Letter to the Editor was, in part, an exercise in distribution. Fifty identical posters were produced with the goal of dispersing them through Vancouver in somewhat unexpected places. A print run of fifty is too few for a typical poster campaign that overnight aims to saturate the cityscape, covering construction hoardings, telephone poles or seemingly abandoned sites in broad repetitive swathes. Instead, Allison Hrabluik’s poster project was a subtle infiltration and slow dispersion.
What started in one of the Contemporary Art Gallery’s twelve street front windows slowly spread out over the course of two months. In this time frame, the artist personally approached small businesses, asking them to hang a poster from inside their front windows. Hrabluik selected common use businesses, from pet stores to insurance offices, based on their physical environment, choosing places that she felt would be a vivid contrast to the poster. It was important that all the posters were hung on the inside, making it clear that the businesses had agreed, and independently made a choice to hang Hrabluik’s poster in their windows. As part of the interior, no matter how many different types of aesthetic tastes the artist attempts to negotiate, the posters took on the personality of each place. They stood out in an intended contrast, but also blended in as part of the designed interior.
The posters themselves are both peculiar and commonplace. Oddly familiar might be an apt description. Cut out images of dolls, animals, bugs and twigs are collaged together over a concentrated black background. The artist culled the images from broad web searches some of which she reproduced as watercolour paintings while others she left in photographic form. Typical to the form of collage, Hrabluik used the juxtaposition of unrelated but recognizable images to destabilize what is familiar: a baby doll is perched next to a nestling raccoon; a fish sits under a dry log, and a portrait of a bearded man is miniaturized and tucked behind a porcelain figurine. But what are more peculiar than these combinations are her individual selections. The content at first appears sweet, but turns aggressive, all the animals are dead and the children are all looking at us. The animals, from fox to fowl, are taxidermies, even a yellow octopus is encased in a resin cube. The dolls are all porcelain white, rosy cheeked, expressionless, and lace wearing Victorians. And then there is the lone stone-faced brown suited longhaired male figure.
For Hrabluik the collage format comes from her attempt to bring the narrative format on to one plane, applying a singular surface to complex narrative elements. She has typically worked with a singular focused narrative. Her early film works are labour intensive stop animations that reconstruct single moments, depicting a place, simple actions or imagined situations. Some of her recreations are rather banal as in Lofoten Islands, Norway where a man backs up a tractor, or are more complicated representations like Niagara Street, which is an imagined portrayal of what could be happening in the abattoir next door to Hrabluik’s studio.
Like most of Hrabluik’s early narratives, which try to recreate her experience of a place and time, real or imagined, Letter to the Editor recounted her visit to a shop she happened to visit while in The Hague in the Netherlands. In this one shop the owner was selling taxidermy animals while his sister was selling dolls. Hrabluik remembers the owner as seeming unaware of the weirdness of this combination or the eerie vibe the shop gave off. For him, it was every day, but for Hrabluik the incompatibility of the two types of merchandise remained with her like ghosts, reappearing like a story or more aptly as the beginning of many possible narratives. The oddness of the combination of imagines of death and dolls could be the stuff of horror films, but the store owner’s obliviousness, his own nonchalance to the lingering impact of this strange commercial union as anything other than common, also resonated with Hrabluik, and ultimately, penetrates the surface of the poster.
The poster format is a break from her animation and video work. It was a moment of reprieve from the layered building of a narrative that unfolds in a linear progression and sequencing of images, and instead brought the narrative into one frame. Her search for multiple images and the joining of them together in a single collage describes both real and imagined connections. The oddness of the combination of unblinking dolls and stiff animals represents the unease of her encounter, marking something incredible and absurd. This part of the story is written on the surface, but what unfolded in the distribution of the poster, its ephemeral form and its humble placement in store windows, was more commonplace, reflecting the artist’s perception of the owner’s experience.
Even though the images were rendered on one plane, the narrative was still time-based, occurring as part of the process of distribution, which is personalized by the artist’s face-to-face request, the slow dispersal of the poster, the repeated viewing by employees, customers and casual passersby. Over time the pairing of images might not seem so strange. It may become to something familiar, something that can be read and used to build different narratives. It could be a storyboard that implies a cinematic narrative progression, but here the film doesn’t need to be made.
In collapsing all the visual elements on to one plane, Hrabluik has challenged her own assumption about how stories flow. A static field can have movement and reveal itself over time. The narrative progresses and is tied to motion, but images stay the same. Her intended meanings and symbolism are there to be read on the surface, but depend on the mode of distribution, shifting of places and the changing of time. - Jenifer Papararo