A history of local art-making is contained in Eli Bornowsky’s Powell Street studio. Before he and three colleagues took over the 1,100-square-foot space in March, it was rented by rising-star painter of metaphysical scenes Etienne Zack, and before that, by famed figurative painter Attila Richard Lukacs. Until his death in 1994, acclaimed interdisciplinary artist Roy Kiyooka also worked here.
Only three years out of art school, abstract painter Bornowsky is putting his own stamp on the place—and on the wider art scene. For the second year in a row, he is a semifinalist in the big, prestigious RBC Canadian Painting Competition for emerging artists. (This year’s winner will be announced in Ottawa later this month.) He is represented by the cutting-edge Blanket Contemporary Art gallery and is scheduled for a solo show there this fall (October 17 to November 14). He writes reviews for C magazine and is curating Making Real, a four-person exhibition of abstract art for the Or Gallery (October 17 to November 22).
Having grown up in small-town Alberta, Bornowsky studied illustration for two years at Grant MacEwan College in Edmonton before moving to Vancouver six years ago to enroll in fine arts at Emily Carr Institute (now Emily Carr University). At the same time, he committed himself to experimental music: a member of the recently defunct indie-rock band They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, he now creates individual sound projects combining new, old, and obsolete technologies.
Bornowsky’s visual art embodies similar contradictions: the scientific and the intuitive, the hard-edged and the handmade, the intellectual and the spiritual. In painting, drawing, and music, he says, he undertakes a “formal operation”¦where the hierarchy of the composition is uncertain.” Although he’s just sent a selection of gouache-on-paper works to the framer, his studio is still filled with his oil paintings on canvas. Each repeats the same strict geometrical format: coloured circles arranged in squares within squares on muted grey grounds. “What I’m interested in is reinvigorating aesthetics,” he says. “And if aesthetics is not the appropriate word, then poetry.”
While his works are subtly suggestive of op art and hardedge paintings of the 1960s, Bornowsky makes it clear he’s not interested in deconstructing, appropriating, or satirizing recent art history. “My work is tempting to read in relationship to modernism,” he says, “but it’s not a throwback. I’m not a referential artist.”
Bornowsky works his paintings by brush rather than by roller, creating a surface that is subtly modulated, not mechanistically flat. His hand is evident, his palette is unexpected, and much of his art’s energy derives from the understated dynamics between forms and colours.
As he talks about the way the viewer’s eye navigates the composition, Bornowsky cites optical theory, tessellation math, and geometric designs in Islamic art, and the use of abstraction as a vehicle for contemplation, meditation, even mysticism. “People have a spiritual aspect, and I want to make pictures that might allow that to flourish,” he says. “I definitely don’t think I create a truth that I extend through my paintings to viewers.”¦But I think mystical things can happen when you look at art.”
Tomoyo Ihaya’s journeys to Asia and elsewhere have profoundly affected her drawings, prints, and figurines. Alex Waterhouse-Hayward photo.
At Tomoyo Ihaya’s recent studio sale, her artwork was only one aspect of what was on offer. Displayed alongside her delicate miniature prints and drawings and her droll figurines in white clay and stuffed paper were gemstones, jewellery, greeting cards, and felt animals. Sales of Ihaya’s art were intended to fund her forthcoming working trips to Japan and India. Sales of the more decorative items, labelled “Himalaya Sky Project”, were directed to supporting expatriate Tibetan artisans in India. “I like to be able to contribute,” she says simply, while talking with the Straight at her Alexander Street studio.
Also on view were photos and a sketchbook recording the most recent of her three trips to Ladakh, a remote, sparsely populated region of northern India. “I had no culture shock there,” Ihaya says of her first visit in 2005. “I felt like I had been there for a long time already.” She emphasizes the kinship she experienced with the people, the place, and the culture. The majority of Ladakhis are Tibetan Buddhist, a religion she has practised for nearly a decade.
Ihaya grew up in Tsu, a small city on the southern coast of Honshu, the main island of Japan. She acquired a curatorial certificate and a BA in German literature at Rikkyo University in Tokyo before winning a scholarship to study fine arts at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick. There, she fell in love with printmaking, especially etching, and began producing miniature prints. Working small suited her nature. “I always liked compactness,” she says.
Arriving in Vancouver in 1995, Ihaya furthered her studies at Emily Carr Institute and Capilano College (both now universities). She also attended the University of Alberta, where she earned an MFA in 2002. Her work is widely collected, and is represented locally by Art Beatus and Malaspina Printmakers Gallery. (Ihaya will direct a two-day workshop in chine collé, an intaglio technique in which delicate and heavier papers are collaged together, at Malaspina Printmakers on consecutive Saturdays, September 13 and 20. For information, call 604-688-1724 or e-mail email@example.com.)
Ihaya’s travels and residencies in Mexico, Thailand, and India in the past few years have profoundly informed her art, which has long possessed a metaphysical quality. Her images include trees growing out of cupped hands or rooted in the back of a prone human body. In some works, empty thought bubbles rise from inanimate objects, as if they possess an unknowable inner life.
Drops of water and grains of rice—what Ihaya sees as “the essence of life”—have become recurring motifs in her prints and her recent excursions into installation, video, and performance. “I’m interested in people’s everyday rituals, in how they cook, do their chores, gather water,” she says. During a home-stay with a poor family in Ladakh in 2007, she pumped water from a well each morning and carried the heavy load up a steep hill to the kitchen. The contrast with western comfort and convenience was extreme. “This plastic water container looked like a very, very valuable jewel to me,” she exclaims. One of her recent etchings depicts a group of plastic bottles huddled beneath an inverted pyramid of water droplets.
“I hesitate to say this, because it’s not mainstream artspeak, but I think my art is all about how we live,” Ihaya says, “and how we make manifest what we perceive.” She pauses, then adds: “This means, I think, that we all have to live well, with insight and openness.”