 × 54 × 33 cm. NGC. Courtesy of the artist and Parisian Laundry. Photo: Matthew Koudys

Like La Rue, David Armstrong Six — also Montreal-based — creates abstract works that suggest familiar forms.

The five sculptures from his Brown Star Plus One series (2012) are assemblages of wood, plaster, foam, metals and found materials. Vertically oriented and standing on bases, the works have an anthropomorphic quality, and are titled The Radiologist, The Mole, The Janitor, The Pourer, and The Tailor.

Armstrong Six made the series during a residency in Berlin, Germany, where he was given access to a basement studio during the night shift. His works emerged as very intuitive explorations of materials made during these hours of darkness. “It’s a self-generating inspiration,” he said, while standing in the gallery space, “based on many hours spent in the studio, walking around the studio, generating my own kind of debris, in combination with things that I would find.”

The works are at times playful and even deceptive. What looks like bent metal or PVC tubing is actually wood that is carefully cut, joined, and smoothed. In this way, the artist is breaking down barriers between traditional art materials and industrial material or even refuse, “but breaking down barriers as a constructive force,” he insists.

The series title, Brown Star Plus One, comes from the astronomical term for a brown dwarf star, which is an aggregating star created by an implosion. “It operates as a metaphor for my own method of composition,” says Armstrong Six. “The sculptures emerge from the studio as a collection of my own dusts and gases. The ‘plus one’ refers to the mimetic function of the sculptures as a form of encounter, which is ultimately revealed by the viewer.



Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, Red Man Watching White Man Trying to Fix Hole in the Sky (1990), acrylic on canvas, 142.3 × 226.1 cm. NGC

There are many other compelling works in this show, from Indigenous artist Lawrence Paul Yuxwelupton’s key work, Red Man Watching White Man Trying to Fix Hole in the Sky (1990) to Edward Burtynsky’s remarkable photographs from his Water project (2010–2013), and Althea Thauberger’s 2012 video of a theatrical performance by psychiatric patients.

In a departure from past Canadian biennials, the curators of Shine a Light — Josée Drouin-Brisebois, Greg Hill, Andrea Kunard, Jonathan Shaughnessy, and Rhiannon Vogl — have chosen to represent fewer artists and to explore each one in depth, through several works in most cases, and with interesting links to other artists.

With more and more Canadian biennials on the landscape, including upcoming shows in Montreal and Edmonton, this is one not to be missed. Shine the Light: Canadian Biennial 2014 is on view from October 17, 2014 to March 8, 2015, in the National Gallery’s Upper and Lower Contemporary Art Galleries.

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