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Tammer El-Sheikh
Qui parle ? / Who Speaks? at the Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery
March 28, 2018

Qui parle ? / Who Speaks? is a deceptively simple title. To answer provisionally: the artists do, as women (Jo-Anne Balcaen, Krista Belle Stewart, Moyra Davey, Suzy Lake, Isabelle Pauwels), and as men (Ian Wallace, Raymond Boisjoly). National identities might further organize these voices – there are Indigenous artists, American ex-pats, and Canadians. But these waters are productively muddied on closer examination. The works on display at the Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery dialogue with histories to put pressure on reductive accounts of gendered, national, ethnic, and linguistic identity.

Krista Belle Stewart, Seraphine, Seraphine, 2014, video (photo: Paul Litherland)

Balcaen’s video Mount Rundle speaks to a landscape painting the artist made at age twelve under a nun’s direction. As the camera zooms into the canvas, Balcean’s voice-over shuttles between press-time, after a residency at the Banff Centre in the shadow of Mount Rundle, and her childhood experience of working from a calendar photo of it. Her commentary focuses on the travails of an artist’s career, in awkward brushstrokes, in barren studios at Banff, and in the stilted language used by residents there. Krista Belle Stewart’s video Seraphine, Seraphine measures the distance between her mother Seraphine’s residential and nursing school years, presented in a 1967 CBC docudrama, and her wary recollection of them in an interview for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Male voices in the docudrama (from a blond-haired date of Seraphine’s and a residential school master) resonate troublingly with that of the off-screen interviewer for the Commission. In both works, speaking positions are hard earned, bumping up against religious, institutional, and patriarchal authority.

The exhibition’s initial question leads to another: to whom do the artists speak? In Maquette: Suzy Lake as Francoise Sullivan, Lake speaks through an image of her peer Francoise Sullivan, and in ,OOO, Pauwels speaks through a disjointed conversation between a dominatrix and her cringe-worthy male clients. The men in the exhibition speak through others as well, and significantly through women. Boisjoly’s Author’s Preface combines freely associated text and image fragments divined from the filmmaker Maya Deren’s studies of Haitian Voodoo ritual. Speakers here are cast as interlocutors, ventriloquists, and conjurors.

A third question suggests itself: from what historical location do the artists speak? The most moving replies come from Davey’s video Fifty Minutes and Wallace’s Magazine Piece. Davey roves through her New York apartment, physically and mentally gathering books, photographs, appliances, and other objects of value. She speaks reluctantly through these aides-memoire to an absent male psychoanalyst “Dr. Y,” circling back to his “priggishness” and ineptitude to dismantle the tradition on which his authority is based. This symbolic “death of the father” is set against the backdrop of life after 9/11 in New York. In reckoning with the loss of these totems (the analyst and the Twin Towers), Davey leads us line by line through the works of little-known female authors who describe a 20th Century “age of uncertainty” that echoes her own.

Ian Wallace, Magazine Piece (Time Magazine, December 18, 2017), 1970-2018, magazine pages, tape (photo: Paul Litherland)

Wallace’s shape-shifting piece presents grid-layouts of a 1970 issue of Look Magazine and TIME’s 2017 Person of the Year issue honouring the “silence-breakers” of the “techno-feminist” movement. Zeitgeists captured in the two issues begin to communicate across a fifty-year gap. Odd correspondences pop up in the Look layout, between a picture of a man with his head plunged into the toothy smile of a killer whale, and one of a coiffed middle-aged woman’s mug emerging from a mink scarf. These snapshots of the 1970s “me” generation contrast with the dignified portraits of “me-too” activists in the TIME issue. The key to the work, Wallace’s Magazine Piece Schema, hangs nearby, its empty boxes marking out spaces to be filled by curatorial fiat. By Wallace’s description the work alludes to an exhausted high-modernist moment of abstract painting and its collision with the “psychic residues” of history as they are presented in the illustrated press.

Each September I ask my first-year students to think of important historical events that have impacted the way they write and make art. Overwhelmingly they answer: the internet. The question comes after a discussion about Emily Carr’s musings on more clear-cut events like the World Wars, or the death of the Queen. My answers are 9/11 and the Egyptian Revolution, and on the less epochal side, the advent of MTV and Kurt Cobain’s suicide. What makes the students’ response so frustrating is its patent truth and its lack of a definite beginning, middle, and end. We’re in it. I wondered how long it would take for 9/11 and the Egyptian Revolution to appear in artworks. In both cases, immediately after seemed way too soon. The artists in Qui parle ? / Who Speaks? maintain a sage-like distance from the major and minor historical events they speak to and through. In the gaps, they leave plenty of room for us to listen.

Qui parle ? / Who Speaks? continues until April 21.
Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery:
The gallery is accessible.

Tammer El-Sheikh is a writer and teacher based in Montreal. His art criticism has appeared in Parachute, Canadian Art, ETC and C Magazine.



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