WONDER & Breathing in China at the Art Gallery of Hamilton

By Stephanie Vegh

A sprawling exhibition that brings together local and national artists alongside works from the collection, WONDER: the real, the surreal, and the fantastic at the Art Gallery of Hamilton revels in the otherworldly while remaining grounded in the stuff of reality. In this space, it becomes possible to imagine new worlds from the scraps of what surrounds us and find radical joy in visual pleasure and escapism. This quality abounds in stylo starr’s Afrofuturist collages that present dazzling cosmoses of beauty ruptured by the torn edges of paper, and JeeYoung Lee’s Loveseek, a strange interior populated by falling petals.

JeeYoung Lee, Loveseek, 2014, pigment print

Serving as a literal portal into the exhibition, Stephen Altena’s Frolic Trellis is a flamboyant installation of flowers, vases, and figures inspired by toile wallpaper. Loosely painted and drawn on cut-out paper and layered in clusters, these fragments build to a celebratory tribute to the transformative power of decoration. The flowers recur elsewhere in the exhibition, including reproductions that visitors are invited to select and hang in answer to a question about what shapes our reality, with optional answers ranging from media to religion. However, the flowers representing each concept are far too similar to convey these distinctive ideas, resulting in an audience-made hanging garden that is charming but uninformative.

Robin Arsenault, Dancing Men (Troupe), 2022 (photo: Robert McNair)

Robin Arsenault’s Dancing Men (Troupe) dominates a gallery devoted to surreal presentations of the body with a parade of wooden forms marked by blackened ulcers that read as supple leather from a distance. Up close, their smooth polish and blackened stain take on a heavier, less inviting weight. This nuance of pain within play is sustained in photographic performances from Michelle Forsyth’s Improvisations series that break down the solidity of the artist’s body among obscuring layers of patterns, and earthen ceramics by Shary Boyle that sprout spindly human limbs from seemingly ordinary vessels.

Karine Giboulo, Hidden in My Drawers (photo: Robert McNair)

For all of WONDER’s beauty, its strongest works are edged with real-world concerns. Karine Giboulo’s Hidden in My Drawers embeds a miniature sweatshop within the mirrored drawer of a pink dresser that casts its factory workers into a false infinity. The small spectacle is an enchantingly damning indictment of the endless demand for cheap goods that often fill these dresser drawers.

Breathing in China: Art, Ethics, and Environment at the Art Gallery of Hamilton, 2023, installation view (photo: Robert McNair)

It is both physically and intellectually difficult to hold WONDER apart from its neighbouring exhibition, Breathing in China: Art, Ethics, and Environment. Guest curated by Yan Zhou, this group exhibition arising from a period of artist exchange between Canada and China reaches similarly surreal extremes in its attempts to represent the intangible yet deeply felt impacts of pollution and pandemic alike.

Breathing in China: Art, Ethics, and Environment at the Art Gallery of Hamilton, 2023, installation view (photo: Robert McNair)

Zhang Qungfan’s Imagined Gardens could have found a natural home in WONDER with its retreat to classical realms as a form of aesthetic escape. Gao Jie’s delicate line drawings of Shanghai during lockdown have a nightmarish quality that is heightened by the closely observed realism of these scenes, of COVID tests administered through chain link fences and clusters of figures obscured by biohazard suits not unlike the pink suits worn by Giboulo’s miniature factory workers.

Both Mireille Lavoie’s vast ink drawing Plants and Lungs and Ren Jie’s felt octagons represent the choking weight of smog as blackness dense as velvet, while Hua Jin’s The Colour of the Air takes a more subtle approach with hanging silks printed with photo-documentation of air pollution that reveals its many surreal manifestations. Wavering overhead between beauty and horror, these rosy-hued banners prove that unfiltered reality is capable of conjuring both our most elusive magic and harshest truths.

WONDER: the real, the surreal, and the fantastic continues until January 7.
Breathing in China: Art, Ethics, and the Environment continues until December 31.
Art Gallery of Hamilton: https://www.artgalleryofhamilton.com/
The gallery is accessible.

Stephanie Vegh is a Hamilton-based artist, writer and arts worker focused on communications and advocacy. Her drawings, installations and book-based works investigate cyclical histories and human impacts on the natural world. She can be followed on Instagram @stephanievegh