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Creatures from Sky to Sea | Joseph Anderson and Lissa Robinson (toured and organized by OSAC) | Gall

September 1st - October 14th, 2016

Joseph Anderson, School of Fish, second-hand fabric, imitation pearls, and ribbon, 2013.

Creatures from Sky to Sea

By Lauren Fournier

There once upon a time lived a young green coral who rolled away from home. She had been searching for her friend, little squid, but had gotten lost somewhere between her family’s reef and the edge of the sea. She encountered a fantastical jellyfish who lived with an alien-like creature covered in squishy red lip prints. When she looked closer at the kisses, she realized they were large open sores. Fearing for her life, the green coral rolled away as fast as she could before bumping into an upstanding school of fish. The fish sang as they swam in a group of eight. Their pearly eyes entranced the little coral, and before she could ask them their names, a sweeping wave of dark blue and black light ebbed across her line of sight. She was coughing up salt water for what felt like three nights. Upon opening her eyes, she was laying upon a bed of silvery sand. A large pink moon of a face peered down at her. “Who are you?” I’m a water-snake. Call me Jo. We’re both trapped up here, on the land. That bird up there, his name is Wishbone. I’ve already used up my wishes on these beautiful lips. Coral looked up and saw a shiny red creature glimmering in the sun. When she called up to this red light, a black crow appeared and night descended in a cacophony of sound…

Saskatchewan-based artists Joseph Anderson and Lissa Robinson have created a lineage of fabric sculptures that allude to fantastical beings from sky to sea. These mixed-media textile sculptures vacillate between playful, childlike objects and ominous beings. The plushy materiality of childhood sets the tone for reflection and imaginative meandering: what are these creatures and where have they come from?

In this group exhibition, Anderson and Robinson situate themselves as contemporary artists whose practices involve reclaiming media and methods once relegated to the domestic sphere of craft. Historically, this craft sphere — conventionally associated with femininity (‘women’s work’) and artifacts rather than art objects — has been considered a more lowly and explicitly functional domain in contrast to the more masculine and aesthetically elevated sphere of High Art (painting and sculpture). In recent years, traditional methods like quilting, threading, stitching, beading, and felting have been taken up by contemporary artists — including those in feminist and queer “craftivist” movements — who foster critical and aesthetic engagement through their haptic and materially accessible artwork.

The conspicuous materiality of this exhibition gestures simultaneously toward a living past and an undetermined future. Memory and the collective unconscious, on the level of fairy tales and mythology, intermingle with the all too human level of environmental catastrophe narratives and the corresponding moral imperative to re-work previously used materials into something new. The artists’ use of found textiles — second-hand fabric and deconstructed clothing — to create art that alludes to mythological beings is environmentally responsible at the same time as it is aesthetically rich.

A fruitful exchange takes place between Anderson’s interest in children’s books and Robinson’s interest in the imagery of female abjection and the body. In this strange menagerie of bird-like and sea-dwelling creatures, there is a dynamic wavering between fact and fiction, real and make-believe, fear and delight, innocence and sexualization. The creatures span a spectrum from the representational — feathers, beaks, tentacles, wings, and shimmering gills — to the ambiguous — like the unusual red orifice shape. These orifices introduce a darker element of the grotesque, an element that stands in an uncanny relationship with the benign nature of these works as children’s play things. The artwork evokes images of children’s arts & crafts, and yet there is an underlying tone of the sinister — not unlike the Brothers Grimm, or the history of children’s literature and fairy tales more generally.

Lissa Robertson: Sky

In “Wishbone,” a small red bird, rather dinosaur-like in its structure, is made up of satiny red ribboning weaved in a checkered pattern with an element of beadwork and feathery threading. Similar thread work is seen in “Plumage,” where the ostentatious tail feathers of the male peafowl are disembodied from the bird and placed on display as an autonomous art object. Here, the iridescent eye-like markings, an iconic metonymy of the peacock, form a more matte tapestry of gazing eyes dispersed with feathery threads. An analogous play with disembodiment is seen in “Crowspeak,” where a black crow mask is mounted on the wall. The dissonance between the violence of a hunting trophy and the soft tactility of the felt — summoning a startling, haptic desire to touch the object — is marked.

Joseph Anderson: Sea

There is an opalescence and formal coherence to “Sea Foam Jellyfish,” its body faceless, frilled, and luminescent as one might find it in nature. And yet the tentacles can also be seen as entrails descending, gathering at the floor. The soft corduroy spines of “Green Coral” form a pillowy object that resembles a child’s toy that one might hold in their hands or roll on the floor. Its short, colourful tentacles are quilted and segmented like the body of a caterpillar. In “Wave,” these tubular tentacles of varying lengths are

enlarged and become pennants strung across a banner, disembodied in a manner not unlike Robertson’s “Plumage.”

The alien “Sea-Creature with Tentacles” is perhaps the most disturbing creature in the show. Red openings that ambiguously resemble mouths or wounds are scattered at random over the torso. And yet, there are decorative elements: the robin’s egg blue ribboning descending from the head down to the base of the torso.

In “Self-Portrait as a Water Snake,” the regally positioned serpent has a misshapen head made of a mosaic of quilted pinks and two black circles for eyes. Given the placement, here, the red openings that were seen all over the “Sea- Creature” are more explicitly lips. Its body is composed of a long blue tube with red segments placed throughout, culminating finally in a short red tentacle. In mythology, the serpent is a powerful symbol of both good and evil, poison and medicine, often associated with Mother Earth as well as the biblical fall from purity to sin. This juxtaposition of pink, traditionally correlated with girlhood, and blue, with boyhood, evokes a fluid sense of gender. Anderson frames this piece as a self-portrait, opening up questions as to the relationship between the artist and the work while also alluding to the serpent-as-Ouroboros or self-reflexivity.

In “School of Fish,” eight mermaid-like figures with open mouths invoke the mythology of the sea. The sirens, an oceanic archetype of female cunning, used their voices to charm men to their deaths. One can imagine these mouths— constructed with the same orifice-piece seen on the previous sea-creatures — warbling a song of mythologies passed. Femininity is evoked in the satiny pink gills and orifices, and the graceful elegance of freshwater pearls; and yet, this elegance is juxtaposed with an element of boundedness, the sock-like fins confining these figures to a life underwater.

- From a pamphlet published by OSAC to accompany the exhibition.

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