Sophie Jodoin’s drawings are charged with the spectres of trauma

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Sophie Jodoin: close your eyes
At the Richmond Art Gallery until August 26

Darkness and light, innocence and brutality, comfort and destruction: Sophie Jodoin’s drawings are filled with contrast and conflict. They are charged with metaphors of physical violence and psychological suffering, and shaped by meditations on our shared mortality.

Jodoin, who is based in Montreal, specializes in drawing, not only through traditional means such as conté on paper, but also through collage, video, sandblasted glass, and altered found objects. Her solo show at the Richmond Art Gallery is presented in conjunction with DRAWN 2012, the fourth annual Vancouver drawing festival. Ironically titled close your eyes, it consists of three distinct bodies of work, all realized in black and white but executed in different media, styles, and scales.

While touring the Straight through her show on its opening day, Jodoin described its layout as echoing “the course of life”, the work in each successive room of the gallery suggestive of a progressive stage of existence. Mixed-media drawings of burned-out houses, installed in a passageway, evoke a period of traumatic transition; intact yet blackened, they symbolize the human body without literally depicting it. In the furthest “chamber”, four large, photorealistic drawings in pastel and charcoal show four individual adults from behind. These people are looking steadfastly away from us, privately contemplating the sum of their own lives, and their act is reiterated by the sombre mementos—the altered found objects—laid out in four vitrines at the centre of the room.

Back up to the first gallery, however, where Jodoin’s most startling and evocative works are mounted. Collectively titled Small Dramas & Little Nothings, they are an accumulation of many surreal images of childhood, executed in conté, collage, and black gesso over the past four years. The vision revealed by these extraordinary little drawings is scarred by violence, cruelty, and isolation. Somehow, however, it is also relieved by a sense of wonder and endurance. Jodoin evolved Small Dramas out of an earlier series that addressed war, and the initial impression made by the 73 works on display is of the suffering of children during armed conflict and under conditions of terror and oppression perpetrated by their elders. Recurring images include hooded faces, severed limbs, bound bodies, and tortured pets. A hangman’s noose dangles in front of the face of one child, the word DIE is affixed to a baby carriage, a young boy with arms raised is about to detonate a homemade bomb strapped to his waist.

A number of these children seem to be at play—sitting on swings, riding a tricycle, skipping rope, twirling a hula-hoop, digging a hole, wearing a Halloween costume—but their play is almost always corrupted by violence. The little girl with the hula-hoop is headless and armless and two human skulls hover in front of her, seemingly conjured up by her twirling toy. The twins on the swings have bruised and battered faces. The boy with the shovel is burying a severed hand.

The accompanying video of a little girl, dressed in white with a black hood over her head and armed with two long-barrelled handguns (this image borrowed from one of the drawings), shocks us with its incongruity. It calls up the distant reality of child soldiers and the closer reality of youths shooting their classmates. Over the course of the video, the girl’s repeated raising, aiming, and lowering of the guns batters us with and eventually inures us to this displaced form of horror—just as the daily news does.

Many of the figures in Small Dramas are pale and ghostly, almost insubstantial, like the spectres of trauma. The brutality depicted here is not specific to childhood, Jodoin cautions, but to the broader human condition. It’s a remarkable statement from a gifted artist.

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