Robert Amos: Artist treads path paved in paper

robertamos.jpgThe paper sculptures of Morgana Wallace evoke realms of mystery and myth. At a glance, I assumed that an artist capable of this work must have a brilliant career in New York or Tokyo; a top-flight graphic artist, maybe, employed at a big publishing house.

In fact, Morgana Wallace is not from New York. She’s a rather quiet young woman living with her cat in Esquimalt and she hasn’t yet been discovered by the wider world. This is a good time to take notice.

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Most people call Wallace’s work “collage,” for it is essentially bits of paper cut and pasted together. The papers are chosen for colour, texture and reflective properties. They may be hand-coloured with watercolours and her previous paintings are in constant danger of cannibalism. Some pieces are folded to add a slight sculptural depth.

Layers of these paper cuts are assembled and stacked on top of each other with spacers in between, achieving different effects of relief. Down at a level of intimate detail, Wallace enhances the most significant pictorial moments with transparency or glitter. At the very heart of her storytelling, certain elements come into sharp focus — hands and faces primarily. These are painted with the skill and sensitive expression of the portrait miniature.

Wallace was born 28 years ago in Winnipeg and came with her parents to Nanaimo. After high school, she enrolled at the Victoria College of Art and benefitted from the teaching of Alain Costaz. Unfortunately, that school was then in a period of transition and, after two years, she left to pursue her own way.

The picture books in her studio give an indication of her interests: Greek art (“You notice a lot of my characters have wings on their feet,” she said with a smile.) and the striking poses of Egyptian art. There was a volume on heraldry and a copy of Robin Hood illustrated by Victor Ambrus, a favourite of hers since childhood. The paintings of Gustav Klimt and Japanese prints, both notable for flat design and pattern, have had their influence.

She admits to a fascination with Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo, legendary illustrators of muscular goddesses and Conan the Barbarian in the late 1960s. Ironically, Wallace’s only peers and contemporaries in this world of paper are to be found online. So far, in her fledgling career she has shown her work only with small local outfits that don’t keep regular hours. The Madrona exhibition is essentially her public debut.

A few of her earlier watercolours hang on her studio walls, but she dismissed them as not relevant to her current work. Bins of coloured paper scraps and neat pots of brushes, marking pens and paste surround the sunny dining room table where she works. Basically, she slices tiny shapes from thick watercolour paper with her X-Acto knife and moves them around until they fit. Her other favourite paper is a card stock with a linen-like texture. It responds beautifully to the sharp shallow creases she scores in it to give her forms a gentle dimensionality.

Wallace’s compositions are cunning. Her standing figures may be extended extra tall, like fashion models. They sometimes spill slightly beyond the edges of the matting around them. The deep frames allow shadows that create an engaging depth. Her up-tilted take on perspective hints at medieval illuminations or the table-top still lifes of Cezanne. These effects draw us into a fairlytale world, the beloved realm of pop-up books and doll houses.

Lest you think it’s all a bit twee, note that Wallace has gone her own way. There is a hint of manga, the Japanese cartoon world esthetic. And a sort of neo-medieval Gothic atmosphere waits in the wings of her imaginary world, but she has avoided those graphic ghettos. Recently, she created illustrations for a British children’s magazine, making a scene of a freckled lad camping out, his little tent pegged down and the campfire blazing. The beam of his flashlight was translucent tracing paper.

Let’s consider one of her images. A tall woman in flowing costume carries a small square stringed instrument like a geisha’s samisen, but closer inspection reveals red trousers and smart flat shoes. Her many layers of shawls and scarves are slightly patterned, the outermost layer subtly watercoloured and overlaid with cutout floating clouds. On her back, this woman carries a rectangular quiver from which emerge sinuous branches with leaves, where tiny multicoloured birds roost amid little prayer flags.

A closer look at the woman’s face — scarcely bigger than my fingernail — reveals her to be more like a First Nations princess than a geisha. Her heavy-lidded eyes muse on deep thoughts; from her ears hang cubic earrings; each feather in her hair is delicately carved, folded and set off with iridescent touches. Above her beautiful eyebrows are gilded triangles. Chestnut brown hair rises back from her forehead and cascades in spiralling tresses across her shoulders.

Inspiration, imagination, execution. Soon this talented young artist finds her way on the world stage. For now, discover her artistry in her debut show at Madrona Gallery.


AVALERION by Morgana Wallace. Madrona Gallery, 606 View Street, 250.380.4660, until Aug. 29.

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