In 2011 the Contemporary Art Gallery presented Flesh and Blood, a major touring exhibition of recent work by Canadian artist Shary Boyle. The exhibition, curated by Louise Déry, director of the Galerie de l’UQAM, was launched at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, travelled to the Galerie de l’UQAM, in Montreal and then to its final presentation in Vancouver. The installation at the Contemporary Art Gallery featured three new works by Boyle exclusive to Vancouver.
Flesh and Blood reflected the artist’s vision and versatility and included drawing, painting and porcelains, creating an installation that drew upon ancient mythology, fiction and fantasy in an exploration of psychological and emotional conditions.
A number of characteristics are key to understanding Boyle’s work: stylistic contract and ornamental excess, the mechanisms of seduction, an evocation of a weird, theatricality of subject and manifestation of social politics. Her examinations of scenes and subject matter associated with childhood and adolescence, in turn reference surrealist landscapes, fairytales, cartoons and illustrated novels that recall fantastic worlds or prophetic futures.
The Contemporary Art Gallery presented Flesh and Blood, a major touring exhibition of recent work by Canadian artist Shary Boyle.
Through drawing, sculpture, painting, writing and performance Boyle creates installations that examine a range of psychological and emotional situations rooted in a fictional world. Her position is at once feminist, yet poetic, located within dreamlike states. Tense with troubled emotions, possessing an expressive immediacy and poised between grace and strangeness, her portraits and ‘genre scenes’ read as allegories of the human condition. Their resolutely symbolic language raises bold perspectives on the present, revealing a conscience haunted by a consideration of the morals of our world today. Centring on heredity, sexuality and death, and the nature of our place within the greater animal kingdom, these conditions form a visual investigation into the complex links between the individual and society as a whole.
A number of characteristics are key to an understanding of Boyle’s work: stylistic contrast and ornamental excess, figurative exuberance and phantasmagorical presence, the mechanisms of seduction, an evocation of a weird, theatricality of subject and manifestations of social politics. Her examination of scenes and subject matter associated with childhood and adolescence, in turn reference surrealistic landscapes, fairytales, cartoons and illustrated novels that recall past fantastic worlds or prophetic futures. She updates the variety, excess and hybridity of the Baroque by insertion of a feminist dimension, exploiting the potential for shifting motifs and imaginary space whereby tensions are set up between individual isolation and the notion of community.
The baroque nuance in Boyle’s work becomes evident in her play between form and material, light and dark, image and narrative, individual and collective, human and animal, and body and soul. Sited between straightforwardness and splendour, while retaining a compelling ambivalence, Boyle plays with the notion of beauty as a means to draw us in. Her figurines simultaneously attract and repel, through both the familiarity of the object and of what is represented, and the technical command of material and process.
Boyle’s practice encompasses a series of interwoven genres, a network of relationships, embodied in both her paintings and sculpture. Explicit in the narrative of images created, these are amplified further by the fantastical qualities generated in her light installations and performances. Contrary to the constant spectacle of images that bombard us daily, where initial potency soon becomes commonplace, Boyle counters the risk of over familiarity by using visual codes from a range of diverse sources. She adopts freely from historical, aesthetic references including Hieronymus Bosch, Félicien Rops, Ferdinand Knopff and Otto Dix, to the more popular imagery of radical contemporary comic art.
Her figures and characters form a family of sorts. Also displaying an original and unique genetics, one encrypted in the artist’s choice of materials, the specificity of her techniques and their inherent meaning. And like most families, functional and dysfunctional members live side by side, harmony and chaos coexisting in an environment that shifts between the magical and the disturbed, from the real to the unreal. This dualism is no doubt what holds Boyle’s fictive world together: its main characters bound by conflicts, idylls, fears, passions and destinies. They are a community even if meaning rests in their singular forms.
By crafting the work herself Boyle sees this as crucial to her feminist standpoint, critically addressing the devaluation of the decorative arts — such as porcelain and embroidery — customarily associated with women’s leisure activities. Instead of working with technicians to fabricate the pieces, the artist’s handmade means of production is designed to simulate the exacting standards of expert industrial manufacture by artisans, demanding a mastery of technical challenges. Yet she embraces convention by studying the porcelain techniques of the great European tradition — for example, Sevres, Meissen, Nymphenburg — and familiarizes herself with oil painting in the manner of the Old Masters. By employing these forms we are seduced by the lustre of glossy paint, the brilliance of the porcelain, the alluring texture of tiny polymer miniatures, and in other works by the fluidity of lace and ribbons, the gleam of polychrome flesh and delicate gilding, and the magic of graceful projections and shadow plays. While the objects themselves remain redolent of the domestic, their formal attributes are used to engage and hold our attention, subverting expectations through that which is depicted.
Regardless of media and genre the works of Shary Boyle confront our gaze head on. No matter how appealing or oppressive, we remain somehow transfixed. The feeling that the gaze is aimed at the viewer is not specific to Boyle’s work, but here, if eyes are considered the site of expression, in common parlance ‘the mirror of the soul’, then they present themselves in many guises. Bulging, popping out of their sockets, staring wide-eyed, blinded, obstructed, masked, shut or deeply sunken, they have a hypnotic, hallucinogenic effect and suggest a troubling intensity. The variety, expressiveness and functionality of the multiple gazes pull us to back to question what it is we see. Boyle reinvents a form of historicity in which we attempt to seek our own figure.
This is an abridged and re-edited extract from an essay by curator Louise Déry first published in the catalogue Flesh and Blood accompanying the exhibition.