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Features / June 15, 2015

Tricia Middleton: Exquisite Collapse

Tricia Middleton pushes her materials to the brink, creating a collection of "precarious things about precarious situations."

This is an article from the Spring 2015 issue of Canadian Art.

When Tricia Middleton describes how her sculptures get made, she settles on the word “struggle”—they come about by long bouts of ardour and labour and anxiety. The artist builds multiple works at once, whirling around the studio from one piece to the next: fastening, finessing, forcing. She balances a bit here, maybe a ceramic trinket she’s found, and a bob there, say, a coffee cup replicated from clay. Something is always falling off or tipping over. Everything she does feels left-handed, she says. She can’t help but be in her own way. Wax is her favourite adhesive; it dries quickly. Sometimes she uses hydrostone and plaster, and, when things just won’t sit right, spray foam. Any old scrap becomes a counterweight or a brace, even other artworks. She isn’t precious about technique, she’s courting calamity on purpose. It’s a challenge she’s issued herself.

With each structure, she’s searching for the very brink of collapse, the precise point where she and the material and gravity can make an agreement. She thinks about her work like a dialogue or a negotiation: the sculpture and the sculptor bending to each other’s will, finding compromise wherever the physics accepts it. Her materials are alive and they’re collaborators in the act. What they do together is, essentially, performance.

Stationed usually in Montreal, Middleton spent most of 2014 in residencies abroad. From July to the end of December, she lived and worked at the Cité internationale des arts in Paris, an apartment overlooking the Seine granted by the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec; this on the tail of a six-month stay at the Canada Council for the Arts studio in New York. Through the two appointments, she stepped away from the immersive environments that have become her hallmark—2009’s five-room tour de force at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, for example—working instead in paint and video and, especially, on smaller sculptural pieces (miniatures, by Middleton’s standards) derived from her large-scale installation practice.

She returned from Paris briefly last September to present the first wave of these works, the fruits of her time in New York, at Jessica Bradley Gallery in Toronto. The show, titled “Making friends with yourself,” was an important moment for Middleton: not only was this the debut of a new mode within her practice, but it was the first time that the 42-year-old artist, who has gained considerable regard in the institutional art world, exhibited solo in a commercial space.

Middleton likes to think that the works on view there willed themselves into shape. “It’s like when the wind is blowing weeds or trash around,” she says, “and it forms its nexus somewhere around a corner where the wind can’t catch it anymore.” She imagines that the sculptures are fossils from a distant future, after human extinction, when the sum total of all consumer production is left swirling about. She’s interested in the long history of the mountains of material goods we’ve called into being and will one day leave behind. It’s a fanciful bit of science fiction, leaping off the questions: what will our stuff do without us? What will its life look like?

Staged in Jessica Bradley’s clean white space, a broom snapped in half stood upright in a heap of discarded containers it had seemingly swept up itself. Nearby, a pair of women’s pyjama pants sprayed in dirty candy-coloured pastels lay half-animate, with a cast hand clutching a distressing note, either by an author no doubt turned to dust ages ago or, stranger still, a message from the sentient material’s own pen. At the centre of the room, a cardboard ladder dripping in beeswax twisted around itself, like a wet towel being wrung dry. Quartz and other semi-precious stones grow from the corners of the works, a hint that we’re watching these sculptures accrete in long, geologic time. “It’s archaeological, in a way,” Middleton says. The sculptures are layered with knick-knacks and snatches of flora and other tiny treasures; they reward a careful eye. Like the environments, each is its own world to explore. “In one, your whole body goes in. In the other, your whole body goes in by your eyes.”

It’s unsurprising, then, that collecting and accumulation make up a significant part of Middleton’s work. In Paris, she became interested in looking closely at the peculiar phenomena of urban life there, not unlike Guy Debord or Charles Baudelaire surveying the same streets in eras before. She took notes, she made videos, she started collecting bits of material that apprehended her attention in special ways—tokens that seemed to chart their own course into her hands. It became overwhelming because material spoke to her from everywhere.

On most days, she’d visit the Jardin du Luxembourg, “a beautifully manicured, perfectly measured French garden,” she says, in the sixth arrondissement. One afternoon, she was sitting in a chair, looking across the lawn, and her eyes followed a blue plastic shopping bag as it blew overtop of the row of trees away from Montparnasse and traversed the grass expanse, seemingly trained on her. She wondered if the bag might fly directly onto her. It didn’t, but the thing had made itself aware to her so forcefully that she had to have it. On another trip, she was thinking intently about that first blue bag that had found her when she spotted two more identical bags blowing around each other in a church courtyard. “I try to think,” she explains, “‘I need this, can I make it appear somewhere?’ I’m trying to draw the things out from wherever they are toward me so that I can have them.”

She’s held onto a cigarette packet turned over by a friend who swore it was her last and a tissue a man handed her on the commuter rail RER after he crushed a wasp on her leg with a pop can. She makes missions for herself. She walked to Cire Trudon—opened in 1643, the world’s oldest wax manufacturer—to buy five black candles, determined that she’d return to Bastille and there she’d find five corresponding objects. And lo, there, on the charity-shop table: five ornamental owls. “I didn’t even want owls,” she says, “but I can’t ignore the phenomenon of these five owls.”

