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Moon Room: Mysteries, Elucidated

Narwhal, Toronto October 18 to November 15, 2015

“Moon Room,” at Narwhal in Toronto, was like the theatrical set for a play in which nighttime is always impending. The play could have been an adaptation of classic children’s book Goodnight Moon— after all, that’s what curator Kristin Weckworth cited as the inspiration for the show—but it could equally have been, in terms of tone, a stage re-mounting of a Hitchcockian psychological thriller.

Underlining the scene-setting was Vanessa Brown‘s Ouroborous Holding the Moon, a maquette-like sculpture in the storefront window. The thin metal construction hints at motion, implying that the sliver of crescent moon might rotate around its central axis. From the outset, it suggested of smoke and mirrors, the possibility of the stage awakening to animate itself.

It wasn’t entirely clear upon entry whether to be comforted or apprehensive, but the title was apt: “Moon Room” wasn’t spatially organized like a typical exhibition.

Instead, the front gallery at Narwhal was filled with stark analogues of typical room furnishings. On the floor, Naomi Yasui’s untitled, a braided stoneware work, evoked at once a rug and a bust. Nikki Woolsey’s Aside the table is an actual side table, with a spoon and piece of yellow foam set into it under a glass cover. A swirling tapestry by Heather Goodchild with a distinctly 70s-cabin colour palette evoked the softness of curtains or gaudy couch upholstery. Eunice Luk’s cluster of roughly circular clocks, all set to five after ten, hung along the walls, as did paintings by Margaux Williamson and Lisa DiQuinzio which alluded to children’s room décor (a pair of folded hands, a scrap of fur) but didn’t quite get there. The effect was eerie.

At the end of this first room, a wall drawing by Alicia Nauta framed the exhibition, and was also the most explicit reference to the fairy tale–like territory of 1947’s Goodnight Moon. The drawing replicates the cover of the book almost perfectly, but in place of the original objects on the mantelpiece, Nauta arranges a series of curios, both banal and bizarre: a Greek vase, a disembodied hand sprung from a crystalline form, a magnet-like shape and circular protrusion atop a block, commonplace vases of flowers. And where the wall décor on the original cover features a painting of a cow jumping over the moon, its udder blurred due to concerns about its appropriateness for children, Nauta’s version offers a “painting” filled with U-shapes, ruptured by two orbs, each orb’s mass heavy with strata of wave-like forms.

Nauta’s drawing was riddled with absurdities, over-accentuated pre-digital design techniques, conflicting patterns and multi-directional lines, clinched with an off-kilter sense of perspective that lended a vertiginous effect. The piece trafficked in illusion: it converted the dotted, reprographic quality of outmoded illustration into an overarching not-quite-trompe-l’oeil in black and white. Measured lines and visible brushstrokes revealed the hand-painted nature of the composition, contradicting its initially sleek, printed appearance. Simultaneously, it gestured to a room just past the first, suggesting that the doorway into the backmost portion of the gallery was only partly real, since it was also a facet of her drawing—a symbolic threshold to the outside.

Across this threshold, a salon-hung gallery painted flat black engaged in a more direct visioning of the moon. Some works took on a distinctly scientific gaze: Eli Langer’s untitled wave drawings in neon gel pen read like data visualizations, and Carly Waito‘s high-realist painting Lunar Meteorwrongs like mineral samples. Elsewhere, seemingly straightforward depictions of our only natural satellite gave way to unforeseen complications. Karen Azoulay’s digital print Ancient Crater refers to the origins of the moon’s surface in name only—it reproduces in black and white a familiar but non-specific image of cracking, perhaps in mud, ceramic or skin. Still other works, like Maggie Groat’s All Things Under the Influence of the Moon II, allude to lunar spiritual qualities. Groat’s collage—filled with thin layers of images of natural phenomena like ferns, flowers and fungi—summons fascination with the moon as an otherworldly force acting upon the earth, even as it evokes the wholly natural processes of tides, growth, decay, night and day: cyclicality at its most ordinary.

In contrast to the unsettling domesticity of the front gallery, this back salon was the corresponding “dark side of the room.” If the front room asked us to look outward to the night sky, the back space suggested the impossibility of really seeing it. The moon presented by this salon was ungraspable: it varied, changed, refused to be pinned down by representation alone, or by metaphor alone. We were reminded that the light that reaches our eyes from the moon is really furtive sunlight.

A series of scratchboard drawings by Patrick Krzyzanowski confirmed the difficulty of visually apprehending the moon. At one angle, each quick, circular blur (generated by pet rats Mali and Georgia running in their wheels to turn a scraping tool), was obscured by the glare from the drawing’s reflective metallic surface, making the marks illegible. At another angle, the marks appeared to be graphite drawings, or accumulations of fur.

This sense of optical illusion manifested again in Maryanne Casasanta’s photograph of gathered, black and white, polka-dotted fabric. Staring at the white dots, the black behind appears to recede to infinity before snapping harshly back. The contrasting elements compete in a back-and-forth, unsettling any chance at reading the image straight on.

In “Moon Room,” the moon itself presided over an elusive quality of revelation. The works in the show engaged in repeated attempts to capture and decipher the moon, but it remained just beyond reach. Despite our best scientific and artistic attempts at documentation, the nature of lunar phenomena is that they are always at a distance. And this desire to capture and understand operates far beyond the moon—it touches whatever falls within the realm of natural curiosity and its spiralling explanatory gestures: we want to know, even when we understand that we are doomed to fail at full comprehension.

Weckworth referenced this revelatory desire in her curatorial text, pairing close readings of Goodnight Moon with the 2012 documentary Room 237, which catalogues conspiratorial readings of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. But the moon’s pull to interpretation extends far beyond these references. Mythologically significant in ancient and urban contexts, the moon governs everything (folks say) from sweeping notions of darkness and femininity to weird behaviour in hospital emergency rooms.

Untangling “Moon Room,” for me, quickly became an exercise in untangling the moon’s social and cultural particularities. Reflecting on the show, I found myself circling a set of lunar free-associations: the protagonist’s double in the 2009 film Moon; conspiracies of NASA’s faked moon landing; the pattern-seeking exemplified by playing Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon over the Wizard of Oz; the ever-shifting identity of the man in the moon (is it a happy face or a handsome man? a rabbit? a bison?); the not-quite-palindromic exhibition title “Moon Room” (does “Moon Room” have something redrum-ish to its sound, or is it just that I’ve gotten lost trying to decode it?). I jumped to the inclusion of 21 artists, mostly female. The number takes on a mystical quality, as if gesturing to the three weeks of not-bleeding in the “average” 28-day menstrual cycle.

What is the link between the moons presented throughout the show and the conspiratorial swirling surrounding Goodnight Moon and Room 237? In the end, “Moon Room” was less about these particular cultural touchstones, and more about mirroring the structures by which we experience mysteries and attempt to grapple with them. The exhibition itself dealt in an architecture of mythology. Positioning the moon inside our domestic lives— that is, intimately integrating it with our routines of sleeping and waking, and marking of calendar time—as well as outside scope of both imagination and scientific understanding, “Moon Room” crafted a structure of bewilderment.

Weckworth’s curation was also a powerful counterpoint to the sweeping thematics and vagaries that can govern curation both in larger public institutions and private galleries. On its surface, “Moon Room” was just a well-selected 21 artists making (mostly) small works about the moon for two (mostly) small rooms. What could be simpler? Yet Weckworth cast a sense of elusiveness on these works. The strictness of her curatorial parameters led to an exhibition engaged in a world-building that stretches far beyond two rooms.

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