On Friday, March 15th, Deluge Contemporary Art (located at 636 Yates Street) hosted the opening of Drama of Perception, an exhibit of the work of three contemporary painters: Stephanie Aitken, Katie Lyle, and Shelley Penfold, all former students of the University of Victoria Visual Arts Graduate Program. Deluge, located in the upper story of Victoria’s original fire hall, sponsors the Antimatter Film Festival and aims to represent “a vanguard of visual and media arts in Victoria.” The curator for the exhibit is Sandra Meigs, a visual arts professor at the University of Victoria; Julian Gunn interviewed her about the artists and the show. Drama of Perception runs until April 15, 2013.
Sandra, how did the exhibition come about? How did you come to hang the work of these three painters together, and what kind of context do they create for each other?
I’ve been teaching painting at UVic for twenty years. I’ve known Deborah De Boer, the gallery director at Deluge, over the course of that time and I’ve always admired the way she supports artists in Victoria. Her gallery space is lovely and a really good focused space for viewing art.
About a year ago Deborah asked me if I’d curate a show of painters. She said she’d be interested to see what paintings I put together because I “have an interesting mind.” All three of these painters work in a way that is free of referential structures and strategic methods of construction. By that I mean that they form their images from something other than direct referencing of things in the world. Stephanie paints from her head, using her own made-up drawings to paint from. And Shelley leaves her canvases outside and lets nature take its own course on them before bringing them into the studio and then reads herself into them. Oh sure, Katie Lyle paints women, and may have stacks of magazine images and photos of women in her studio, but she rarely paints directly from them. It is more like she has digested the world, and then transferred it into herself.
Stephanie, Katie and Shelley were all in our Grad Program at different times. They are living in Vancouver and that also interests me. The art scene in Vancouver is not overwhelmingly supportive of painting, but I know there are a lot of great painters living there, so I thought this might be a way to get to know some of what’s happening there in painting. And that certainly worked, as I went twice to visit the artists’ studios. One of the artists is going to arrange for me to do more studio visits with other painters over there soon.
You note that when you look at these paintings, you “have total conviction that the forms . . . exist in the world.” I found that particularly true of Stephanie Aitken’s paintings, which often seemed haunted by real-world perspectives–partially occluded views–flattened into a plane, which makes me think immediately of photography. Although the forms themselves have a genuine immediacy and are not mimetic, can you speak to the subterranean role of mediated viewpoint in Aitken’s paintings?
That’s an interesting idea. Yes, they do seem occluded, one could say looked at through one eye because they lack spatial depth, also altered, as though looking through a fish-eye lens. I think of them as totemic heads that have no back or sides but that are nonetheless authoritative. Their flatness is their virtue and strength and everything good about them. Like a veil that has all the power of the kingdom behind it. I don’t see them as mediated viewpoints. On the contrary, I think they are completely unmediated. That is, they exist without the intervention of any other Thing.
On a similar note, your discussion of Katie Lyle’s portraits was fascinating. At a cursory glance, her paintings might appear to be rather inexpertly rendered portraiture. However, in your monograph you describe Lyle’s long process of “working in” these images, and closer examination shows evidence of careful relationships among the small geometric forms, the lines and arcs, that compose the features of these faces. So Lyle’s paintings are, in a sense, performative works–she is performing a certain kind of painting and also undermining our assumptions about it. How might you advise a viewer to approach this performative element in Lyle’s work?
I guess. Sure, you could say they are performative. Her work is a recording of its own formation. I imagine a beautiful portrait, an at-once captured likeness in paint, and a genuinely radiant young woman showing all her heart and soul, free of touch ups and fakery, at her most absolute real. Then I imagine Katie having made that portrait and repainting it over and over, trying to capture some fleeting essence of the young woman. I imagine that as Katie paints, Katie is also thinking about painting and about all we have seen of painting. I imagine Katie wants to kick painting, to rock it, to destroy and challenge all of our assumptions about beauty in art so as to get closer to the woman’s essence. So, the paintings are a mash-up of radiant young woman meets painting, full on. The geometric forms are new. I think those are very new paintings. I think that is Katie’s way of pushing the painting back even more into a kind of formal depravity that begs for its own beauty.
Actually, all of these questions may be about process and its relation to final form. It seems that there are two distinct stages to Shelley Penfold’s process of creating her paintings. First, there is the phase of putting the canvas itself into situations where it will become weathered and altered–an object with a certain independence. Second, there is the phase where her own gestures become important as she adds marks. Both stages contain random and chosen elements, but can you speak about the relationship of the two? Or if we want to shed the temporal aspect, the relationship of the marks on the surface to the features of the surface itself?
Yeah. I don’t actually think much about those paintings is random. I think Shelley has a lot of control over where she puts them outside, what the weather is going to do to them, what colours she put on them first or adds later. That is the main attraction of the work to me, which is that I can’t figure out what is random and what is chosen, so I choose to think it’s all chosen. Who knows why a sailboat got into that scene in “Fountain of Youth”. Or, why “Blue Lightening” looks like it has a turkey drumstick in it. Or why there’s no man in Mr. Mister. How lovely! That’s how the imagination works. No explanation needed. Also what I find fascinating about them is the play between the marks and the surface. Which is which? A pour of brown enamel is equally a surface and a mark. A scratching of distressed dye on fabric is equally a surface and a mark. Sometimes there is the odd gestural line as in “Blue Lightening” which is very much a mark, but there aren’t many of them. Just ones you could count on one hand. And that makes these grouping of paintings seem most basic or base to me, of essence to humanity.
“As I persist in doubt and knowingness, I am closest to my living perceptual experiences of the world.” That’s your comment about viewing these works, and it comes close to a Buddhist statement about using meditation to achieve an immediate relationship to the world. Is this a goal of artistic production for you? A goal for you, as a viewer of art?
Absolutely! For me, working in the studio is a state of mind that is focused on the moment. Making art is having freedom from thought and an engagement with the world through each and every breath of movement in space between the canvas, the palette, the brush, and the hand, the being. To get in that zone is to set the thinnest possible membrane of separation between the world and me. We become one, you see. Think about the studio as a giant meditating mind. The Artist is in there kicking stuff around and trying to get rid of chatter to make the one form that essential in that moment.
Looking at art can be meditative if the art doesn’t try to complete too much for me. If it is me who is completing it, then it works. That allows me the engagement of doubt and knowing that makes me aware of myself completing it and of not completing it. A constant, endless meditation.