After more than a year of being busy in the studio we’re happy to say that our latest solo exhibit will be opening Thursday, October 20th, 5-8 pm at the University of Calgary’s Nickle Galleries.
“A Natural History of Islands” is a SERIES exhibition curated by Christine Sowiak and funded with the assistance of the Alberta Foundation for the Arts. We’ll be giving a tour of the show Thursday, November 24th, 12:00-1:00 pm. It runs until December 17th.
Catalogue Essay by Christine Sowiak.
A Natural History of Islands submerges us. We enter an aqueous cave, a dark liquid realm lit by dayglow suns and an unsettled moon, populated by strange beings. Familiar and enticing but also disquieting, even horrifying, these beings float between our reality and their place in the landscape. At the risk of being literal, they function as islands – discrete and finite worlds of their own that are also connected, springing from a shared ground that, while physical, is far from defined. The gallery space loses its corners, its boundaries become ambiguous and in this uncertainty we are grounded only by our relationship to these figure/landscape hybrids.
These are the sculptures of DaveandJenn, and A Natural History of Islands is the first exhibition by the collaboration of Jenn Saleik and David Foy to show sculpture exclusively, set within a gallery environment completely engineered by the artists to tie hidden details to sculptural wholes, figures to their habitat. This evolution in the natural history of DaveandJenn is seamless, as their practice has grown out of painting, albeit paintings that build physical layered space instead of its illusion. Here, we do not peer into landscape or space, consider its stories from the outside through the window of painting. We become part of the illusion, meet their work face to face on visceral plane where ideas become flesh and stories, spatial.
I want everything to be a story, to have understanding come to me through narrative – “people have a very deep need, a hunger even, that may be at almost a DNA kind of level, for narrative. That we’re always telling ourselves the story of our own lives, or we’re forming the assembled pieces of our experiences into a narrative. So that the impulse to create story out of the raw material of experience seems to be absolutely endemic to who we are as creatures.”1
Yet we are presented not with the temporal sequence of narrative, but a space where stories interact and ideas are porous to each other – and there are so many ideas. DaveandJenn are preoccupied with the parts of narratives: metaphors and allegories, symbols and personal histories, their own human relationships, psychological truths, musings on all aspects of culture, studies of the natural world, and how all these things are created and where they clash and how we figure them out. Any one part could have its own narrative arc, but the ideas that fascinate DaveandJenn, draw them into deep research and internet connections, are presented in their work through layers.
We don’t see the whole story, but the bits and pieces as they happen to come together, the parts we recognize and those that remain enigmatic. In this way, each work is an aggregate – not a story or worse yet the illustration of one, but the accumulation of many stories. Or, in the instance of PAINTEATER / Thin Skin Thick Hide, compilations that form a sort of psychological self portrait. “The way it works for us is we are usually thinking about something particular, some big umbrella topic… Responsibility, connectivity, death, anxiety, love… And then we search out symbols and information on whatever that may be. Online is not the only resource but it informs the way we organize information. And as we roam the internet on a day to day basis we find echoes of whatever it is that we are focusing on in our work in other perhaps seemingly unrelated things. There is no work/life separation for us. All of our interests are connected as being a general curiosity of the world/people and how it/they work/s. So everything gets layered and woven together.”2
Because they are complex aggregates, the sculptures in A Natural History of Islands are both macrocosms and microcosms. It is possible to regard TAILBITER / I tried and see the Ouroboros, the snake eating its own tail symbolic of infinity and wholeness, and just as possible to see the rise of a sea monster crushing the raft held in its coils. It is also possible to peer into the weeping wounds along the serpent’s belly, to the fresh water pearls trapped in viscous innards, and wonder after the symbolism of pearls and so unravel the meaning of the work through its smallest detail. Yet what is impossible, is to look through both ends of a telescope at the same time – the micro and macro must be understood simultaneously, as one thought bouncing off another to create meaning along the way. It’s a conceptual process that is not easy to explain, and such a gambit would be more tedious than illuminating.
“This show has so much to do with resilience, loss and relationships. Three very intertwined things. And of course a sense of dancing while the world crashes down around you.
As an example of our trains of thought, this would apply to the piece Pretender is the Other Bird. When I am thinking of loss I might also get to thinking about loneliness and when I think about that I will also think about social structures and then this will remind me of what I have read about macaws and how social and they are… And then I will remember my budgie Hurricane and how close we were.
