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Shary Boyle: Porcelain Dreams and Nightmares

Porcelain Dreams and Nightmares

Shary Boyle’s exhibition at The Power Plant last spring, “Lace Figures,” reminded me of visiting Birks, the jewellery store, as a child. I always walked straight past the diamond rings and silver tea sets to the store’s cabinet of Royal Doulton porcelain figurines. With their sweet faces, graceful names and period-piece attire, they formed a time-travelling display of idealized womanhood, from pastoral shepherdesses to Marie Antoinette clones. Behind their barrier of glass, they inhabited a gracious social world of their own, a refined female realm that just might exist somewhere in the adult world.

“Almost everyone has a relationship to them,” says Boyle of the ceramic forms that are the basis of the threeyear porcelain project that culminated in her “Lace Figures” exhibition. This built-in resonance only makes her subversion of the porcelain tradition that much more affecting: her figurines are exquisitely crafted and lavishly costumed according to the customary period look, but their surfaces are desperately imperfect. Many display wounds, cuts, bruises or worse: one lass holds her decapitated head in her arms, and another carries her own severed hands in a basket slung over one elbow. Some have limbs on backwards or have been frighteningly colonized by out-of-place outgrowths of flowers, branches or fabric (what Boyle refers to as a “decorative cancer”). In other cases, the figures’ opulent attire seems to have attacked the wearer, smothering faces or hands. Several display a visible flush, plausibly the result of being pushed and pulled into their stylish getups. The disconcerting distortions serve as symptoms of the emotional and psychological costs of keeping up the artifices of femininity, and the collusion between the beautiful and the confrontational underlying it all might be Boyle’s trademark.

Toronto audiences haven’t seen much of Shary Boyle in the last few years, and, though her practice has always been interdisciplinary, her confident turn to the three-dimensional comes as a bit of a surprise from an artist who has long been primarily associated with drawing and painting. (Her tiny, intricate, fantastical sculptures in polymer clay were also a highlight of “Fantasia,” a group show at Jessica Bradley Art + Projects that was concurrent with “Lace Figures.”) Boyle’s rich representational world, populated by children, flora, fauna, adolescents and otherworldly creatures, has always been too directly expressive to fit easily into art-critical terms. Her work often brings to mind illustrations from old-fashioned children’s books, and shares in their aura of innocence threatened by darkness while igniting it with a deep sensuality, moody intelligence and undercurrents of sexual and psychological tension. Viewing her invented scenarios, it has always been easy to make reference to romantic narrative modes like fables, myths, dreams and fairy tales, but Boyle is also telling stories about the inner life, using gorgeous figurative imagery to approach difficult subjects: awkwardness, vulnerability, fear and rage have as much of a place as tenderness, longing, hope and freedom. It would be wrong to call even her most whimsical imagery strictly escapist, surreal or based in fantasy: for her, drawing in particular is about “channelling my experience of what is real in terms of the nature or feeling of that object or person.” Despite Boyle’s wondrous technical virtuosity, her work speaks in a language that is emotional and intuitive, not formal, and obliterates the cool viewing distance that much current art encourages or demands. She is upfront about the fact that the dark, intimate terrain she presses us into has everything to do with what is urgent to her personally and psychologically: “Otherwise, there’s no point for me,” she says.

When Boyle was a student at the Ontario College of Art and Design (she graduated in 1994), few shared her interest in the representational, and she looked outside the art world proper— for example to the transgressive feminist novelist and artist Kathy Acker and the brazenly erotic pencil drawings of G. B. Jones (a member of the influential Toronto queercore band Fifth Column)—for confidence in developing her intense figurative voice. By the time of her 2003 exhibition “Travels to the Realm Between,” however, the cultural waters had changed, and Boyle began to notice a huge flux of art that was preoccupied with childhood, sexuality and fantasy and was executed in a deliberately faux-naive style: “My work seemed to be getting lost in that flood,” she says. She made the decision to step back and renew her practice by immersing herself in the craft and skill of painting, placing herself in the position of a novice by teaching herself Old Master technique through trial and error. This meant taking a break from the gallery world and overhauling her working style—where previously she regularly envisioned and completed a painting in a single day, she now spent weeks, even months, experimenting with underpainting and glazing. The process was frustrating, “because it’s not my natural tendency to be so fussy with paint,” but the works in the resulting series of fictional portraits demonstrate a refined understanding of structure and colour and glow with an austere mystery.

