Andrea Mortson & Paul Henderson at The Blue Building, Halifax

By Jon Claytor

Everything is not as it seems in a new exhibition at The Blue Building called The Eye is The Blade that pairs analogue collage artists Andrea Mortson and Paul Henderson. On entering the gallery my first impression was of nostalgia for an idealized past that never really existed. I was hit with a barrage of iconic imagery from art history, seventies interior design, and fragments of Disney-esque cartoons. A deceptive game of twists and turns then began as each artist presented a series of mysteries asking for a much deeper investigation. A closer look revealed that both artists cut and overlapped their images in a way that obscures, transmutes, and reveals layers of meaning.

Paul Henderson, Heroes & Leaders (Father & Son), 2020, analog paper collage

Below the comfortable surface, there is a slightly sinister feel to the work. This is underscored by the exhibition’s title, which calls to mind Dali and Buñuel’s infamous Surrealist film Un Chien Andalou in which an eye is slit with a razor. Mortson and Henderson invite us to consider the violent aspect of collage where found images are sliced with the surgical precision of the mind’s eye. The contrast between the nostalgic face-value of the content and the act of cutting and obscuring is surreal and evocative indeed. But the fascinating thing about this show is how both artists, working in conversation with each other, living in the same small town of Sackville, NB, have made work that is vastly different.

Andrea Mortson, Liminal Late Night, 2024, analog paper collage using found printed material

Mortson is also a painter and it shows. Her collages almost drip and are infused with a painterly light she uses to create a believable sense of space that magically alternates between interior to exterior. Her palette of mostly pastels brings to mind a certain ideal of childhood lived in fiction. It doesn’t take long to notice that her pictures aren’t visions of utopia. Too much is missing. Where are the children? Where are the parents? Sometimes they are alluded to and sometimes even partially revealed, but almost always their absence is poignantly felt. In fact, their absence is specifically pointed out by dozens of hands – all of them pointing to what is lost and what was never there, pointing to secrets, pointing to dreams. Adding to this sense of foreboding are the skulls subtly pasted into each environment, and mischievous little creatures running and hiding throughout the collages, presumably up to something. Meanwhile, a flock of birds watches over the proceedings, providing protection from that vast creeping absence. You can almost hear them chirping and singing. Looking at these works is like stepping into a film where there is a mystery to solve and we can wander around the movie world freely looking for clues. I could get lost for weeks inside Liminal Late Night and still have more to discover.

Paul Henderson, Eternity Mongers, 2023, analog paper collage

Henderson has a graphic designer’s sense of form and composition that he combines with wickedly playful and slyly mischievous imagery. His collages wander through a particular version of history and culture that quickly finds a dark undercurrent. Every inch of these magazine-sized works is packed with information. Where Mortson’s collages ask us to pay attention to what isn’t there, Henderson’s ask us to name what is there. Fragments of toxic masculinity, weapons, war horses, chains, and skulls beside glimpses of old paintings from the patriarchal canon and snippets of popular culture overlayed with bright shocks of colour and cartoon elements. These collages aren’t so much mysteries as case studies, a psychological excavation that works on the audience like a Rorschach test. Consider, for example, Eternity Mongers, an image of two Victorian-era men in a gloomy room standing side by side, physically and mentally joined by a shared giant cartoon monster head. What plans are they making? Are they devilish? Are they funny or terrifying? Each of Henderson’s images has a message or intent beyond craft, design and humour, but it’s up to the viewer to decide what it is and what it means to them.

Andrea Mortson, Sameness, 2024, analog paper collage using found printed material

In both Mortson and Henderson’s work we are given an invitation to peek behind the crumbling facade of cultural expectations and history to draw our own conclusions. What I see (or don’t see) has as much to do with my own particular point of view as with the artists’. That is the magic of collage. It is a dialogue between artists, images, and the audience. The juxtapositions are deliberate and considered, but ultimately they invite us to solve a mystery. And each viewer will put the clues together differently.

Note: The exhibition opening has been postponed until February 10 from 6 to 8pm.

Andrea Mortson & Paul Henderson: The Eye is the Blade continues until March.
The Blue Building: https://www.thebluebuilding.ca/
The gallery is accessible.

Jon Claytor is an artist living and working in Sackville, New Brunswick.