MAIN SPACE EXHIBITION
OCTOBER 23 – NOVEMBER 27, 2015
RECEPTION: FRIDAY, OCTOBER 23, 2015 AT 8 PM
EVENING TALK WITH SUSAN MENZIES AND MARK CLINTBERG: NOVEMBER 21, 2015 AT 7 PM
HARE AND THISTLE is a meditation on representations of nature moved into domestic spaces. Paintings and embellished or repurposed objects play with the language of decoration and rework existing patterns, motifs and forms. Together, they open a new space in which artifice and nature are interwoven.
SUSAN MENZIES studied at the University of Alberta and NSCAD. She has exhibited in Canada and the USA, and is represented in public collections across Canada and abroad. Her awards include grants from the AFA, The Canada Council and the Banff Centre. She teaches at ACAD.
Susan Menzies’ exhibition “Hare and Thistle” is named for two of its core subjects. Hares and thistles are represented – but their formal complexity is a vehicle that enables other discussions to take place concerning the connection between place and identity. Menzies is intrigued by the populations of thistles and hares found in the Calgary-area. In Alberta, thistles have sometimes been categorized as noxious weeds, and other times as indigenous species. Likewise with hares, the population of which seems to be steadily growing in Calgary according to local lore … and there are (apocryphal?) stories about two hares escaping from the Calgary Zoo and reproducing to glut.
In their study of these two species and their habitats, Menzies’ new works frequently return to the tension between figure and ground. A white hare blends into Alberta’s winter landscape: white figure on white ground, recalling a monochromatic painting. The hare’s seasonal change of fur colour, although it has a functional purpose, can work to the animal’s disadvantage too. Because of winter Chinooks and other dramatic shifts in climate, Menzies points out in conversation, a white hare risks losing its camouflage: white figure on white ground becomes white figure on brown or grey ground. If camouflage is out of sync with climate, the hare’s white body becomes a conspicuous, graphic ornament on a field. In such a situation the white hare becomes a mobile embellishment, articulated at its continually shifting contours because of a contrasting background. That corrupts the neutrality of a flat picture plane (of white snow). In the case of the hare, to advance and to be “figure” is to risk becoming another creature’s dinner. To be an ornament, to be figured, to be visibly distinct from its environment, to be a figure on a ground, is a tremendous risk for the hare. The noxious weed is also identified when it is figured as discordant with its environment.
In a figure/ground relationship we could consider the figure to be an ornament. The compositional trope of a figure on a ground (followed by its eventual disappearance in the works of early twentieth-century artists) is essential to the history of western painting – even if we consider the flattening of the non-representational picture plane to be one of many adventures, or misadventures, or diversions of twentieth (and likely twenty-first) century painting. That thing we call the “figure” also appears in many non-representational images, because the “figure” is the element that advances. The category of “figure” is a typological embellishment too, one that helps us to grapple with an element (animate or inanimate) that somehow belongs but does not belong to the space that surrounds it.
In this exhibition Menzies is thoroughly contesting what the characteristic methods of painting are – and perhaps what modernism’s characteristics are – in connection to figure and ground. Her canvases are often a tangle of geometric forms, gestural and ragged strokes of paint, as well as more precise marks that trace out found floral and animal illustrations. Transgressions of the medium of painting are also apparent: a wooden railing on the perimeter of the canvas refers to a frame but also veers toward sculpture; various felt, linen, and wool forms are displayed nearby – some found commodities, and others hand crafted by Menzies. It is clear that the artist is interested in challenging systems of classification through the use of ornament and layering of image and material. The pieces in this exhibition collate and stitch together elements of formerly coherent and discrete categories such as sculpture, painting, and textiles.
Several mass-produced dog toys representing jackrabbits, the design of which is abstracted to the point that they have only two limbs rather than four, are carefully placed throughout the room. Although these toys are commodities it is immediately clear that each one is unique. Their mass-produced form has been altered and augmented by Menzies: some have been ornamented with white and black beadwork, referring to the seasonal change of regional hares’ coats, but perhaps also drawing our attention to the range of embellishments that humans add to their understanding of other animals. As these toys are ornamented so do humans conceptually, typologically ornament other species with terminologies, nomenclatures, and forms of classification. And to this extent the toys themselves are embellishments (or would it actually be reductions?) of the hare’s form. Humans also embellish or ornament other species when they represent them through images of animals and their environments. The environment we call “landscape” could be called a typological embellishment, too.
A weed is simply any form of vegetation that is unwanted. This definition seems serviceable still. Today’s productive crop might become tomorrow’s noxious weed. The hare one day might be labeled an invasive species, too. An unwanted species. Therefore, to be “weed” or to be “invasive species,” to be a figure that is distinct from its ground and unwelcome there, is to have an ideologically driven identity determined by others. Imagine the plight of the weed, whose identity is always determined from the outside and never by the subject itself. These definitions of unwanted other apply in terms of human social and individual identities, too. Likewise, the hare is “figured” and perceived when it does not blend into its setting, but instead provocatively juts out. This fricative relationship characterizes Menzies’ exhibition, which nuances our understanding of embellishment, and the dividing lines between figure and ground.
Mark Clintberg, October 2015
MARK CLINTBERG is an artist who works in the field of art history. He is represented by Pierre François Ouellette art contemporain in Montreal, Canada, and is an Assistant Professor in the School of Critical and Creative Studies at the Alberta College of Art + Design.