Opening the door to sculpture also necessitated a deeper engagement with materials. Boyle had begun working with polymer clay (“as close as you can get to touching flesh”) in 1997, using dental tools and her fingers to fashion miniatures, but it was a weekend hobbyists’ workshop in Seattle in 2002 that introduced her to porcelain sculpture and the craft of lacedraping, something Boyle had never heard of at the time. This now infrequently practiced technique allows the craftsperson to daintily outfit and adorn a figure to a degree that Boyle characterizes as “perversely ornate and beautiful, but in the way of excessive femininity that is just bizarre.” The creation of the figures themselves is a delicate, labour-intensive process by which the component pieces of each character are cast individually from existing moulds and painstakingly assembled before being painted and decorated by hand and fired numerous times. After her initial crash course, Boyle continued to add to her porcelain brood, motivated in part by the mutual social curiosity between herself and the networks of skilled craftspeople and committed hobbyists she learned from and alongside, most of whom were many years older than she was. She travelled to Germany in 2005 to investigate the origins of the porcelain tradition in Europe, visiting historic factories in Meissen, Dresden and Sitzendorf and studying the work of J. J. Kändler, the virtuoso modeller who set the standard for European porcelain art in the early 18th century, a time when porcelain was a sought-after luxury item that was nicknamed “white gold” and hoarded in royal treasuries. Boyle was taken by the wit, detail and allegorical complexity of Kändler’s creations, and found resonances with her own work in a number of erotic scenes she discovered among his oeuvre.

When it comes to her sculptures’ somatic and sartorial traumas: “We’ve given a lot of space to what is beautiful,” she said diplomatically in an artist talk, adding that she wanted to find room for what we’re not as accepting of, to celebrate what is disordered, out of control, flawed, even unhealthy. Her figures tap into both the realistic—one looks to be about six months pregnant, with ringed, sleepless eyes and no shoes—and the symbolic—the severed hands of one sculpture could stand for “the pain of being disconnected from your life, of not being able to access your creative voice.” The violence and falseness implicit in the construction of idealized beauty are also a big part of this body of work. However, Boyle talks about her characters in terms of their power, and is clear about the fact that she has no interest in shocking people, or in the human grotesque as it figures in the work of, say, Jake and Dinos Chapman.

Boyle’s use of the visual to “fill in that place that language just does not occupy,” as she puts it, has led her to projects outside the gallery too. In 2003, she provided illustrations for The Story of Jane Doe: A Book About Rape, an explosively confessional, witty and brilliantly insightful first-person account written by a Toronto woman who eventually sued the Toronto police for its mishandling of her rape case. The unorthodox, unflinchingly honest book was lauded for its overturning of rape mythology, and it was a good match: for Boyle, collaborating with Jane Doe was a “massive honour” and one of the best opportunities she has had. “It’s very difficult as an artist to feel like what you’re doing has meaning in the world,” she contends, raising something that clearly has meaning to her. She also worked with conundrum press to produce a book of her own, 2004’s lovely Witness My Shame, a dense compendium of drawings and nine of the bookworks Boyle self-published between 1997 and 2001.

She has invented another outlet for her energies in the form of her live drawing performances, which had their genesis in the experimental filmmaker Kika Thorne’s Work (1999), an awardwinning video that Boyle starred in. A galvanizing moment came courtesy of a scene in which Thorne focuses in on Boyle’s hand as she draws on a page. In early screenings, everyone (Boyle included) leaned forward in suspense, waiting to see what would happen next. For Boyle, it was an epiphany to realize that “the magic of drawing happens when you’re making it,” one that spurred her to experiment with creating ink drawings on acetate in a variety of live contexts, with the images typically magnified and projected on the wall or on large screens behind the stage as they are made. Most high-profile have been her concert collaborations with musicians such as Feist and Peaches, though she has also adapted these projects to literary events and spectacular solo gallery presentations. Over time they have grown more complex, employing pre-drawn images, coloured gels and sand in real-time choreographies that relate to a particular musician’s lyrics or otherwise custom-suit the circumstances.

Working live, for Boyle, is both “liberating and terrifying,” and provides something of a respite from professional exigencies such as the pressure to sell one’s work and the assumption that visibility equals success. Given that her priorities read like a list of what is ghettoized and currently marginalized in the art world and beyond—her work is feminist, personal, focused on the figure but devoid of any pop-culture context, based in emotion rather than concept and made in traditional, untrendy media— why expend too much energy on the career side of things when there are so many more creatively rewarding avenues to follow? She spent the summer of 2006 on tour with the Winnipeg folk musician Christine Fellows, bringing her drawing performances to new audiences from Ontario to the Yukon.

Boyle’s work has been in recent group exhibitions on subjects ranging from girlhood to love to drawing to darkness. She was also a semifinalist for the 2006 Sobey Art Award. Several of her porcelain works are in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada, and her drawing performances, both with and without au courant musical collaborators, have taken her around the world. Still, she is wise to the fact that trends come and go, while her practice is lifelong (“I have that romantic, old-fashioned idea that when I’m fifty, then I’ll really have something to say,” she offers). She has never felt that what she does has anything in common with most of what is called contemporary art: “I honestly do feel way more connected to Outsider art and the kind of work that is made by people who are intensely influenced by an internal world and the need to translate that somehow. That makes more sense to me.” She wishes that art occupied the same magical, spiritual place in the culture at large as it does in her life. Her faith in her vocation is both simple and striking: in the event of a major world catastrophe, she speculates, the various apparatuses of culture as we know them might be gone, but “there would still absolutely be a need for some kind of art,” a survival of the basic human imperative to express the experience and spirit of life. “It could never disappear.”

This is article from the Fall 2006 issue of Canadian Art.

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