Traces: Fantasy Worlds and Tales of Truth
Where: The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria
When: Opening Friday, 8 to 10 p.m., show runs through April 21. Artist talk with Barrow and Pien, Saturday, 1 p.m. Artist talk with Norlen March 23, 1 p.m.
Gallery admission: $13 adult, $11 senior/student, $2.50 youth, children under five free, $28 family
If there’s one way to challenge the bounds of drawing, it’s to set aside the pencil and sketchbook, forget trying to copy reality and create something entirely different.
From their webs of knotted rope, welded-wire sculptures and interactive projected stories at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria — artists Ed Pien, Alison Norlen and Daniel Barrow are doing just that. With drawing at the core of their practices, they’ve each suggested fantastical worlds — be they whimsical, apocalyptic or grotesque — by pushing beyond the traditional definition of the form.
But they won’t be offering a new definition any time soon.
“I feel the minute I say what a drawing is, I’ve kind of stopped its potential of becoming,” said Pien, who lives and works in Toronto.
Pien has created several pieces in this show that use drawing — and the lines and forms that come from it — as a starting point. In one case, it’s a ghostly video of a woman hanging the shapes of houses in an undefined dimension, which is projected through clear mylar houses that add subtle shadows to the story.
In another, it’s an intricate scene cut from a single sheet of paper: an upside-down tree with 12 figures hidden among its branches. In a third, he has drawn masses of figures and limbs on paper, bringing together some that were drawn a decade ago with younger drawings in a narrative of cyclical time. In front of it, a web of rope — lines interrupted with knots — obscures the view.
“I don’t discount [traditional drawings], because I think the more there are, the richer it is. But I think for me, the problems arise when people think drawing can only be a certain way,” he said.
He reminds his students at the Ontario College of Art and Design that there’s more to drawing than showing off technique through mimicry.
“In order for drawing to be as fresh as possible, you have to honour it by challenging it all the time, so that it stays alive,” he said. “In a way, it’s almost like if you were given a large sum of inheritance. For me, it’s the history of drawing. If I were just to perpetuate what was drawn already, in a way, I would be misspending my money.”
In contrast, if Montreal-based visual and performance artist Barrow is challenging the form, it’s incidental. Barrow said his cinematic performance art, which he creates by manually animating scenes using obsolete technology like projectors, are more about the story than the form.
“Drawing is a means to an end,” he said. “To me, the story of the cinema of my pieces is what’s important to me. So I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about drawing as an artform that I need to challenge.”
With four projectors and two interactive stations, The Thief of Mirrors fills a room with the story of a harlequin character who breaks into a rich couple’s home at night and robs them of all their jewelry and mirrors.
“He wears a beautiful and evocative mask of a sad clown and he activates the mask with his incredibly sad and emotive eyes,” said Barrow. “The combination is so emotional and striking that he can even seduce a mirror. … They etch themselves permanently with his expression.”
Barrow, who won the Sobey Art Award in 2010, will also perform Looking for love in the Hall of Mirrors + Thief of Mirrors and Winnipeg Babysitter as part of Intrepid Theatre’s Winterlab, Jan. 23 and 24.
Norlen also said she doesn’t consciously think about challenging the form of drawing. Instead, drawing is a natural part of the Saskatoon-based artist’s ongoing process, which is more directly inspired by personal ideas and encounters.
But while Barrow’s practice is about storytelling, Norlen said her work is process-driven.
“The process of drawing is very physical and it’s also a bit cerebral because things start to happen that you respond to,” she said. “But it’s not necessarily about creating a story, it’s about the act of it.”
For her, drawing is an extension of thinking.
“I think there’s an immediacy to drawing that for me, no other media has ever provided. It’s almost as if you’re just thinking at a million miles an hour,” she said.
Norlen is best known for large-scale drawings of architectural structures. Devoid of people, they may be inspired by theme parks or mega-malls, but in skeletal form they appear in states of construction or deconstruction.
Alongside examples of her large-scale works on paper, Traces also features two of Norlen’s “wire drawings,” including the form of a zeppelin, which she sees as existing in both the past and potentially the future. While the sculptures began as a way for her to understand form as she drew, Norlen now incorporates them into her practice in a much more crucial way.
“Because they’re so line-based, I see a really strong connection between the large-scale drawings I’m known for and these, which I see as an extension of drawing,” she said.
One of the things that draws her to the form is its impermanence. As an artist grapples with an idea, the trace of his or her efforts are layered upon the paper, or erased but leave traces, like scars. She said she saw a commonality between her work and Pien’s for the way they’re both interested in “what’s not there.”
“Drawing is wonderful because you can get rid of it very quickly and there’s always a trail of your thinking in the trail of the paper,” she said.
Norlen, who teaches drawing and painting at the University of Saskatchewan, said she’s seen perceptions of drawing change since she was a student herself 20 years ago.
“When I was a student, I don’t think drawing was seen in the same light as it is now,” she said. “Not that it was ever disrespected … but I think a lot of times there were discussions … of it as a process that lends itself to another result, as opposed to something that is endless in its own right.”
© Copyright 2013