“Shary Boyle: Flesh and Blood” at the Art Gallery of Ontario is a powerful mix of fantasy and all things corporeal, as the title itself promises. The exhibition begins with Virus (White Wedding), a theatrical installation that features a life-sized, plaster female figure whose arms support a network of cobwebs stemming from her orifices. Feminist issues including bodily containment, fertility and eco-feminism are characteristic themes for Boyle, who posits in her artist statement, “the animals and women we have underestimated for so long: when will their reckoning be?”
The artist is celebrated for her smaller ceramic works, as evidenced by her inclusion in the Gardiner Museum’s current “Breaking Boundaries” exhibition. At the AGO, a selection of Boyle-brand figurines is on display; these works, including Family and The Bed, aspire to embody universal human experiences. In The Lute Player, Boyle gives a nude female figurine the license to rock out. These works are successful because they seduce and surprise. Our romantic notions about fine china and Royal Doulton collectibles provide the entry point into Boyle’s subversive, honest world.
Boyle’s capacity to explore big ideas on a miniature scale is also demonstrated in a striking display of polymer clay figurines. The figurines in the darkened gallery glow neon under a black light. The electric aesthetic lends further charge to these loaded objects, which represent existential truths like Sex, Birth and Death. Birth is a particularly moving sculpture of a naked woman kneeling in a natural setting, staring into the eyes of her newborn. The umbilical cord, blood and hair remind us of life’s carnal beginning. Strangely, the tender moment realized here also alludes to the plight of many women internationally who are forced to birth alone without community or medical support.
Boyle’s painted works are dreamlike stills that meditate on a range of subjects including Vanity. In this work, a girl’s impossibly long lashes double as streaming tears. The image functions as a visual fable, condemning the burden of physical beauty and begging us all to open our eyes. Silkworm presents a hopeful vision: a small girl extending her arm beyond a dark scene of snarling forest creatures to the fuzzy underbelly of a delicate patterned moth.
Boyle shares an interest in animal-human hybrids, flora, fauna and myth with a number of other young Canadian creators, including David Altmejd and Sonja Ahlers. It’s a generational retreat of sorts that relocates our messy realities to the realm of magic and metamorphosis.