At the Richmond Art Gallery until July 3
Much of the strength of Lyse Lemieux’s exhibition at the Richmond Art Gallery lies in the existential power of the black ovoid. While the ovoid form symbolizes life—the primordial egg—the colour betokens death, oblivion, life’s incomprehensible absence. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, American abstractionist Robert Motherwell created a monumental series of paintings, titled “Elegy to the Spanish Republic”, that drew upon that profound contradiction. In these works, he employed brushy black ovoids, together with vertical black bands, to invoke life, death, and the tragic betrayals of antifascist idealism during the Spanish Civil War.
Although Lemieux’s installatio, Ovals for Richmond in no way refers to Motherwell’s paintings, the two bodies of work share similar formal strategies, and pose similar questions about the making of meaning through abstraction. Lemieux has cut 18 immense ovoids out of matte black felt and mounted them, floorboard to ceiling, directly on the gallery’s white walls, arranged so that they draw the eye from the front of the gallery to the back. The impression is of a solemn procession, heavily weighted with humanity. The ovoids hint at the ways we may or may not form connections with one another: some of them lean slightly into each other, others more fully overlap and conjoin, and yet others stand alone.
In the past, although on a much smaller scale, Lemieux has often employed lopsided ovals to suggest either human heads or bodies, part of an experimental drawing practice that dodges between abstraction and figuration. She has also claimed unexpected materials such as fabric, found clothing, even medical tape as drawing materials, confounding our understanding of medium and process. For Lemieux, using scissors to cut fabric is as much a means of executing a drawing as creating lines and forms with a pen, a pencil, or a stick of charcoal.
The expressive possibilities of her cutting process are beautifully manifested in The Scribble, a large wall drawing composed of long, looping strands of black felt paired in places with brushed lines of black ink. The gestural energy of this work creates a fascinating conversation with the magisterial black ovoids on the opposite wall. Part of what compels us here is the seeming reference to a child’s earliest drawing impulse, the scribble, against the first organized shape that follows it, what psychologist Rudolf Arnheim described as “the primordial circle”. In Lemieux’s art, we are confronted with the primordial oval.
In the octagonal exhibition space at the far end of the gallery, Lemieux has installed two series of drawings on paper, a selection of sketchbooks, and a freestanding column covered with the collars, cuffs, and placket fronts from dozens upon dozens of men’s shirts. The colours, patterns, and multiple small components of this labour-intensive work stand in quirky contrast to the large-scale black-on-whiteness of the wall works. In a video interview that accompanies the show, Lemieux recounts how attracted she is to the idea of sewing, although she does not herself sew. Collared Column seems like a monument to that idea. It’s a homage, through repetition, to the small and the particular, to the careful and uniform stitches, seams, and buttonholes that compose the (usually) unexamined essentials of everyday clothing. In this work, we are invited to consider not the making of meaning, but the meaning of making.