Animal spirits: Three artists reflect on the natural world - Written by Peter Simpson

L.A. Pai Gallery
Nov 19, 2017 5:56PM

We humans have separated ourselves from wildlife, as we’ve tamed many animals and, ostensibly, ourselves. Yet, what a mirror the creatures of the wilderness continue to be.

We can see reflections of ourselves and our behaviour in the faces and the fates of wild animals. Do we see trust or fear, do they live or die? This mirror on our morality and humanity has been showing us truths for a long time, as seen in Greek myth or North American indigenous legend, and in the fairy tale creatures of more recent centuries, and even modern-day animation. These examples figure prominently in the work of three artists now seen at two galleries in Ottawa.

At Gallery 101, the artist-run centre that’s snug up against the endless circulatory traffic of the Queensway, there’s a joint exhibition titled Beneath the Tame, with Mary Anne Barkhouse and Anna Williams. Curator Lisa A. Pai writes that the artists spoke “of a hunger to apply themselves to sculptural work that is in on a more intimate scale than the outdoor commissions that had taken them over in the previous few years.”

Barkhouse, whose work is collected by the National Gallery, has public installations in Ottawa that include namaxsala, the wolf in a copper canoe that floats outside the Canadian Museum of History, and Locavore, on the grounds of Carleton University. For Williams, who recently won the inaugural $10,000 Fluevog Artist Grant, public installations include Bellweather, with a border collie herding sheep at the Longfields OC Transpo station, and Chase, with a fox chasing a red ball at the Richcraft Recreation Complex. (Both are collaborations with Erin Robertson.)

Anyone familiar with the work of Barkhouse and Williams can see the common ground of theme and influence — as did the artists themselves, writes Pai. “In a coincidence I could not overlook, each artist independently mentioned a desire to work with the other.” Hence Beneath the Tame, where the creatures created by the two women fit together as naturally as a menagerie in verdant forest.

Williams, describing her works, uses keywords such as identity, home, femininity, domesticity, hierarchy, strength and fragility. She casts Leda in bronze as a striding image of control, a sturdy axe in her left hand and in her right the vanquished Zeus, the swan, in white cast resin. Nearby, a bronze fox rests in a ring of ceramic thorny flowers, both sanctuary and cage, atop a box “made from 200-year-old wood salvaged from homes in my neighbourhood.” Williams is adept at using materials as message. Bird nests collected on morning walks were cast in lead “from the torn-out ironwork of Parliament Hill,” so a natural wonder of fragility becomes heavy metal, to contemplate “the impossible weight of each one.”

Barkhouse begins on the gallery roof, where she installed a pink poodle and a black wolf and titled them 99.6, a reference to the 0.04 per cent genetic difference between wolves and domestic dogs — a tiny variation that, Pai laments, seems “an unbreachable nuance.” Inside, in the installation Red Rover, squadrons of pink poodles and black wolves square off over a map of the proposed route of the Kinder Morgan pipeline from Alberta to the coast of British Columbia. Barkhouse also puts fledgling birds of prey and the legendary Thunderbird into tea parties and other familiar domestic scenes, invoking a cognitive dissonance between contented and contentious histories of Canada.

There is so much to consider in this small but seamless joint exhibition, from our human relationship with the natural world to our relationships with each other. It continues to Dec. 2 at 51 Young St.

At Wall Space Gallery, Drew Mosley has set his wildlife motifs in increasingly complex dioramas and, for the first time, on canvas.

The show is titled a Rebellious Nature, which suits, as he’s the more feral of the artists mentioned here, with no formal art training. For Mosley, a carpenter by trade, this condition seems to free him from restrictive notions of form that can bedevil too many emerging artists. His work revels in diverse influences, from the baroque detail in the blue sack carried by a rabbit in one painting, to the mid-century modern design of the wooden bowls that are found frames for his dioramas, to the omnipresent sense that his characters marched out of traditional fairy tales and into an animated film by Wes Anderson. Mosley employs his woodland creatures to contemplate their perilous fate in a world of indifferent humans, where precious sanctuary is usually framed by a protective darkness.

His dioramas feature animals created with exquisitely tiny brush strokes — it’s difficult to believe the strands of fur and feather are not real — and set into layer after exhausting layer of clear resin. His latest dioramas have greater physical depth and detail, and eggs are now a frequent theme, perhaps an allusion to the recent birth of his first child.

Mosley has done public murals around the city, including beneath the Queensway at Bank Street, but the paintings on canvas are new, and they practically glow with colour and life. An implacable bear stands erect as moths fly to the light of the burning house on its head. Another bear has a bouquet of flowers on its head, as does a rabbit, though its flowers are in a bell jar. In a painting titled Catch and Release, a fox releases fireflies from a Mason jar while another catches them in its mouth — or perhaps it’s the other way around?

Mosley makes work that is broadly engaging without sacrificing profundity. His art may be untrained, but it is not plain, and it is unfailingly delightful.

Image coutesy of Gallery 101

L.A. Pai Gallery