Shell Game subverts the large, the public, and the heroic

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      Shell Game: Marina Roy & Natasha McHardy
      At Wil Aballe Art Projects until June 29

      Think small but smart. I’m talking about a new exhibition of collages by Natasha McHardy and drawings by Marina Roy, and also about the venue, Wil Aballe Art Projects. Aballe’s gallery is located in a compact studio apartment in an artists’ live-work building in Mount Pleasant. The place is also his home. Despite limitations of space and time (he has an unrelated day job), Aballe has shown some very accomplished artists since he opened his doors in January. (For address and hours, go to In addition to collecting and exhibiting art, he publishes limited-edition prints, and is about to launch two lithographs by Jeff Ladouceur.

      Concept-driven artists who are good friends and who, since 2003, have often collaborated on performance-based videos, Roy and McHardy are showing individual works on paper and vellum that nonetheless play off each other in provocative ways. Many of McHardy’s collages look like miniature theatres decorated with simple yet evocative sets. Recurring elements in these sets include cut-out and drawn representations of cacti, palm trees, and swimming pools. The stages are occasionally occupied by what look like silhouetted, long-eared bunny people—or their shadows.

      Apparent sources in contemporary and historical art are plentiful: the cutouts call up Henri Matisse, the palm trees and swimming pools David Hockney, and the bunny people Ray Johnson. Still, McHardy’s allusions are more personal and political than art historical, Aballe says while touring the Straight through the show. They relate to past generations of her family as they have intersected with colonialism in tropical lands, and notions of the exotic. The intellectual content of these works belies their seemingly simple and playful imagery.

      Installed alongside McHardy’s collages are Roy’s coloured-ink drawings on vellum. As Aballe observes, Roy’s images and text works might find theatrical realization as surrealist dramas on McHardy’s stages. Still, Roy’s style and subject matter are quite distinct. In a series of works titled “Rebus”, she has represented an array of troubling and sometimes grotesque images drawn from her subconscious mind. (Many of them have been seen in her animated videos.) Sometimes given to her in dreams and demanding resolution because of their insistent and recurring nature, these images include everything from a green glass bottle with a rat trapped inside it, a Medusa head with writhing snakes, and a flying phallus to a plucked chicken with a man’s head, a tower of naked, kneeling women, and a buzzing beehive about to be stomped on by a giant, booted foot. The overall impact is of unfettered access to a Freudian dream encyclopedia.

      Roy has also created an image-text work, Destiny (Stiegler), in which she has interspersed abstract blotches of coloured ink with handwritten excerpts from a puzzling text by French philosopher Bernard Stiegler. Again, Aballe says, the artist’s intention is to understand Stiegler’s ideas by creating a drawing out of them. At the same time, the coloured blots and splotches evoke abstract expressionism and its origins in surrealism’s embrace of the subconscious.

      Part of the appeal of this show is its domestic scale and context. Beneath the quixotic imagery, low-tech media, and noninstitutional setting can be seen a subversion of masculine ideas of the large, the public, and the heroic. Both artists and gallerist are tweaking the local art dialogue in unexpected ways.