The image of a blinking text cursor on a blank white page is familiar to any writer who doesn’t know how to begin. To those suffering from writer’s block, the flashing vertical line, ticking like a metronome, can feel like an impatient tap on the shoulder. Tiziana La Melia found herself confronted by the tireless taunt of the cursor in June 2013, when she set out to write a text titled Lot to accompany an exhibition. In this text, she wrote, “I stared at the chaste white monochrome for three days. A black line, the width and length of a single eyelash, blinked.” The echo of this exercise is heard in the title of her solo exhibition at Mercer Union, which takes linguistic ambiguity and wordplay as its springboard for artistic exploration.
Vancouver-based La Melia was the winner of the 2014 RBC Canadian Painting Competition, but painting is just one of the mediums she employs. First and foremost, she is a poet. At Mercer Union, she has created a stanzaic space, with artworks functioning as lines that can be ordered in different ways to create a haptic poem with many possible readings. There are seemingly disparate items that La Melia has inserted as symbols throughout the exhibition, and the fun is in deciphering her coded language. In unravelling the riddles, we are granted access to parts of La Melia’s personal story.
The large installation anchoring the room seems as appropriate a place to begin as any. From above, the structure would appear as a flat, white L-shape—the first letter of Lot—but it is a three-dimensional object. The sides of the outer edges of the L are painted in a Memphis Group–like pattern of white rectangles (resembling blank pages) on a purple ground. It’s a savoury, vegetable purple, the purple of a turnip or an onion, or of dye produced from snail glands. The sides of the inner edges of the L are stencilled with a salad-like variety of leaf shapes in different shades of green. The title of this installation is Ada, the name of a novel by Vladimir Nabokov that is multilingually playful, brimming over with puns and literary allusions. The top of the L is three-tiered, like a staircase, which recalls the characteristic ceiling of Exercise in Vancouver (now called Model), where La Melia has exhibited and performed readings, as well as Yvonne Rainer’s Stairs (1966–68).
On the tall back wall of the gallery, which has been painted the same purple as the sides of Ada, a white ballet barre has been installed. It also pays homage to Rainer, and other modern-dance choreographers such as Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham and Michael Clark, in that they rejected the barre in pursuit of the ideals of Minimalism. Furthermore, La Melia’s barre connotes discipline and the stretching of one’s own limits. Draped over the barre is a silk-faille spread—one of four in the show, but the only one left to drop and fold on the floor. Each of the four spreads takes the title of the exhibition, and uses the idea of the cursor as eyelash as a point of departure. This one has been printed with an image of a toothbrush resting on a wire support. There’s text, too, and part of it reads, “The blank in the blink that is a source of interpretation. / Was the blink a wink? Think of the room as a mattress. / Not unlike a whisker, it vibrates, an eccentric state of mind, removes plaque.” La Melia’s blank page is “an emptiness as sticky as honey,” and every association she thinks of gets stuck to it. As the cursor became an eyelash, it then becomes a whisker, then a toothbrush bristle, scraping away gunk.
Beside the barre work is Sieve Bed, a low-to-the-ground, four-legged, rose-gold plated steel frame with insect netting stretched across it and four inset purple Plexiglas panels. The shadow it casts on the floor spells “LOT.” For La Melia, the bed recalls a visit to Donald Judd’s properties in Marfa, Texas, where she was struck by how many of his rooms contained beds. Her experience of viewing Judd’s work was distorted by a mondegreen: she misheard “symmetry” as “cemetery,” which of course led to a very different reading of the artist’s work. La Melia immigrated to Canada from Italy as a child, so has grown up with bilingual family members. Her fascination with language, wordplay and interpretation probably has its roots in this biographical detail.
The Eyelash and the Monochrome (Spread 4), one of the wall-mounted silk spreads, is mostly yellow, patterned with a stylized eyelash motif by Sylvain Sailly. A portion of the text printed on its surface tells us that Henry Thoreau described Walden Pond as “the earth’s eye,” and “the fluviatile trees next to the shore [as] the slender eyelashes which fringe it.” With this association established, La Melia moves to a cluster of five paintings installed on the neighbouring wall, among which is Rectangular pond, an abstracted depiction of Thoreau’s pond in red and pink. The other works in the group are formed on the basis of the artist’s interpretations of verbs used to describe materials when painting: rubbing, bleeding, blurring, smudging, smearing.
La Melia is attentive to language in the way only a poet can be. She knows how to harness and wield words as symbols capable of encapsulating her personal history, icons, heroes and artistic influences. Carl Jung posited that playing word association games could reveal the subconscious mind. In La Melia’s case, it can at least serve as a creative spark. With her enigmatic pairings of symbols, each laden with a multiplicity of meanings, La Melia invites her audience to collaborate in the articulation of her poem. Like a tapping cursor, she prods the viewer into trying to wrench sense and significance out of the ciphers she presents. The big reveal is that, as in life, there is no one answer as to what something means. Ambiguity prevails, but along with it comes wonderment. Like a cursor, like a batting eyelash, La Melia is winking at us.