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Based on a True Story | Shanell Papp | Gallery 1

September 9th - October 28th, 2016

Shanell Papp, (l-r) The Figure in white Yarn, thread, mannequin, glass eyes, resin, fake finger nails, beads - Crochet, Knitting, Weaving, Sewing 2015 - 2016, The Lunatic Rope, fur, beads - crochet, sewing 2016.

A Terrifying Yarn

By David Dyck

“There are known knowns. There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don't know.”

-Donald Rumsfeld (former secretary of defense, USA)

We are in a constant struggle to comprehend the shades of meaning between what is true and false. How do you know that you're awake and not dreaming? This question goes back to Plato's Allegory of the Cave and the question of whether our perception of what is real is real, or just a projection. These perceptions have a very real consequence in terms of people's lives. In criminal cases, for example, the widely followed case of Steven Avery dramatized in the popular Netflix series Making a Murderer, the credibility of one side of the story is skewed in particular ways.

Shannell Papp’s exhibition Based on a True Story draws its title from the opening credits of countless television shows, movies and books. This introduction lends legitimacy to the story that follows, putting viewers in a specific frame of mind. Here, viewers are left to piece together a story of what has transpired. One reason Papp is interested in horror is that it “often has a root in a true story, a genuine connection to real life events. To things that are as real as you and I…horror stories are lighter interpretations of real stories…sometimes the important details of the story continue and other times not.”1 As with any claim of truth, it is up to us to decide if we can believe it.

In his essay Vectors of Melancholy, film theorist Peter Wollen notes that the “peculiarity of the detective genre is that the crucial dramatic action--the crime--always takes place before the story has begun. It is narrated retrospectively, at the end, rather then presented directly, in the beginning. Crime stories are always about memories and traces. They take place in a world of recollection and ruin, a world whose dominant emotion is always sliding towards melancholy.”2

Shanell Papp, The Line up (detail) , Balaclavas - machine knitting, 2012.

Whatever has happened in the world of Based on a True Story, the life-sized, The Figure in White is a suspect perpetrator. Constructed of mannequin parts, found and crocheted fabric, The Figure occupies a central place in the exhibition, obliquely visible from the gallery entrance. Crocheted severed heads are littered around, bejeweled blood drops falling from her silver fingertips. She has been literally caught red handed after exacting her revenge, seems quite ambivalent to any of our judgment. She has killed before and will kill again.

Hanging on an end wall, The Lunatic is lit by a bluish light, which alludes to full moons on foggy nights that are an almost constant presence in horror stories. Since time immemorial, the full moons have been cited to explain strange behaviors here on earth. Is The Lunatic’s strange gravity of this moon pulling all in the room into this depravity?

Three more Severed Heads hang on an adjacent wall, over life-size, with the appearance of black fluid oozing from their orifices, dripping down. On closer inspection, these are crocheted, and have more materially in common with a favourite blanket than with a severed head. Here, this textile work is wildly different than what is expected of crochet: something warm and comfortable. These pieces seem to be crocheted with fear. For Papp, “the textiles and horror temper each other”3

Shanell Papp, Based on a True Story, Installation view, (l-r: Severed Heads 2015, The Terror, 2015, The Hunting Party, 2011 - 2016).

Anxiety is a picture of a mountain that is drawn entirely with straight pins pushed into black-painted fabric. This is very labour-intensive. The pushpins relate to almost all the work in the show, with so much of the work employing a shimmering metallic surface. This is an inviting but also repulsive surface, one that asks you to keep your distance but at the same time draws you in. There’s more push and pull between conflicting ideas in materiality and concept in The Terror, which started its life as a rescue blanket - an object used to provide care for people who are in desperate need. In its current state, it appears to have been possessed by some sort of demon, all bloody teeth and claws with wild eyes - the last thing that you want to be enveloped by.

The layout of this exhibition is important: it drops us into a narrative that we have to finish for ourselves. From the start everything is slightly askew and off balance. Once inside viewers are free to move through the space in any sequence, in this way the exhibition is set up like a detective's bulletin board, asking viewers to put the pieces together as they see fit. This amounts to a forensic look into the mind of the artist. Papp’s ideas, materials and processes are laid out before us, like exhibits in a court case. Viewers are asked to draw their own conclusions and establish a coherent story, like a jury in a criminal investigation.

Shanell Papp,The Hunting Party (detail), Yarn, Textiles, mannequins, glass eyes, beads - Crochet, sewing, 2011 - 2016.

Papp has previously presented much of this work in previous iterations and ostensibly it had different meaning when it was in different shows. This is evident in the different methods of construction that are used to the same end. For example, looking into the eyes of the various figures in the room, there are several different construction techniques: large taxidermy eyes originally manufactured for Merry-Go-Round horses, and some eyes are made of yarn, plaster and resin. Papp says that “textiles are the best voice I have.”4 She has been knitting, crocheting, and stitching since childhood, this is evident in the terrifyingly convincing eyes staring out from these figures and severed heads.

For Papp, it is important to face fear head-on to better understand it. This is a productive engagement, aimed at understanding that

“there are similarities between us all, it’s important work to be able to understand others, and understanding what you fear is understanding the other…[we] all know humans are monstrous. Humans are fantastic, terrifying and capable of great things...but there is no justice, there is no truth, there is no magic order to the universe….we are here on our own telling stories to ourselves and to anyone who will listen.”5

An important message to hang on to in these times where unexamined fear is all too easily transformed into hate.


1. "Based on a True Story...," e-mail message to author, August 29, 2016.

2. Ralph Rugoff, Anthony Vidler, and Peter Wollen, Scene of the Crime (Cambridge, MA: Published in Association with the MIT Press, 1997), 33. (source suggested by Shanell Papp)

3. "Interview with Shanell Papp," online interview by author, August 23, 2016.

4. Ibid.

5. "Based on a True Story...," e-mail message to author, August 29, 2016.


Shanell Papp biography:

My work is a labour intensive research based practice. The work centres on gothic themes and the body. My primary areas of interest are crime, medical practices/history, horror and narrative. Foucault, Zizek and Eco share similar interests in that they talk about beauty, violence, social order, medical practices and media. I think of the my work as not having a specific political interests, but as being observational. The work is a fun house mirror reflecting the world back upon itself.

My Grandmother ran a Junk store and I spent a great deal of time in her shop, talking about objects, design, creating stories and trying on identities. I have no religious background and was never part of any groups or teams or clubs as a kid, nor as an adult. My family moved often and I never think of myself as belonging, I mainly think of myself as an observer.

Last year, I completed an independent residency in Banff, where I focused on the connection between gothic themes and the woods. During my time in Banff, I focused on outsiders and strange things that seem to happen frequently in the woods. The work touches on fairy tales, horror movies and true crime. The woods is frequently the a place where people go to escape and/or hide. I think of it as a place for those who don’t belong go to live, survivalists, drop out culture, mountain men, tree planters, loners, etc...I am interested in people that don’t fit in by their own choice and/or by rejection

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