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Rewind: Shary Boyle

Katharine Mulherin Gallery, Toronto

“Once upon a time” is the evocative phrase that enters one’s head while viewing Shary Boyle’’s exhibition “The Omitted Tales.” The scale of the installation is intimate, featuring book-size drawings and paintings—recalling fairy-tale volumes illustrated with line drawings and the occasional special treat of a full-colour reproduction—that make direct reference to both the format and the content of traditional books of tales.

Several bodies of work, like groups of story collections, hang on the walls. In the gallery window, sandwiched between Plexiglas, is a series of illustration-style pencil drawings of girls, boys and women. Cut-out sections emphasize the ropes binding a boy and girl together; the bones of a baby skeleton within its mother’s womb; blood pouring down the legs of a girl. In another series of pencil-and-watercolour drawings, viewers see interpretations of the original Omitted Tales by the Brothers Grimm, the source of the exhibition’s title. One of the tales, “The Hand with the Knife,” is illustrated with rosy-cheeked children cutting off a scary green hand that emerges from a rock. Beside the rock is a pool of blood, and in the distance, a girl is crying blue tears. What’s going on here? Even though the boys seem to have bravely saved the day, there is a gruesomeness about their bloodthirsty activity. The viewer’s sympathies are confused, and indeed, the Grimms never published these tales; they deemed them too horrific for their audience to handle.

The themes of innocence and transformation are shown, in Boyle’’s work, as in fairy tales, to be seldom soft and never sentimental. Horror is always nearby. The largest body of work in the exhibition includes watercolour line drawings and oil paintings that tell tales of girls on the pubescent cusp. It is in the oil paintings that the full force of Boyle’’s vision is made evident. One painting, West County Wicca, shows a woman sitting in a chair holding a bowl of water. Beside her is a window through which the viewer sees swirling snow. A girl in a spring dress hangs upside down, arms dangling, with an inscrutable smile on her face, looking in at the woman (her mother?). In another painting a girl lies in bed looking wan and unwell. She has red-rimmed eyes, a red nose, long, long hair and creepy, exceptionally long fingernails. As in the vignettes of Struwwelpeter, a 19th-century children’s book of cautionary tales by Heinrich Hoffmann, there is an added admonition regarding hygiene, sexuality and growing up.

Boyle has masterfully painted her images with a transfixing blend of naive shape and menacing colouration. In her “Omitted Tales” she tells us stories of Everychild who cannot stop time’’s advance, who must experience innocence, loss of innocence and horror——both in fables and in life.

This is a review from the Summer 2002 issue of Canadian Art.

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