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Reviews / March 14, 2016

Isabel Nolan at Mercer Union: When Seeing is Disbelieving

Mercer Union, Toronto, February 12 to April 2, 2016

Among the shortcomings of human perception is the emphasis we place on our ability to see: both what we see and how we see it. The association between light and knowledge is so intimately bound up in language—“seeing the light,” “a dawning awareness”—that it takes intensive intervention to question their relationship.

Yet vision is fickle and can only provide so much insight. Irish artist Isabel Nolan’s current exhibition at Toronto’s Mercer Union, “The weakened eye of day”—which will travel to Vancouver’s Contemporary Art Gallery in July—presents the sun as a subject, exploring its associations in religion, science and myth to challenge predominant notions of our central star.

The first work that confronts the viewer is framed by the entranceway to Mercer Union’s main gallery space: Rock founded place (2014) is a large scroll pinned to the wall describing the formation of a rock. In this work, one is dispatched by the artist into imagining Earth’s formation through a material relic and a clumsy narrative. Before the fold of the scroll, a final phrase remains legible: “The visible edge of Sun is an illusion. Sun foretells a future when nothing has ever happened.”

With romantic inclinations, Rock founded place uses the fertile grounds of geologic formation to remind us of the disparities between human perception and the objects of our gaze, revealing doubts as to our capacity to comprehend anything fully.

The low position of the sun above the horizon at sunset and sunrise often makes it appear larger than at high noon. Trying to capture this by photographing a sunset or sunrise is cliche: the image never succeeds in adequately representing the moment, but somehow the need to capture it can be irresistible.

Conversely, the “green flash,” a phenomenon caused by refraction of light at the moment that the sun dips below the horizon at sunset or above the horizon at sunrise, is nearly impossible to see, as it passes in a couple of seconds at most. Dreams of no thing, no time (2014) uses thin layers of paint in strips of orange, yellow and then green in a way that reminds me of this brief occurrence.

Harbinger (2014) is, as its title suggests, a sign. Protruding from the wall, its pentagon shape contains concentric circles made of stained glass. The pattern, bisected vertically, conjures two suns above a shared horizon. The Modernist aesthetic also recalls the work of abstract artist Sonia Delaunay. Delaunay’s colour experiments and trademark concentric circles were influenced by the theory of simultanism, which argues that colours change depending on their neighbouring colours. In this sense, Harbinger foreshad-ows a future that is as uncertain as the phenomena it depicts.

Nothing new under the sun (2014) consists of nine ceramic bowls, many punctured with holes, on the ground. The bowls are glazed in colours corresponding to different planets. Two stacked yellow bowls representing the sun are without holes, playfully demonstrating a superiority over Earth and other planets. Referring to Ptolemy’s theory of our solar system—positioning Earth at the centre—these bowls are arranged to present a geocentric theory as absurd and ineffective as their own domestic function.

Similarly nested are the numerous polystyrene spheres and hemispheres that make up The effect of its past and cause of its future (2014). They loll in communion, suggesting variable theories and constructions of the sun’s layers. Their pastel colours grant them a quality similar to toys or candy, although their abstract aesthetic summons a relationship with Minimalism and infographics. They playfully grapple with representations of artistic and scientific concepts in material form, drawing out both the utility and absurdity inherent to simplified depictions.

Nearby, one sees the simplified contours of a lion, a symbol of the sun in ancient Western zodiac. Brightly coloured in yellow, he sits with haunches down and left paw raised in what seems a pathetic plea for help. A lion with a thorn in his paw (2015) is exactly that. However, this lion looks nothing like a real lion, and the thorn’s curious proportions, gilded gold, underline its mythic reference. The most striking feature is the absence of eyes. This lion is blind.

Nolan’s lion sculpture speaks of Androcles who, in one version of a fable, felt pity for the lion, and after pulling the thorn, acquired newfound strengths attributed to the beast’s prowess. Following this, Androcles and the lion became inseparable, building a trusting relationship. Nolan exposes the anthropocentrism bound up in this folly. Her lion resembles a prop more than a believable animal. It suggests questions regarding what aspects of this lion would one assume if one were to help it.

In a series of five text works, Nolan refers to the fool-hearted attempts of Icarus’s approach to the sun wearing wings held together with wax. After dismissing his father Daedalus’ warning of the sun’s heat, Icarus fell to his death, drowning at sea. One portion of Nolan’s text reads, “Metaphors of divinity, enlightenment, ambition, revelation, power or goodness do not explain the immense truth of the Sun.” Nolan’s version reveals a fault in elevating human potential at the expense of the sun, exposing failure as a result of hubris.

The back room at Mercer offers a respite from the stimulation of objects and colours in the main gallery. This division between rooms is emphasized by the shift into a mostly black and white space. The only indication of colour is in a corner: Disorder drowning everything in sight (2015), a painting with many prismatic supernovas.

The aesthetic of Disorder is similar to that of Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night (1889). Van Gogh, in letters to his brother, remarked on the endless multiplicity of shades of grey, emphasizing the human’s role, as colourist, to analyze colours of nature. The colourist knows “how to make up the greys of nature on the palette,” he wrote. Again, in this case, human ability is stressed in the attempt to interpret nature.

A large, wall-sized digital print of two donkeys in a graveyard is titled The view from nowhen (2014). This image, which reaches into the main space as if beckoning an encounter, is the only detailed pictorial indication of the world outside. One donkey stares out at the viewer. Getting lost in the dark void of its blank but transfixing gaze provokes a reaction opposite to the turning-away prompted by the sun’s blinding glare.

My search for engagement with the donkey reminded me of our inability to completely comprehend the donkey’s sight, and our connection to it. In a text available at the gallery, Nolan describes the donkey as being “genetically surprisingly close, and made from the same kinds of atoms, but we are not the same. The donkey and his perspective seem terribly alien.”

The exhibition’s namesake work, The weakened eye of day (2014), is a suspended spiral that evokes a lasso in motion, providing a metaphor for the inadequacies of sight in capturing reality. The title is adapted from a Thomas Hardy poem, where in the final hours of the last day of 1899, the poet hears birdsong punctuating his dimming visions of the future. The poet’s allusion to the “weakening” sun, like each work in Nolan’s exhibition, positions the human as humbled in the face of any attempt to ascertain the world through the limited scope of one’s vision.

“Isabel Nolan: The weakened eye of day” continues until April 2 at Mercer Union in Toronto, and it will travel to the Contemporary Art Gallery in Vancouver in July 2016.