And for This Creeping Feeling: when we watched our coral grow in our old reef tank and we saw how fragile and interconnected they were and how they fought and helped each other or were preyed upon, we thought about our families and our friends and human relationships and history in general… Microcosm, macrocosm. Lots of echoes and off shoots.”3
Even though brought together in concepts of loss and resilience, anxiety and hope, the breadth of ideas and references in A Natural History of Islands is sprawling. So too is the spread of processes used in creating the sculptures – precious and mundane, traditional and kitsch, the materials reflect the content. Here, David Attenborough helps unravel how DaveandJenn merge material with meaning. Not the British naturalist and broadcaster, but the lesser known David Attenborough, Lysmata amoinesism, or rather the life-sized replica of the Skunk Cleaner Shrimp that once lived in the reef tank kept by the artists. The tank, a living ecosystem, was a consuming and sometimes daunting responsibility for them – a fascinating creation that brought conflicted feelings for having created a world where none should exist, given life while not being comfortable with being its god. The portrait of the shrimp summons this memory, rendered in polymer clay like so many of the components in the exhibition. It is remarkable for its versatility and verisimilitude in capturing many different surfaces and details, such as the texture of the tiny coral snake peeking out of the arm, or the bloated and blistered skin of the disembodied arm itself. Finishes and resins capture its decomposition – oozing wounds, vampire bees, torn fingernails once gaudy with polish. While it would have been a simple task to use this clay to represent branches of coral itself, the artists chose to build the coral, to grow large dense crystals on wire armatures by a carefully monitored process of heating and cooling a borax solution. Paradise is an island, a self-contained ecosystem of life, death, decay and new life – “The arm in Paradise has become a little biosphere, we had read Paul Rosalie’s book “Mother of God” in which he describes that being in the Amazon rainforest was like being in a meat grinder. Life and death just constantly churning forward … The blistered arm is a perfect home even as it decays and dies.”4 But the palm trees. The brash, glittering, tacky low class tinsel palm trees, grasped by the dying arm as both trophy and offering. The trees are simply another version of paradise, a jaunty perhaps futile image of a paradise happily oblivious to its own death and decay.
The body is prevalent in A Natural History of Islands, variations of human and anthropomorphized animals are the base of each work. But for the artists, the body is “both the individual as well as the stage for psychological and emotional landscapes populated by many others.” The body as a shifting landscape, and as a flawed and mortal container for cycles of creation, death and rebirth.
In DaveandJenn’s work, the body is also abject, a fragile and vulnerable vessel that so easily becomes grotesque, horrific and monstrous. It is the body of fairy tales, the carrier of all that unsettles culture and is therefore banished to the outskirts. Hélène Cixous suggests that “somewhere every culture has an imaginary zone for what it excludes”5, a borderland created for the freaks, the feared and the fragile, the bawdy and the obscene. It is in this way that I see a connection between this exhibition and the general category of fairy tales and wonder stories, even creation myths. There is a kinship, a shared imperative to make sense of living and the worlds we live in – even in a time when culture has eclipsed nature, and genomes have replaced magic spells.
Curiously, especially when considered in proximity to the spatial stories created by DaveandJenn, fairy tales are decidedly spatial narratives. They begin begin with “Once upon a time” and end with “happily ever after”, markers that do not designate fixed moments in real time. They serve only to demarcate the location of the story’s beginning and its ending. In between, time as the prime mover of action is done away with. Narratives progress through events that are independent of chronology, that are allowed to happen without rationale within that designated space, with wonder and possibility, menace and humour.
In A Natural History of Islands there is such a tender balance between darkness and light.
Certainly, the overarching themes of mortality, death, loss yet also resilience imbue the stage that is the exhibition with foreboding, with chaos and eminent destruction and loss. There is the sea monster of TAILBITER / I tried, a lifeline to the raft that ultimately blows it apart, the Leviathan and the Midgard serpent, and there is the presence of disease, anxiety, loss and death. And yet, the moments of light shine all the brighter for it – the fragile birds escaping the dying moments of TAILBITE / I Tried, the rather sweet transformation of New Suit, the fairly raucous arrogance of The Extroverts Have It.
In the end, I welcome this space where worlds and world views come together, where the body merges with the land, and where scary monsters are simply a way of figuring out why we are here. I like that it’s okay to muse on death and mortality, to see that death supports life, and that maybe we are all just too tiny as individuals to have any significance, and we are all of us fragile and invincible.
But for me, the best foil to this darkness, has to be Pretender is the Other Bird. This hollow-headed fleshy body, riddled with arrows and laced through with blisters and perhaps even worms, this sorry figure – he laughs, full throated, throw on your best sequined wing-cape, snazzy underwear, balance on a bit of paradise and dance your futility anyway.
2 Conversation with DaveandJenn, September 5 2016.
3 Conversation with DaveandJenn, September 25 2016.
4 Conversation with DaveandJenn, October 24 2016.
5 Hélène Cixous, “The Guilty One,” The Newly Born Woman, Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clément (Minniapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986).