On another occasion at the Jardin du Luxembourg, she was transfixed by a Buddhist monk sitting nearby who was fiddling with a digital camera; he’d noticed she was watching. “There was a recognition that happened,” she says. Middleton was jotting the scene down in her notebook when he vanished. She found him again elsewhere in the garden, now in the company of three other monks in their gold- and saffron- and honey-coloured robes, all taking selfies in the park. She observed their pageant and followed when they exited, where she found a solitary yellow balloon, the colour of the monks’ vestments, tied down to a metal grate. She took it. An older woman passing by quipped, “Vous amenez le soleil avec vous,” or, “you bring the sun with you.” The convergences seemed undeniable.

The balloon, the bags, the owls—they will all find their way into her next sculptures. She’ll likely start to roll out the works begun in Paris in solo exhibitions at Regina’s Dunlop Art Gallery in February and at Axe Neo 7 in Gatineau this June.

Middleton trained in painting at Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver, her hometown, finishing in 1997, five years after Geoffrey Farmer and Brian Jungen. At that time, living on the West Coast, she felt that “you couldn’t paint and be taken seriously.” She scored her breakthrough—and some international attention—with work in single-channel video, but it was her early sculptural experiments that convinced her that installation was her ticket out. That became the thrust of her practice when she moved to Montreal and completed an MFA at Concordia University.

Still, she sees her work as painting; she thinks like a painter even when she’s making sculpture. Layering is the essence of each. Wax chronicles time drip-by-drip and stroke-by-stroke in a manner not unlike oil paint. She understands her interest in sculpture and her interest in paint as mutually rooted in a fascination with how space gets organized. That design sense looms at the heart of her large-scale environments—say, the wax-shingled shack from the National Gallery of Canada’s “Misled by Nature” group show, or the bravura multi-room installation Form Is the Destroyer of Force, Without Severity There Can Be No Mercy (2012), installed on-site all over the floors, ceilings and walls of Oakville Galleries. She’s doing interior design, she’s doing architecture—but in a thoroughly tactile language. “I’m interested in what’s going on around me at any given time, but mostly the material element of what’s happening,” she says. “It’s a synesthetic response almost, I feel like my eyes might as well be hands.”

She finds her distinctive palette rooted in a European painterly tradition. She identifies the same pinks, blues and greens native to her sculpture on canvases by early Baroque and Rococo artists like Diego Velázquez, Jean-Antoine Watteau and Jean-Honoré Fragonard. If you tell her that a work like Rock Two (2012–14) looks like cotton candy or a scoop of ice cream, she rebukes the reading—though she’s aware she’s baiting it. She hates sugar, she says. “That stuff is just gross.” If anything, like in the Baroque, that decadence—that is, the sweetness of her palette—is a symptom of an underlying sickness. Instead, she offers that her colours are those of a bad drug trip. Or maybe it’s the colours of a good trip, she wavers. “Bad trip, good trip—it’s a very fine line.”

It’s all part of another lens through which she sees her project: “the narcotic effects of capitalism,” she calls it. To be certain, capitalism can be stimulating and addictive like narcotics and, like the same, it can also be enslaving, invaliding and nullifying, depending on where in its game field you fall. Conceptually, she sees her work relating to pre-Victorian horror, when allegorical monsters were sketched from suspicions about the Industrial Revolution, its attendant brand of capitalism and what each meant for daily life in urban centres. Middleton’s own monsters grapple with the contemporary face of mass industrialism and what that looks like on our store shelves, our mantelpieces and in our landfills. She’s never been good at math, she says; material history has always been her way into analyzing the economy.

And still there’s a further science-fantasy lurking in Middleton’s sculptures; specifically, the way they’ve been engineered to the doorstep of collapse. She thinks about the end of all matter. Will there be such a thing? Perhaps her works are a snapshot from some final stage of entropy, right before the universe, expanded until no bonds can hold, is torn particle-from-particle—the Big Rip, some cosmologists call it. She sees evidence of it now. “Consumer material has been emaciated by capitalist processes,” she says. Everything is becoming more flimsy or more brittle or otherwise more sparingly constructed. The dollar store is adept here; “it sells simulacra of objects,” she says—not the kind of porcelain statuette you might value, but a reasonable facsimile at the right price. It’s been pushed just up to the edge of failure, like the universe readied to collapse, like her sculptures.

“And maybe these futures are inching towards this total cessation,” she says, “but in my imaginary futures, somehow these sad fragments manage to continue to persist. So there is a hope there.”

Middleton is making precarious things about precarious situations. Yes, her practice is about struggle and vulnerability. It’s also innately about risk—and what good art isn’t risking itself? “It’s a deeply experimental process,” she says. “You aren’t making an experiment if you aren’t risking that it might blow up in your face.” “I can’t make that,” “this won’t work” and “it’s impossible” are all anxieties she’s built into her sculpture. These worries reflect the deeper anxieties she thinks we should all feel about our present-day material culture. Fragility is crucial to what she’s doing—if it makes people uneasy, it’s supposed to. Her sad fragments live on.

Chris Hampton

Chris Hampton is a freelance writer based in Toronto who thinks mostly about visual art and music. His work has appeared in the Walrus, the New York Times, the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail, among other publications.