Shary Boyle's Flesh and Blood an unusual study in contrasts

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      At the Contemporary Art Gallery until August 21

      Shary Boyle possesses one of the most distinctive sensibilities in postmodern Canadian culture. Evident throughout her exhibition at the Contemporary Art Gallery is her use of an unexpected range of materials and techniques in the realization of an equally unexpected figurative art. Her work here includes a delicately wrought, Meissen-style porcelain tableau of two naked boys communing with an absurdly long, highly poisonous snake; a low-tech projection of psychedelic colours, googly eyes, and fluttering insects; and a small oil portrait of a woman in a bizarrely high plaid collar, painted in the manner of the old masters. It also includes a life-size sculpture of a Wizard of Oz–ish scarecrow fucking a flailing, tile-encrusted woman on top of a haystack. We’re a long way from Kansas, Toto.

      The show, of mostly recent work, is organized and circulated by Galerie de l’UQAM (Université du Québec í  Montréal) in partnership with the Art Gallery of Ontario and in collaboration with the CAG. The Toronto-based Boyle, who started out exhibiting and performing in underground and offbeat venues, is now widely recognized for her provocative, fantastical, horrifying, tender, grotesque, beautiful, and emotionally complex imagery. At the CAG, in a recent public conversation with the artist, the show’s curator, Louise Déry, described Boyle as a nouvelle feminist, whose subjects include childhood, family, sexuality, and heredity.

      Whatever her theme and medium, Boyle evokes baroque fictions and fairy tales that are highly personal, but with wider cultural resonance. Her porcelain sculpture Family, for instance, depicts the folkloric cliché of a middle-aged man and woman sitting on the ground, stoking the flames of a small fire. Where the kitsch runs amuck is at the centre of this fire. There sits a stack of human heads—their children—piled up from oldest to youngest in some surrealistic totem pole of primogeniture, or perhaps neurosis. Complete in every intricately fashioned, decorative detail, from the tiny clumps of flowers and grass to the mother’s lace shawl, this miniature tableau reads like a Brothers-Grimm-meet-Salvador-Dali metaphor of love and dysfunction. The flames seem to signal reverence (something to do with impossible expectations), sacrifice (ditto), and destruction (ditto again).

      In response to Déry’s remarks, Boyle spoke about her motivation, from the time she was young, to bring a female voice into the public arena, especially regarding the representation of the female body. This was a prominent ambition of many second-wave feminists in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. Boyle reinterprets it, although in ways that might be alarming to the older, proscriptive feminism of, say, Mary Kelly or Griselda Pollock, who saw the depiction of the female figure as too freighted with history to float in the postmodern age.

      Boyle’s women, sometimes realized as hybrids with animals that range from insects to ungulates, embody a complex sexuality that defies easy interpretation. The violence so weirdly implicit in Scarecrow, for instance, is not about rape, Boyle insists. It’s about a “whole cosmos of expression”, including love, loss of love, incompatibility, sadness, and the “hapless” gap between masculine and feminine. The scarecrow face is stupidly happy; the woman’s expression could be one of horror or rapture.

      Complementing the stated feminism in this show is Boyle’s strong feeling for animals and her deployment, again, of animal-human transformations. It’s as if she were alluding to a magical, pre-Christian past when people and animals could slip into each other’s skin—each other’s awareness—with ease. In the porcelain sculpture Live Old, a young woman with an elephant’s head stands in a beaded pool and sprays herself with water; it’s an image of innocent joy. Another porcelain, Burden, by contrast, depicts a folkloric young wanderer, a woman equipped with sack and walking stick, hunched over and carrying two heavy creatures on her back. The first is an albino deer-human hybrid, and the second is an amphibious beastie that looks like a younger version of the creature from the Black Lagoon. Together, these beings communicate an almost unbearable pathos—a painful burden—that the Shary Boyle–like wanderer must carry through the wide, uncomprehending world.