Like a lot of people, I suspect, I’m fascinated and utterly engaged by that in the world which I’ll call the “neither/nor”. That is, I’m taken by things – primarily works of art, but also literature, film, theater and even the more mind-boggling realities revealed by science – that are not tidily assigned to very specific categories, things that don’t fit into convenient intellectual or aesthetic boxes, that aren’t amenable to easy labeling and categorization. I’m talking about the equivalents, I suppose, of littoral zones, those ecological areas that straddle the meeting of land and sea – areas that are really neither/nor – and which are, intererestingly, fecund with life. Nature, it seems, often prefers such areas; hedgerows in farmed areas, the edges of forests – all are extremely amenable to the creative process that is life.
In short, I like the things of the world that flicker back and forth between possible aesthetic stances (to narrow things down to the context within which I am writing), never quite holding firm or committing absolutely to one or the other. The late Canadian poet bpNichol used the term “border blur” in talking about literary work that that embraced and championed such an absence of fixed position.
That brings me to the work of three Canadian artists, work which has taken on the border blur – the aesthetic littoral – between image and artefact: Lynne Heller, Jennifer Angus, and Panya Clark Espinal.
Heller’s a Toronto-based interdisciplinary artist who acquired her MFA back in 2004 from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago before going on to get her doctorate from University College in Dublin. She currently teaches at the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) University.
Heller’s work (see www.lynneheller.com) straddles seemingly disparate realms, from graphic novels to photography to performance to installation and sculpture. Textiles often figures in it prominently, as does the aesthetic of the flicker. Three Cloths (2008) is a good example. As an installation it is multi-faceted, incorporating a video-projected element, but the piece centers around our response(s) to the employment of the kinds of patterns and imagery we’ve come to associate with textiles. It messes about with our preconceptions, in many ways. In the gallery space we encounter three long and low rectangular plinths, each overlaid with a long, rectangular canvas. They’re actually floorcloths, long used as floor coverings usually by those unable to afford rugs and carpets, and Heller has applied floral imagery upon each that are derived from seventeenth century Dutch vanitas paintings.
If we regard these as paintings, they’re of course mounted in a way we typically don’t associate with the medium, leading to some visual confusion. If we regard them as nothing more than floor coverings – as utile things – then why are they contextualized by plinths, and how do we aesthetically process the source of the imagery painted upon them? Does Heller intend for us to walk upon paintings? What takes precedence: imagery or artefact? What comes first?
Neither/nor. Three Cloths inhabits the littoral region that is border blur, shifting and flickering back and forth between aesthetic realms we’ve long cleaved apart so as not to contaminate one with the other, but never unequivocally settling into one. There is an un-ease to the work, a resistance to categorization.
Like Heller, Jennifer Angus too obtained her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago after getting a BFA at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. She now teaches at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, and mounts installations of her work around the world (see www.jenniferangus.com) .
And Angus too manipulates and draws upon the manifold that comprises the realm of textiles and the centrality of pattern to it all. Amongst recent exhibitions of her work was a gallery installation she did at the Acadia University Art Gallery in Wolfville, Nova Scotia in late 2016, but I often hearken back to her show A Terrible Beauty mounted at the Textile Museum of Canada in Toronto ten years ago, a somewhat labyrinthine space of small, interconnected galleries, and how she utterly transformed it. Angus works in large part with preserved insect specimens (such as might have been found in myriad cigar boxes of yore and as were avidly collected by amateurs – the great Charles Darwin amongst them – but also comprising hugely important scientific collections delineating the myriad species of our planet) which, in some instances, she has installed on gallery walls in specific patterns that often (though not always) reference those of textiles.
Now this is border blur of the highest order. Photographically (or from a distance) it is the image that tends to predominate in elements of Angus’s work, the overall pattern of or to things is visually foregrounded. We see the big picture (and I mean that literally), but closer-up, at a more intimate, personal level, we see and respond viscerally and aesthetically to the particular, to individual insect specimens – to color, yes (for the colors are intense and visually striking), but also to the incredible shapes and forms of these creatures, to what is akin to sculptural detail. Distance flattens, renders it all two-dimensional, but proximity foregrounds the artefactual, the structural dimensionality behind pattern, the aesthetic richness in her work.
Angus’s wall pieces engage the art of the flicker, inhabit the littoral space between absolute extremes, borrowing from and even pillaging both, but shunning the rigid, narrowing decisiveness of choosing one allegiance over the other. There is vitality and fecundity here, a field of possibles. Life.
Panya Clark Espinal is a Toronto-based artist who studied at both the Parsons School of Design in New York, and the Ontario College of Art and Design. Her sculpture has included a body of work entitled The Visitor in which she worked into existent artefacts – containers of all sort and vintages, like suitcases, jewellery chests, typewriter and wooden hat boxes, etc. – and reconfigured their interiors into brightly colored geometric compartments (a worn, antique wooden bucket, for instance, was sculpturally reworked so that its otherwise-empty interior comprised a series of circular containers evoking, of all things, the architecture of the Guggenheim Museum in New York – well, for me, anyway).
Of more pertinence here is her more recent multi-media installation Lost in the Wood. Plywood, felt, ceramics, and wool congregate together to create what almost seems to be a kind of cartoon-like image of a bunch of 2×4 pieces of wood leaning against a neutral white gallery wall and splayed across its polished wooden floor.
It’s trompe-lœil, of course, the specific gravity of a form of border blur. What Espinal has wrought is, in fact, sculptural and responsive. The piece-as-image is passive, a purely visual construct, but the sculptural Lost in the Wood is anything but. On Espinal’s website (www.panya.ca) it is described as an “immersive, participatory environment that acts as a completely unique and extraordinary meeting place, engaging with those occupying the work in a sensual and tactile way.” What appears from a very specific and narrow point of view (and I do mean that literally) as a two-dimensional image is actually robustly three-dimensional, comprising a table and seating area complete with plates, trays, cups and bowls into which one might enter and take part. It is socially and domestically and aesthetically mobile and flexible. It provides, and it bends, it yields.
Herein too is border blur.
By Gil McElroy