Lyse Lemieux's New Work grieves an old friend and explores body's frailty

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Lyse Lemieux: New Work
At Republic Gallery until December 15

Lyse Lemieux has a profound feeling for the human body in all its fraught contradictions. Her abstracted figurative and portrait drawings, sometimes collaged with pieces of fabric, at other times with sheets of crumpled glassine or strips of medical tape, convey conditions of wonder and abjectness, humour and melancholy, harmony and distress. The heads she outlines in thick black ink may be entirely blank, a tabula rasa upon which experience has yet to inscribe itself. Or they may be filled with swirling galaxies of stars, metaphoric of the universe within.

The starting point for the exhibition is at its centre. Two vitrines stand in the middle of Republic Gallery, displaying 16 small ink-wash drawings, completed in 2009 and 2010 and collectively titled “LolaBed”. The first group is based on hospital visits Lemieux paid to her friend, the beloved Vancouver choreographer Lola MacLaughlin, who died of cancer in 2009. Here, the dancer is a barely discernible blip upon the geometric abstraction that is her bed. Although she lies deathly still, her bed dances and tilts upward as if about to take flight—like the soul that reposes there. In the second group of “LolaBed” drawings, Lemieux stands her expressionistic figures upright. Long lines of tubing extend around and beyond their bodies, sometimes attached to severed heads and breasts. Small though these drawings are, they carry an enormous emotional charge.

Larger, more recent drawings hang on the gallery’s walls. In her artist’s statement, Lemieux reports producing images of faces and heads as a separate project from that of creating bodies and “breasted torsos”, then joining them together later. What this means is that the diptychs she has created out of disjunct parts are reminiscent of the surrealist practice of “Exquisite Corpse” (in which a succession of artists composed a figure on folded paper, the previous parts invisible to each of them).

Most of these bold, gestural works, again thickly outlined in black, are aligned vertically, posing lopsided heads atop columnar bodies, as seen in Figure With Blue and Torse Entêté 3. A few, however, such as Untitled (Floating Body With Salmon Feet) are conjoined horizontally. Here, a rounded body dressed in crumpled glassine, and globular feet shod in strips of painted paper and short jots of medical tape, are abutted sideways to a cartoonish head with a protruding tongue. The salmon-pink colour of the tongue, and of other painted lines and marks seen here and elsewhere in the show, is derived from the “flesh tone” colour of the medical tape, also frequently deployed by Lemieux. It’s a displaced reference to the way life-prolonging tubes were anchored to the artist’s dying friend; by extension, it signals the struggle between life and death.

A grid of nine abstracted self-portraits, representing what the artist calls “foggy thoughts”, hangs near the gallery’s entrance. Again, each drawing is a diptych, composed vertically of featureless heads joined to colourful bodies. Most of these works are enlivened with collaged pieces of plain and patterned fabric. The occasional remnant of a seam or a cuff reminds us of the fabric’s origins in men’s shirts, picked up at thrift shops and dismantled and reassembled in the artist’s studio.

As in Lemieux’s earlier works, clothing is powerfully symbolic of the human body, in both its contested presence and its grievous absence.

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