Colleen Heslin displays immense confidence with Outcasts and Shady Trees

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Colleen Heslin: Outcasts and Shady Trees
At Monte Clark Gallery until July 5

Part of the pleasure of viewing Colleen Heslin’s exhibition, Outcasts and Shady Trees, is its immense confidence, both formal and intellectual. A recent winner of the prestigious RBC Canadian Painting Competition, this genre-busting artist brings fresh energy to the project of abstraction, incorporating elements of analytical cubism, stain painting, abstract illusionism, quilting, and collage into her art.

Heslin is based in Vancouver, where she earned her undergraduate degree in photography in 2003 and where she also founded the alternative art space Crying Room Projects, and Montreal, where she is a graduate student in painting and drawing at Concordia University.

For simplicity’s sake—and in respect of the RBC prize—let’s call the majority of Heslin’s works “paintings”. They are, after all, composed of fabric altered with pigment, mounted on wooden stretchers, and hung on the wall. Unlike what we conventionally expect of the painting medium, however, the pigment is not applied to the surface of the fabric—which is mostly cotton of the bed-sheet variety, salvaged from thrift shops—but is absorbed into it, through dyeing and inking. The coloured pieces of cotton, both large and small, are then sewn together to create gently skewed variations on geometric compositions. (They’re kind of geo-organic, or perhaps organi-metric.) This technique niftily weds fibre art to “post-painterly abstraction”, a 1960s way of working in which there is no distinction between the subject and the ground.

As with the fold paintings of her contemporary, American artist Tauba Auerbach, Heslin takes the post-painterly, with its commitment to two-dimensionality, in a paradoxical direction. Her patches of stained cotton are illusionistic in that they give the appearance of the creases, gathers, rumples, and bound seams of her found fabrics. Her method of dyeing sustains the trompe-l’oeil appearance of three-dimensionality even though her finished surface is absolutely flat. At the same time, through both her titles and her compositions, Heslin very subtly hints at figures in the landscape.

Through their stitched-together process, these paintings also remind us of the debt that “heroic-masculine” hard-edge abstraction owes to the “domestic-feminine” art of quilting. As in traditional quilting, in which a new whole is made out of second-hand scraps, Heslin’s use of discarded fabric proposes a creative rejoinder to overconsumption and conspicuous waste.

This backstory sounds complicated and cerebral, yet Heslin’s paintings are a simple and sensuous delight to behold. She shifts with ease from largely monochromatic works such as Smoking Gun, with its rectilinear and wedge-shaped forms in washy shades of grey and blackish purple, to richly coloured compositions such as Dandelion, with its delicious use of acid pink, scarlet, terracotta, and lavender, and Marigold, which plays bars of indigo, turquoise, and pale orange against passages of grey, yellow ochre, and greyish gold.

Despite their combinations of unexpected construction materials—again, discarded by others and retrieved by Heslin—the two sculptures on view are less visually compelling than the paintings. Still, the rebar, rope, and enamel paint in the untitled, freestanding work, and the rope, metal tubes, nail polish, and acrylic paint in the untitled, wall-mounted work suggest future possibilities.

Mashed together with the quilting and collage techniques of Heslin’s paintings, the sculptural materials and processes could take her two-dimensional works off the wall and thrust them into another space and time altogether.

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